Once upon a time, a very successful department store owner answered the telephone one evening. On the other end of the line was a customer who needed help but the store was already closed. Yes, there was a time when customers could reach, even the owner of a prestigious store, day or night. That’s When Retailing Was Very Personal. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Bob Greene, an American journalist and author, wrote an article about Robert Lazarus Sr., President of one of the most famous department stores in the mid-west, F&R Lazarus Co. The story had been told to him by Robert’s son after his dad passed away. A man had purchased a tea set at the store and invited some friends to their home but had some questions about the proper way to serve tea. This was a special purchase for the customer and he didn’t know the proper etiquette. The customer was able to easily find Mr. Lazarus’ home number, listed in the phone book, and felt comfortable enough to call the owner at night just to ask a question.
Today is the first morning of the National Retail Federation’s Big Show at the Javits Center. According to NRF’s site, they are expecting over 37,000 attendees and 700 exhibitors. It’s one of the most valuable shows for retailers to attend. I can almost guarantee you that none of the exhibitors will be talking about the intrinsic value of a conversation. Almost always, it is difficult to find a contact number for most retailers and equally as difficult to reach a particular department or person in a store. There are no direct extensions published and no system in place to leave a message. How many times have you stood at a cashier station and heard the phone ring and ring and never get answered?
Retailers complain about the high cost of technology, increases in labor costs and reduced margins. The phone is a low-hanging fruit solution. In the article, Bob asked Robert’s son if his dad was bothered by receiving a call a night, especially at home. “No, he could not have been more pleased,” was the answer, “and the customer felt as if he was being greeted by a friend.”
If you own or manage a retail store, large or small, always have your staff answer the phone during store hours; never employ an automated voice response system. Train your associates on proper phone manners and allow customers to leave messages that are responded to within a short period of time. While customers today may not expect to speak with the President of a large department store chain at home, is it too much to expect that they can call stores during normal hours and hear a friendly, welcoming and responsive live person on the other end of the line?
I often say, customers walk into a retailer as a stranger, and with the right training and focus, can leave as a friend. Use the phone as a way to develop a friendship; the power of a dialogue between two people should never be underestimated.