Manage Your Customer Perceptions

Fifteen years ago, before my first speech to flooring retailers, Home Depot and Lowes had begun expanding their flooring business. In other retail industries, mass-merchandisers like K-Mart, Target, and Wal-Mart had already decimated independent “Main Street” retailers all over America. Carpet retailers feared they would be next. The scuttlebutt suggested the “big box stores” may put 50% of the retailers out of business by decade’s end. Dealers were worried.
My job was to teach these worried dealers how to face this strong threat. I invited dealers to ask themselves, “Why had so many Main Street clothing and hardware retailers disappeared all over America? Why were they easy prey for mass-merchants?” If the dealers hesitated, I’d ask, “Well, why do you now shop mostly at mass-merchandise stores?” They could easily answer that. The big stores were easier to shop, carried more products, were clean and new, and offered competitive prices.

The two shopping experiences contrasted vividly. Main Street merchants continued to do business largely as they had in mid-century. Having little competition, they could charge practically what they wanted. They had grown complacent about business methods and appearance. Outside, their storefronts reflected their neglect, showing peeling paint, cracked windows, and cracked sidewalks. Weeds grew in cracks and litter cluttered gutters. Inside, their stores looked shabby. It seemed fair to say, “You’ve seen one; you’ve seen them all”.

Then, I asked the dealers, “How do most independent flooring stores compare?” After a moment’s thought, they realized their vulnerability. Typical showrooms had standardized racks, carpet fuzz, dust, and more carpet fuzz. Old and faded posters and banners had hung for years, long past the sale they announced. Displays, lighting, and merchandising had changed little. The stores looked stodgy and felt dreary. Until now, that had been okay, because no store offered anything better. Owners could earn a good living. Some even shortened their business hours to accommodate their lifestyles. But such stodginess would no longer attract customers.

I moved the spotlight from stores to customers, describing how customers had changed. Alert mass-merchandisers had found that many customers worked more hours and felt time-starved, so they sought one-stop shopping. Consumers craved new stores with style; they had money to travel farther to find one. So, they built stores to suit these new-age consumers. In our seminars, we found that the Main Street retailers, which declined to adapt to the new consumers, had become “downtown dinosaurs”. Most were now extinct.

During the 1990s, how did our flooring dealers respond? Unfortunately, some did not adapt, and failed. Even the largest flooring retailer in America quit selling retail broadloom. (That was the juggernaut, Sears.) Wisely, many independent flooring retailers did modernize their companies. They upgraded their stores, installed computer software, developed systems, and applied better selling skills. As a result, these dealers grew along with their worthy competitors at Home Depot and Lowes, even though the “big boxes” captured more than a third of the market.

What lesson do you draw from this history? I learned, again, that retail flooring stores are largely customer-driven. When customers’ tastes evolve, retailers must evolve along side them … or wither. Customers shop where they imagine they will be well served. That brings us to what you can do to keep your store alive and “a-thrive”. Teach customers to imagine that you will serve them well.

That’s a long introduction to this month’s habit: manage your customers’ perceptions of your store. Remember that people believe what they perceive. They may perceive reality -- or something a shade different. What matters is not reality, but what they perceive is reality. If consumers in your market have a mental image that you will not meet their desires – even though their perception may be 180 degrees distorted from reality, they will shop elsewhere.

Consequently, you need to direct both reality and their perception of it. While you take steps to assure that every customer really does enjoy a superior shopping experience, take steps to elevate their perception of shopping with you. You want to generate a positive mental picture.

You can elevate their perception in three dimensions – the Visual Image, Emotional Image, and Functional Image.

Visual Image includes all that customers see. The visual image is much less important to men shoppers, because they are on a mission, highly focused and blind to most visual elements in your store. By contrast, women notice everything. A survey found that 50% of the reasons why customers choose to enter a store relate to its outside appeal. They judge … 1. Is the parking lot clean and well lit? Is the signage clean and clear? 2. Is the store clean and clutter-free? 3. Does the store look like its designer understood color and design? 4. Are there wide aisles and open spaces? 5. Do the inside signs make it easy to shop? Is every product marked? 6. Are the bathrooms clean and gorgeous? 7. Are the sales people well-dressed as professionals? 8. Do the employees look like they want to be at work? Are the sales people knowledgeable? 9. Is there a child’s play area? How about a husband’s play area? (I know a store in Canada with 9 vibrating chairs and a big-screen TV. It’s packed on Saturdays.)

Emotional Image takes in a customer’s personal experience within the store, primarily with your salespeople. Does she feel good about having been in your store? You can elevate her perceptions by providing great service. But also make sure she notices your service and feels cared about as a result.

Consider expanding the ways you influence customers to perceive you care. Does each salesperson spend quality time with the customer listening patiently, without making the customer feel rushed? Is the salesperson there, just for her? Totally present and focused on her? Does the salesperson use words of affirmation, such as freely-given compliments, asking permission, and using kind, respectful, and encouraging words? Affirming words boost and brighten people. Do your salespeople routinely give gifts -- a soda, cup of coffee, or bottle of cold water? In the afternoon, do you bake fresh cookies and share them with customers? (Recall how strongly certain smells affect your emotions.) Do your salespeople take the initiative to serve ... even go out of their way? Carry samples to her car. If it’s raining, take an umbrella and escort her from her car to the showroom, and then back. Help carry a baby or herd small children into the store. Ask a male customer about his car or truck to open a relationship. The main reason customers never return is their perception that employees were indifferent.

Customers perceive extraordinary service when you give something of yourself that they do not expect. “When you find a great store, you feel excited; or enticed; or seduced; or romanced; or magnetized; or good about yourself.”

The last image is Functional -- the customer’s perception about how you do business. Are you organized? Do salespeople serve skillfully, with no abrasions or hassles? Do installers do well? Will she get value for her money? When I get on an airplane or see a doctor, I watch how well they “do” the business. Your company’s systems and procedures tell customers how good you are at following through.

I invite you to discover your customers’ perceptions in these three dimensions, and then work to elevate them. Ignoring these perceptions may lead to lower sales, margins, closing rates, average tickets and customer loyalty.

Can you afford not to make perception-management one of your habits?

Sam Allman, September 2006