How many of your holiday purchases have you made online? If you're like me, your online purchases have been increasing year after year. I mean, who has hours to spare for aimless wandering and bargain hunting? If I know what I want and can get a great deal online, it's a done deal.
Should We Blame the Internet?
It seems that I'm not alone. People have been purchasing more products online and this has caused many brick-and-mortar businesses to close. But this isn't the death of brick and mortar by a long-shot. Like most things that have been impacted by technology, it isn't long before they begin to transform into something completely different. For example, radio didn't disappear because television was invented. Movies and theaters didn't disappear because DVDs came along, and paper didn't disappear because we use computers. Neither will the demand for what you offer.
The question is, how will your business change to accommodate the new ways people buy?
In a recent news story, Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, the publisher of the blog Apartment Therapy talked about the growing popularity of stores like Anthropologie, Apple and the upcoming redesign of JCPenney. Each of these stores is dedicated to delivering what Gillingham calls a specific "brand story." He says that the key to a good brand story is generating a specific experience or feeling from the customer. His test for a strong brand story is when you close your eyes and think of a store such as Apple or Anthropologie, you immediately get a clear picture of what it looks like and the experience you'll have in that store.
The products in the store aren't as relevant as the experience or lifestyle they promise to deliver. While the store design and products are certainly important, you won't be surprised to learn that it's the specific way that customers are serviced and cared for that really makes the difference.
In the past, creating a customer experience was a strategy that you could choose; in the same way that you could choose a low-cost strategy or to be a technology leader. After listening to Gillingham in this interview, I'm starting to think that creating a brand story and delivering a customer experience is going to be the norm. The businesses that are able to successfully navigate the next few years in terms of delivering a unique customer experience will be the ones who will thrive and gain the revenue and profit flexibility to adjust and change. Those who don't may forever be stuck in a vicious cycle of survival with no latitude for risk. And that is a dangerous place to be.
Origin of the Brand
Every business—even yours—has a brand story. If you're the founder of the business, that story began when you decided to start your business. You had a vision or a dream for creating a product or service to fulfill what your customers wanted. You saw that something was missing in your market or industry and created a business to fill that need or want.
But then you got lost in the process of doing what you do. You got wrapped up in the tactics of delivering your product or service efficiently. You developed policies and procedures and you hired salespeople to sell. None of this was bad or wrong—in fact, it was necessary. And now your customers are looking for something more from you. They are looking to you and your employees to give them something they can't get online.
Tell Your Brand Story
Your customer service strategy has to evolve from selling and answering questions to something more akin to acting. Walt Disney saw this coming decades ago. As you know, Disney employees don't see themselves as providers of customer service—they see themselves as actors or characters who are there to entertain you no matter where you are inside of their property.
Here are a few tips and suggestions to get you started on creating or revitalizing your business's brand story:
- Read a few books to inspire your thinking. You can start with John Jantsch's latest book, The Commitment Engine. In it, you'll find dozens of stories of businesses like yours and how they use their commitment to define strategy. After that, consider reading Michael Gerber's E-Myth series. The principles covered there never go out of style. If you pick up the workbook, you'll find plenty of worksheets and templates that will help you define your system.
- Take a fresh look at how your customers buy from you. Are they doing research online and then just coming to the store to purchase products? How do they choose which product or service is best for them? Based on what you learn from observing your customers' behavior, you may need to make some changes in the layout of your store and how your salespeople interact with customers.
- Treat customer service as a marketing or branding activity. Take the time to share your vision and your passion with your customer service team. For example, my friend Zed runs a natural food grocery store in Amish country. His customers are both local Amish folks as well as the tourists that come for the Amish experience. His store has a consistent commitment to educating their customers. You're greeted at the door and encouraged to get into a conversation where you can ask questions about the foods, supplements and other products in the store. Based on the conversation, you'll be guided through the store and shown and educated on the products that most meet your needs.
As the old song says, "Times, They Are a Changin'" and the way we interact with customers will have to change with them. The exciting part about all of this is that it truly creates an opportunity for every business to stand out.
While it's easy to see your business as a commodity if you're product-focused, there is NO WAY that any two businesses can create the same experience.
What's your brand story and how do you tell it?