by Scott Neuffer

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September 18, 2012
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Chamber speaker: Customer service and experience can best behemoth Walmart

With a new Walmart in south Gardnerville expected to open its superstore doors by the holiday shopping season, local retailers and other small businesses can take nothing for granted.

"In today's economy, in today's changing world, can you just show up?" international speaker, author and business strategist Barbara Wold asked a gathering at Carson Valley Inn last week. "No, not at all. Whenever you make promises to your customers, you got to live up to them today."

Wold was the featured speaker during the Carson Valley Chamber of Commerce's proactive seminar entitled, "How to profit from Walmart's arrival." About 30 business owners, representatives and interested residents attended the first of two sessions Thursday morning. The event was also sponsored by City National Bank and Douglas County Economic Vitality.

"Not all of it is bad," Chamber Executive Director Bill Chernock said of the arrival of Walmart. "It will bring a lot of people to that end of the Valley."

Wold focused a lot of attention on the value of exceptional customer service.

"If you can talk to people you don't know, that is the key," she said. "If a customer has a question, stop what you're doing and give them your full attention ... Do you realize how important eye contact is?"

After introductions are made, impressions sealed, businesses should build relationships with their customers, Wold said. And simple things count. A thank-you note. A follow-up call.

"The little things," she said. "Make things for your customers just a little better."

Expertise also helps. Wold used the example of Disneyland and how their trash collectors are trained for six weeks prior to working.

"They could be the first person you see, so they have to know everything there is to know about Disneyland," she said.

Shaped by customer service and expertise, among other factors, is the commercial experience itself - what customers experience when they patronize a certain business in terms of facility, amenities, product offerings and interaction with staff.

In this respect, Wold used the example of Starbucks. She said the company's past decision to stop grinding coffee in retail stores resulted in a diminished experience for customers. They lost the pleasant smells associated with grinding coffee and the "romance and theater" of it, she said. Starbucks has since corrected course and presently offers 87,000 ways to make a cup of coffee, she said.

"Pay attention to what other companies are doing, both big and small," she said. "It's all about the experience. Instant gratification is what we want today."

Of course, Wold said, expectations fluctuate with customers' schedules. While customers might desire more time-consuming experiences on weekends, they might prefer convenience and expedience on weekdays. Businesses should be cognizant of this interplay, she said.

"Is walking through an entire Walmart convenient? Not for me," she said.

To enhance the commercial experience, Wold believes businesses should host focus groups of no more than 10 people, whether comprised of existing customers, prospective customers or outside individuals.

"All you need to do is ask one question," she said. " 'What's one thing that would bring you back more often?'"

She gave the example of a florist who interviewed 10 male customers and 10 female customers and discovered that both groups desired more diverse arrangements for Valentine's Day than the typical dozen roses. Trying out varied arrangements the following holiday, the florist significantly increased sales, she said.

"He asked his customers what they wanted, and then he did something with the information," she said. "You need to take advantage of that free information."

Wold also touched on marketing. She encouraged businesses to form partnerships and to cross promote each other. She said small businesses often discover that their merchandise can complement each other rather than directly compete.

Independent retailers, she further said, can band together to obtain larger quantities of wholesale goods at cheaper prices.

"Who can you partner with that is going to bring you more business?" she asked the crowd.

Wold urged customers to utilize not only Facebook and Twitter but an emerging social networking platform called Pinterest, a website where people share videos and pictures they find interesting. She argued that Pinterest is an excellent way for retailers to showcase products in the digital age.

"It's the fastest growing social media site," she said. "It will draw people to your own website faster than Facebook or Twitter."

In terms of tangible promotional material for businesses, such as flyers or knickknacks, Wold said that complete contact information should appear somewhere on the objects.

"No matter what you do marketing-wise, you need to give your customers and potential customers every bit of information available on how to get a hold of you," she said. "If you do any type of promotion, follow up on it. Tell your staff to follow up."

Les Schwab Tires owner Mark Smith added that it's also helpful to clarify exactly what the business is offering. In the past, he said, customers didn't know that Les Schwab offered brake products and services, an oversight later addressed in advertising and signage.

"People are visual," Wold said. "They need to see what you do - to reinforce the name. With a bulleted form of some type, list exactly what your services are. That's something Walmart doesn't do."

Carson Valley Chamber of Commerce

Special to The R-C

1. Target the higher end:

Offering higher quality items isn't something Walmart is equipped to do. By increasing the quality of their products, small businesses will be able to attract customers who are willing to pay for better quality. Walmart tries to be all things to all people on the low end. But not everyone wants the lowest quality and the lowest price.

2. Create a meaningful online presence:

Developing customer email lists, writing blogs and getting involved in social networking are all areas in which small businesses hold an advantage. While big-box retailers may have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, small businesses have the opportunity to develop deeper ties to their customers by developing personal relationships with them. People want to do business with other people they know, like and trust.

3. Offer specialty items:

Small businesses have the opportunity to carry specialty items that Walmart and other big-box retailers can't. Small businesses don't have to appeal to the general masses. Carry items that give shoppers motivation to choose your store over Walmart. You have to have a special reason for existing. You have to give people a reason to come into your stores.

4. Listen to your customers:

While Walmart's iconic greeters are friendly, they can't really do much more than say hello and point you in the right direction. Small business owners have that same opportunity to greet their customers each time they walk in the door - and the opportunity to make changes based on what they are hearing. Ask your customers about your product mix. Ask them what is missing and cater to them.

5. Community involvement:

Small businesses have the opportunity to make connections in the community by getting involved. While Walmart may be able to donate funds to build an entire new baseball field within a community, something far less costly - such as sponsoring one of the local children's teams - can have a far greater impact by serving as a constant reminder of your business. It just takes being out there to make that connection.

6. Provide extra services:

In addition to selling a product, small businesses have the opportunity to offer their customers additional services, like repairs and installation. Walmart, which doesn't offer those services, uses a planned obsolescence strategy, selling cheaper products without repair options in the expectation that eventually the consumer will be back to buy another.

7. Practice top-notch customer service:

In a small business, every customer can be treated as a VIP. And customers are much more loyal to businesses that make them feel special. Things as simple as remembering customers' names can give small businesses that extra advantage. As trivial as that seems, it is actually huge. We all like to be recognized.

8. Change products and vendors:

Small businesses can much more easily mix up their product based to consistently meet the changing demands of their customers. If one product isn't selling, small businesses can look for a new vendor or simply change the product, while Walmart has long-term contracts signed with vendors that don't make it as easy to quickly change things up. They are so large that they can't change midstream like and independent can.

9. Provide meaningful merchandise:

When customers are looking for a special gift, a gift from Walmart doesn't necessarily ring with love. Make your merchandise meaningful for the occasion.

10. Establish convenience:

Not everyone wants to spend their time maneuvering their way through Walmart's cavernous stores. Small businesses give shoppers a place to quickly and easily get in and out with what they want. Mom-and-pop stores can use their small size to their advantage by making it easier for people.

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The Record Courier Updated Sep 19, 2012 06:29PM Published Sep 18, 2012 06:26PM Copyright 2012 The Record Courier. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.