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Do You Hear What I Hear? [Part 3]

We are in the middle of a set of posts that talk about how listening can help a retailer stay competitive in today’s market place.  I think that there are three distinct groups that we need to listen to.  The first is the customer.  We need to try to learn what they want from us.

The second group is our employees.  The input from this group is often overlooked when a company is putting together a marketing plan.  Traditionally, most merchandising and marketing decisions are made from the top down.  This actually makes a lot of sense as the folks in the “head office” usually have a good overview of the industry, have been informed by suppliers of new products that are going to be introduced, and review the category and item sales data that is generated at the store level.

But your employees are the folks who are closest to your customers.  They are the ones who hear the questions like “do you have…” and “you know what would be a good idea?”  They see what customers buy, when they buy it, and what they have in their shopping bag.  The staff who are really good know their customers by name, know something about their background, and can anticipate what they are going to buy when they walk through the door.

And, most importantly, the staff often live in the same area as your customer.  They know what is going on in the neighborhood, what the new trends are, and the nuances of the ethnic differences in products and their promotion.

It almost like having a spy in the consumer’s camp.

But how do we get that information from the sales counter to the marketing office?  My first suggestion is that the marketing personnel need to be out in the stores on a very regular basis not only to look at what is selling and what is not selling but to spend time with the store staff to get ideas and insights as to what is really happening at the store.  One on one casual conversations can go a long way to getting an insight into the local market.

A second suggestion is having frequent focus group meetings with staff with an agenda item of discussing new products and opportunities.  This is a more formalized system of getting feedback from the stores and should be consistently implemented and acted upon.

(This is also a great way to get feedback about what is not working at the store.  The staff, especially the store mangers should be able to tell you why various programs didn’t work, what items don’t sell, what job tasks are the most irritating, etc.  At first, it is a painful experience but, if it is consistently done and problems are solved then it becomes very positive and collaborative.)

The final idea is some type of suggestion box or similar system.  New ideas and product suggestions can be submitted online and reviewed by the marketing department.  Contests can be held to reward staff for the best or most valuable idea.  I don’t think that this method is as good as personal interaction but it can act as a supplement to the first two methods.

The one overriding rule in regards to all three methods is that if you gather feedback you need to do something with it.  Asking for ideas but not visibly acting upon them kills the motivation to participate.  The staff ask “why should I make the effort when they are not going to listen to me?”  There doesn’t even have to be a financial gain to the staff for making the recommendation.  Usually, just the acknowledgement that someone listened and acted is rewarding in itself.  People want to have an impact.