Ours has always been a “people industry,” driven by the relationships we have with our customers, suppliers and colleagues. Some of those relationships are gear-centric; it comes with the territory, after all, because part of the fun is talking gear with like-minded individuals. But, today, even more of our activity revolves around connecting music making to people. We recruit new players; we help with instruction, repairs and maintenance; and we offer a place for everyone to meet and share the experience. Certainly, some businesses cater exclusively to professional musicians or vintage enthusiasts, for example. However, as time goes on, the community music store serves and mentors the largest (and fastest-growing) segment of the market: the beginners, the students and the lifelong hobbyists.

That’s why I’m getting on my soapbox about relationships again—because they are more important than ever. Stores face ramped-up expectations from consumers, and we are continually working our jobs with no margin for error or delay. Too often, though, we succumb to the temptation to forgo relationship building in favor of speed or convenience…or, frankly, out of simple exhaustion.

We might also have employees whose relationship skills are limited to Snapchatting their peers, and some of us might rely too much on new technology to replace, rather than supplement, our efforts. Certainly, it can be very helpful to use social media skills to engage customers. Increasingly, it’s the best way to initiate engagement. Sometimes, however, it seems as though the value of face-to-face encounters is ignored or misunderstood.

I get that this is a new era—I really do—and I’m not saying that new is bad. I use social media all day long, and I crank through scores of e-mails every day, as well. But I use them as tools to sustain communication—not as my sole interface with humanity.

There’s nothing like the power of genuine human contact. Because I’m on the sales floor every day, all day, I talk to well over a thousand people each week, and that’s not even counting phone calls. Just greeting our 350 students and their families ensures that I’m over that mark by Thursday. One thing I can tell you is that people like it. The old adage from “Cheers”—“sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name”—is still true. And it’s true for all generations, not only those who remember Ted Danson with dark hair. We all like to walk into a place where we’re recognized and where we feel the employees—whether they’re salesfolk, mechanics, wait staff or nurses—are ready to help us.

People—from the smallest kid to the retirement-age senior—are happy when someone takes seriously their needs and questions. And we all know it’s increasingly unlikely that that will happen to any of us in our pared-down, no-frills consumer landscape. I often get a reaction of surprise, mixed with gratitude, when I do something as simple as look up song availability, or discuss repair options. Some people are downright incredulous. “I can’t believe you spent all that time helping me!” is something I hear even when “all that time” is just two minutes.

The kids are equally taken with the exchange. Many of them have had to Google most of the answers they’ve needed all their life; to get a pre-vetted answer, without wading through everything else the search pulls up, seems like a luxury. (Although, at times, it does feel as though my last name should be “Alexa”….)

My point is that we’re in a position to level the playing field against any competitor that doesn’t have a personal relationship with its customers. A lot of people want that human comfort zone; a disproportionate number are the beginners, students and hobbyists whom a community music store serves. It takes time to build up that clientele, though. Many people no longer expect that recognition, because they assume that it no longer exists. Across most industries, retail stores have eroded expectations as they cut payroll to keep numbers positive. How’s that working out, mall anchors? Hello? I think that lack of customer care, and a shopping environment that’s increasingly negative, is just as much to blame for the sorry state of brick-and-mortar retail as Internet pricing and convenience.

Of course, this touchy-feely thing won’t appeal to some stores, particularly those that still remember when you could sell hot new products, newly minted at the NAMM Show, as fast as you could get them in the door. (“Why do you keep talking to these [expletive deleted] when they’re not spending money?” a rep asked me in those days.) But, for those who truly enjoy helping people to make music, it will be an easy fit.

If you have staff members in customer contact, now is the time to spend some training effort to foster empathy. Some of the young hires might need a little nudge. For example, “My eyes are up here—not on that screen.” Likely, they’ll warm up to it once they flex their humanity a bit. However, this is a matter of changing the habits of otherwise-helpful people. This isn’t a “technique” you can teach to non-believers of any age. If a staff member doesn’t like to help, fake empathy is equally as effective as giving him or her a new coat of paint. Years ago, I actually heard a competitor counsel a new staffer at a parent night, saying, “Smile so they think you like them.” Psychopath.

As music facilitators, we have one of the best jobs. We get to introduce people to something we love, and we have a ringside seat as we help them enrich their lives. The way I believe things are trending, we will get to do this more than ever. The rewards for doing it well will be both financial and emotional. If we take the time to get our stores, and our staff, ready for the people who need and appreciate our help, the whole industry will be the beneficiary.

It’s time to lay out the welcome mat.

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