There’s a problem I noticed during the 2019 holiday season that troubles me. It wasn’t predatory pricing or online sales. It wasn’t tariffs or product availability issues. Nor was it consumer behavior, at least in the sense of customers being negative or overly demanding. More alarming, it was a longstanding problem within our industry rather than a broad pattern in the overall economy, and as times have changed, I think it has become a bigger problem with a chilling effect on our chances of success.

I’m talking about the quality of our interaction with customers. For the sake of our conversation here, I’m primarily focused on the “first contact” aspect of communication, but the principles apply to ongoing relationships and service after the sale as well. The way we grow our business and the market itself has everything to do with that initial phone, digital or in-person interaction. Those are the people reaching out for help, and the very fact that we are in contact with them tells us that they have opted to turn to a human rather than just thumbing around their phone for an answer. Perhaps they tried that first and are confused. Perhaps they use the internet for research but prefer to complete the process IRL (in real life, that is). You may even field a call from someone who hails from the Dark Ages and thinks Amazon is just a river.

Yet every day — every day — I hear from someone who has contacted a person in our industry prior to their conversation with me. And in all but a few of those instances, the person thanks me profusely for taking the time to answer their questions. Granted, some of their gratitude may stem from their experience in other industries, but most of the time the person references a specific interaction with another MI source and their dissatisfaction with the help they received. The dismaying part is that these people are not more satisfied with my service because I have more knowledge or expertise compared to their prior experience. Rather, they are more satisfied with my attitude and willingness to answer their questions.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a cancer in our industry. There have always been stores that blow off customers because of age, gender, ethnicity and genre snobbery. But increasingly, the problem is that some MI stores just don’t seem willing to help anyone who isn’t waving money. I know this approach is tempting given the state of retail, but it’s as much a mistake as assuming a shabbily dressed individual is unable to purchase a big-ticket item.

Of course, we all know that there are customers who will burn huge amounts of time just to hear themselves talk. I have one “regular” who will regale me interminably about the guitars he has purchased through eBay (not from us) over the years. Often someone on staff has to go in the back and call the store on their cell so I “have to take the call,” just to cut off the conversation. But the vast majority of the people I talk to simply need information and advice, and I think of the time spent as seeding the market.

Most of us in the trenches problem solve for the student, the hobbyist and particularly the newbie. I’m sad to say there is a portion of our industry that doesn’t feel these customers are worth their time. But more than ever, I’m hearing about stores that are supposedly serving this portion of the market that still make those consumers feel backward and embarrassed. Some store owners even ask me how I manage to find so many female/adult/pre-K customers and students when they “don’t have many” in their market. Folks, they’re out there; perhaps there’s an attitudinal moat around those stores keeping those customers away.

Here’s how it should work: The first contact for new and existing customers on the phone, on social media, email and in person should be selected not for product knowledge but empathy. I’m not suggesting you simply put a happy-talk bobblehead out front, but rather someone who is bright and efficient and willing to go the distance for a customer. Their ability to make a customer feel welcome and at ease — and efficiently route technical questions to the right person when needed — is the key to market growth. Even a relatively inexperienced staff member can make the customer feel like they called a friendly, helpful store, and if that staffer gets them the answer — or gets them to the person who can provide it — you’ll get compliments on the great people you’ve hired. That initial contact may be ongoing, too. Perhaps you have someone on staff who is the Sheldon Cooper of guitar, brilliant but abrasive to the less brilliant. Your empathetic person should be a buffer between them and the customer, at least initially.

Incoming phone calls and emails are not a nuisance item to be left to the newest staffer, but a pipeline to new business. While there inevitably will be calls that are a waste, a diminishing number of people walk into a store without some armchair inquiries. Handle these poorly, and you could lose a lifetime of sales, over and over again. For this reason, your best, most personable people should be the first contact. Less experienced staff can learn by example, and you’ll institute a culture of service from top to bottom in your organization. It is sometimes months before I let a staff member answer our phone, and there have been a few over the years who never have gotten the privilege. (And yes, I treat it as a privilege.) Nothing makes me happier than when a customer asks for someone other than me by name, because they’ve established a rapport with them. Some don’t even know I am the owner, and that’s just fine.

We all feel the pressure of online sales, market competition and internal business strains. Butrather than let it bleed into our customer contacts, we need to put on our game face and take care of the people who need us. I truly believe it’s the best path to success in our industry.

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