Sell Me What I Want

People are spending, but just not with the same abandon and lack of critical judgement as before
I’ll Tell You What I Want

They’re open, but not open for business. In fact, they’re turning people away.

Now, those they’re turning away aren’t looking for something for nothing; these are customers who are willing and able to pay good money. And they’re being left standing at the counter, waiting for something that never arrives, for someone who never turns up.

Something remarkable is happening in business today. And it doesn’t add up. On the one hand, business-owners are struggling to attract customers in a market where people are reluctant to spend today the money they might need tomorrow. On the other, when customers do turn up ready to buy something, they’re often being given the cold shoulder and told to take their business elsewhere.

They’re not being told directly, of course. But all the signs are there and customers are getting the message loud and clear. It’s quite extraordinary, isn’t it? It’s hard to believe that in a market where customers are proving difficult to come by, those who do front up are being told, in so many words and deeds, that they’re not welcome.

Wasting Precious Time

Let me give you two examples to show you what I mean.

Recently, I went online to choose a gift for my brother and his wife who were celebrating a special anniversary. On the website of a leading hotel, I found a weekend package that ticked all the boxes except one: it didn’t have a river-view. However, I looked elsewhere on the site and discovered an option to upgrade the room. I called to book the package and was told that the person handling package sales was unavailable but would call me back. They didn’t.

I waited until the following day and called again. Yes, I was told, they had my details; hadn’t someone called me back? No, they hadn’t but could I book the package now, please? I was told the person handling package sales was on leave today but they would take the details of what I required and have someone call me back the following day.

The next day, I delayed calling back until the afternoon when I finally spoke with the person handling package sales. She took my payment details and said she would prepare a gift voucher for the upgraded package in the cash amount of the total cost. I asked if she could make out the voucher with the description of the package instead as I didn’t want to announce the price of the gift to my brother and his wife. No, I was told, all vouchers were made out with the cash value.

I grew obviously irritated then and asked whether the hotel really wanted the business. She said she would check with her manager and returned to tell me that exceptionally they would make out a voucher with the package details but it would be valid for three rather than the usual six months. Under some time pressure now, I agreed and asked if she could leave the voucher at reception for me to pick up the following day en route to the anniversary celebrations.

When I stopped by to collect the voucher, I discovered that it had been made out for the original package (without the upgrade). Again, I was told that the person handling the package sales was off duty so I would need to wait until the following morning for the hotel to issue an amended voucher. Left with no choice, I took the incorrect version and offered it to my brother and his wife with a red-faced explanation that they were entitled to an upgrade, which they would receive separately in the post.

Recently again, I travelled to a popular hotel for a breakfast business meeting with a colleague and his team. Arriving early, I was greeted with a smile and a cheerful good morning by the receptionist as I made my way to a lobby table. I then sat for twenty minutes or so in plain view without anyone approaching to offer me refreshment. When my colleague arrived, we signalled to the receptionist for table service. Coffees and pastries duly arrived and we immersed ourselves in our planning meeting.

In fact, we were so immersed in our preparations that we found ourselves approaching lunchtime some three hours later without any interruption to either clear the table or offer us more refreshment. As we finished our meeting, my colleague invited me to join him for lunch, then proposed that we travel a short distance to a nearby café “where we’re likely to get some proper service”.

Between the missed lunch and the two or more opportunities to serve refreshments, I quickly calculated that the hotel had passed up on over one hundred euros in business from our table alone that morning. Had I not been under so much time pressure to purchase a gift in time for the anniversary celebrations, the previous hotel would certainly have lost many times that.

What kind of business can afford to turn its nose up at hundreds of euros worth of business in a struggling economy?

What I Really, Really Want

I believe I can answer that one. Despite common sense suggesting that business-owners are prepared to work doubly hard to generate business in challenging times, the evidence tells us that their hard work is often in vain. In my recent experience, this is down to distraction.

Yes, simple distraction or a sort of absentmindedness that leads business-owners to forget the business that they’re in. And to work doubly hard at the wrong things.

In the case of our two hotels, it’s likely that they believed that they’re in the business of selling accommodation. Well they are, in a sort of a way. But that’s not the real business that they’re in. The real business they’re in has something much more to do with the reasons that brought me to their doors looking for a gift voucher and some refreshment.

Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, likes to say that “we’re not in the coffee business serving people, we’re in the people business serving coffee”. Now, this might strike some of us as just a glib piece of Madison Avenue schtick but he points us towards a business truth that our colleagues in the two hotels seem to have forgotten. One hotel should have been in the people business preparing gift vouchers and the other in the people business offering refreshments. But each of them proved distracted and in being so sent out a message to me that they didn’t want my business.

You Have Got To Give

In the panic of a sharp downturn, there’s the danger that we miss out on the fact that even in a shrinking market, people need to buy things. Sometimes, we flail about looking for all sorts of gimmicks to attract customers to our business, when the real opportunities may be right under our noses.

It’s understandable that when the good times were spinning merrily that many of us were so busy turning over business that our customer’s needs and wants were reduced to a blur. But now that things have turned quiet, we must pay attention again to what’s core to our business.

We must step out from behind the counter to properly consider what our customers want. This is the time to focus again on what lies at the core of our exchange with our buyers. At the heart of every business, there is a simple transaction that is the basis for our brand. If we can repeat that transaction over and over again, then we are truly in business. Our task is to identify what it is so that we can begin to organise our activities to deliver it effectively.

It’s not as if those same customers are slow to tell us. Most patrons will recognise that there’s a limit to what they can reasonably expect a business to provide, and I didn’t ask for anything outlandish when I sought a gift voucher in one hotel and refreshments in another. That’s why it’s hugely important to ensure that the core offer that’s made by our brand is delivered in every way, because our customers will naturally consider that offer and ask what it plausibly means in a particular instance.

Taking Is Too Easy

In the period that follows a boom, a common perception is that suppliers have been selfishly looking after their own interests only and have taken customers for granted. Once the hysteria of a boom subsides to be replaced by fearfulness and suspicion, this perception often translates into a reluctance to spend.

People are spending, but just not with the same abandon and lack of critical judgement as before. They will spend with us but we must display the thoughtfulness and the sense of appreciation for their business that were sometimes missing in the more frenzied transactions that marked boom-time.

We cannot afford to turn people away or leave them standing neglected at the counter. Instead, we must demonstrate that we are not only open for business, but actively welcoming people to buy with us and keenly aware of what they want and need from our business.