How Can We Help You Today? - Twice

How Can We Help You Today?

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As a child, I would often go shopping with my Godmother, who lived with my Grandmother and helped her around the house (and with her business, I should add.) On shopping days, Erna - my Godmother - and I would head out of the house in Reading PA and walk a few blocks to the downtown district, towing a two-wheeled cart behind us.We would go to the butcher for meat, to the grocer for vegetables, to the baker for bread, and on the good days, to the confectioner for a treat. At each stop, the greetings were personal. The shop owners knew Erna, and over time some came to recognize me. They knew her preferences and were often excited to show her a special item or occasionally give her a little extra - or give me a taste.

Yes, it was a different time.

During my high school and college years when staying on top of the latest music releases was as important, if not sometimes more important than studies, I had my favorite record stores. The good ones had the expert behind the counter. These were the guys -and they were always guys, I’m not sure why - who knew what were the hot releases on the horizon. And, the really good ones knew what I liked and sometimes would hold a record, yes a vinyl record, behind the counter until my next visit because they knew it was something that I just had to hear.

That too was a different time.

We all have those experiences - be it for food, books, music, fashion and the like. Whether you were born in the 1950’s (like me) or earlier or later, we all have good shopping experiences. And most of those were based on the relationship we had with the salesperson, whether it was a long-term, continuous relationship or just someone who impressed us and gained our trust on a single sale.

At one point in my career, I did work for a major, foreign car maker. Part of my contract was to create training material for its dealers as part of a substantial effort to change the selling style of the salespeople from one of selling a single car, to creating a long-term relationship with the customer. As part of that project, I spent a lot of time with many of the most successful salespeople across the country. The best ones didn’t sell cars. The best ones had friends who bought cars from them. Those friendships were based on nothing more than the relationships the customers and salespeople had about cars. Establish a good and honest relationship with a customer and he or she is your customer for life. We took those success stories and styles and tried to create a program - with video, on-line training and other support - that would hopefully make all this car makers’ salespeople successful.

It worked.

In today’s retail marketplace, cars may be one of the last vestiges of what is called ‘consultative selling’. Even so, the role of the salesperson is undergoing a metamorphosis. It really doesn’t matter if this change is for the better or worse. It is happening. And we have to deal with it. Be we salespeople or customers or both.

At another point in my professional odyssey, I sold consumer electronics - TVs, audio systems, home design and installation and the like. I entered that market at a time when high definition TVs were the latest, greatest thing - and were really expensive. I recently left that market, not altogether by my own choice, at a time when prices are plummeting, the technology has become mainstream, and my apparent value to customers was not that of a consultant or friend, but often as no more than a clerk. Yes, there were (and still are) customers who want and need advice. And there are businesses and sales professionals to serve them. But those numbers are dwindling fast.

Today, many can get their information and advice as easily from a website, or, as I was sometimes told, from a neighbor or friend, as they could from me.

The marketplace has undergone - is undergoing - a dramatic shift. I can’t say if it is a paradigm shift or merely an evolution, but the electronics marketplace, like the grocer, butcher, baker and music store of my youth, is not, and will never be the same.

I’m not complaining. (OK, maybe just a little.) I’m just stating fact. Many of us already understand it. All of us soon will.

To be honest, one has to wonder during a time of budget slashing (on the national, state and probably personal levels), what does it matter that a few electronics salespeople are pursuing new careers? What does it matter that there are many stores are closing their doors in any number of markets? What does it matter if we can still buy what we want to buy, just thru new and different channels? It’s happened before, and it will happen again.

My old music store was replaced by the mass-market retailer, who is now being usurped by iTunes. Erna’s grocer long ago gave way to the supermarket which is now being threatened by the Mega-markets. The corner bookseller that went out of business when the chain bookstores moved into town, is now watching those stores suffer as books can be bought on the internet and downloaded to any number of portable, electronic devices. While the local car dealerships (at least those that survived over the past few years) still have the latest models on the showroom floor, I can also design and buy my next car on the internet, and I can shop literally across the country for the best price I can find.

Stores are closing and many companies are failing, or at least threatened. Some may survive. They are the smart ones. They will find ways to adapt and adopt the changes, and may find new successes in reinvention. If they are really smart, and maybe a little bit lucky.

The other day, my college-age son and I went shopping. Admittedly, we went to a local Blockbuster store that is closing to see if there were any good deals. We stopped by the local Borders bookstore to see how deep the discounts were, because that store is closing too. The next stop was a big-box electronics store, where he wanted to get some new headsets. The store was very quiet, but no one offered to help us. My son pulled out his smartphone to see what information he could find about the three choices he was considering.

Are sales and profits at the big-box chain down (based on recent reports) because my son has a smartphone? Not in this case. But he could have also used his device to find a better price. And, he probably got as much information on the products as he might have gotten from a sales associate had one cared to speak to us.

Is Blockbuster closing our local store because of Netflix and pirated on-line videos? Or are they in trouble because of some bad decisions? Is Borders trimming stores because of Amazon and e-books? Or did they stumble at the boardroom level?

Is Ultimate Electronics liquidating because of the marketplace, or their business decisions? Is 6th Avenue Electronics leaving markets and closing stores because of the internet or bad expansion plans? Did Tweeter fail because new ownership didn’t understand electronics, or because the marketplace didn’t need a Tweeter anymore?

The answer is yes…and yes.

Is Best Buy rethinking its channel strategy away from brick and mortar stores and putting more emphasis on the web because they are really smart? Or is the big box giant reading the handwriting on the wall?

At another point in my storied career, I worked for a major electronics manufacturer, first as a contractor and later on staff. I watched, and participated, as their once undeniable supremacy in the market was challenged, successfully, by competitors. I watched, and participated, as their high-end, high-cost, high-margin products got better and more affordable. While percentage margins were maintained, lower costs meant lower profit-per-product. While remaining, still to this day, one of the premiere brands internationally, as profits and margins and market share slipped, so did budgets and staffing. Like me.

(At this point, in exposing some of my career, one might consider staying away from any industries or companies that I have, or am, involved with!)

Times change.

Technologies change.

Economies change.

People change.

And we move on.

For better, or for worse.

In the balance of things, is my life (as a customer) worse or better because I can garner the information I need to make a good purchase decision on the internet, and that I can get a better price? Of course, it is better.

In that balance, is my life (as a salesperson, consultant, writer, independent business owner) worse because the expertise I have to offer is lessened in value because my customers can get that information elsewhere? Of course, it hurts. But let’s face reality.

In this balance, is my life more substantially affected by changes in the consumer marketplace or a more global economic perspective? Take a moment. Think about it.

Come on!

Yes, I lost a sales job. I’ll find another job or expand my contract work. And I’ll continue to do what I always did even while selling - writing, consulting, producing - whatever it took, and now will take to pay the bills and maybe be a little ahead at the end of the month.

I’m watching my friends and my community. I’m seeing friends lose jobs. I’m hearing that budget cuts may substantially impact the high school and college that my sons go to. I’m sitting alone at a computer and wondering if there is some aspect, some iota of what I have done and who I am that can do something, have some impact on who we are and where we are?

I wonder if you are wondering the same.

We are in a time, not unlike many times before, when we need to rethink and re-invent.

The manufacturers, marketers, retailers and corporations will explore and move toward their re-inventions. They may or may not succeed.

We, I suspect, are already doing it, rethinking and re-inventing. We’re dealing with rising gas prices. We’re deciding if we really need that new TV, car, furniture or sports coat or dress and new pair of shoes. We’re trying to figure out how to pay next month’s bills, because we have to. We’re planning about what we are going to do if a public service is cut with the next budget, or tuition increases, or campuses close, or the store down the street closes, or something costs more tomorrow than it does today.

That’s what we do.

And if no one else will ask, perhaps we should ask.

“How can we help you today?”

John Rice can be contacted at jrice@komediagroup.com, or visit www.komediagroup.com.

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