Driving home from work one day and finding myself low on fuel, I pulled into the first petrol station I came upon. As my car came to a stop, a team of five staffers appeared from all directions. Smartly turned out in clean uniforms, they went to work with coordinated precision. One young man greeted me politely, smiled and enquired about how much fuel I needed. Another went about cleaning the windscreen. A third started buffing the car with a clean cloth and yet another wheeled over a trolley mounted air cylinder and started to check the pressure in all my tyres. Then the fifth person asked me to open the bonnet so that he could check the engine and brake oil levels.
I couldn’t believe it! It was like a Formula One race car had pulled in for a pit-stop to be met by a highly-trained team ready to service it in half a dozen ways in 10 seconds flat, ‘refreshing’ the car to go back on the track and continue in the race.
In my case, the exercise took perhaps three minutes, during which my fuel tank was topped, front and rear windscreens washed, the exterior buffed down, the tyre pressure checked, the engine and brake oil levels checked and my bill ready for payment!
Alright; reality check. Nothing like this happened. But this is what I once recommended should happen to a major petroleum products’ retailing company we were pitching to. We presented traditional PR ideas – media outreach, digital presence and so on and then we came to our Big Idea. And like all Big Ideas, ours too was original and simple.
We argued that what was needed was a clear differentiation in customer perception between themselves and their competitors. We told them that their head office was impressive; we acknowledged that their management comprised thorough professionals and that they complied with international HSE standards – and we complimented them on their advertising. Then, we dropped the bombshell. As far as customers are concerned the interaction with the company is not with the head office, or with the management, but with the company employees at the petrol stations. And invariably what the customer encounters is dishevelled, uncouth and least bothered staff going about their work desultorily.
So we advised the company that we would undertake customer engagement training for their frontline employees. It was obvious to us that an exponential improvement in direct customer engagement would yield substantial and long-term benefits and create customer loyalty and increase sales. Who would not give preference to their stations with this level of personalised, value-added and groundbreaking service?
The point of the above?
Brands and retail outlets across practically all industries and sectors – food (restaurants), fashion, clothing and accessories, FMCGs, household products, consumer electronics and IT products and services, furniture and you name it, spend tens of millions of rupees on outlet design, fittings and ambience and further millions on advertising and on inventory. Yet, rarely (and surprisingly if you think about it) invest in the frontline people who directly interact with their customers.
"Brands and retail outlets rarely (and surprisingly if you think about it) invest in the frontline people who directly interact with their customers."
Walk into a large store in a swanky mall and nine out of 10 times you will wander around for a while before a nonchalant sales person will sidle up to you – without a greeting or making eye contact – waiting for you to say something. You look around and notice other salespeople engrossed in conversation among themselves or busy on their cell phones or just leaning against a wall with an air of utter boredom.
I am sure we all have experienced this casual and disinterested attitude by sales people in all sorts of retail outlets. Yet, this is something marketers and retailers need to seriously think about. What good is all the marketing spend if your customers have at best a mediocre buying experience with your customer engagement people? Customers probably end up making a purchase because they have already decided on that purchase and not because they are pleasantly overwhelmed by the courtesy and attention displayed by the sales staff (and make the purchase because of this primarily).
No matter what it is that you are selling, you need to invest in your frontline people. Hire educated, smart and energetic people; people who are naturally courteous and talkative. Offer them above market level salaries, conducive working hours and performance-based benefits. Invest in their work attire and hygiene. Then hire a professional agency to implement a customised training programme to turn them into efficient and pleasant individuals capable of representing and marketing your brand to even the most unpleasant customer. This is sure to have a tremendous impact on your sales.
"No matter what it is that you are selling, you need to invest in your frontline people. Hire educated, smart and energetic people; people who are naturally courteous and talkative."
Marketers know that a purchase decision is based on a number of factors, including need, affordability (price), availability and quality as the primary deciders and on secondary factors, such as perception, recall and loyalty. There is enough empirical research to support this. Yet, I wonder if sufficient research has been conducted on the less recognised and tangible factor of frontline salesmanship, surely a hugely influential psychological driver of on-site sales? I cannot offer any references of such research to support my argument, but I ask you to consider various situations where the influence of the sales staff on a customer can be particularly significant, and then decide for yourself if there is merit or not in my recommendation that marketers need to invest meaningfully developing their frontline salespeople.
Consider the five situations below:
1) A customer has decided on a particular product but not on a specific brand. A polite and helpful salesperson can be discreetly persuasive in making the customer choose your brand over others.
2) A customer has decided on the product and the brand but becomes indecisive because the price is slightly beyond budget. An engaging salesperson can prompt him/her to go over-budget on this item and save on something else.
3) A customer comes in specifically for a single, already-decided purchase, but is welcomed by a pleasant salesperson and so decides to make another one or several more purchases.
4) A customer has no purchase intent and is browsing, but an attentive salesperson prompts an impulse purchase.
5) A customer is not in favour of a particular brand due to a preconceived notion about it, but a knowledgeable and persuasive salesperson dispels the misperception and converts the disbeliever into a believer!
Your frontline people are the seasoning in your marketing salad. You can sell a salad without the seasoning, but add the seasoning and your salad will be the most talked about in town.
Zohare Ali Shariff is CEO, Asiatic Public Relations Network and blogs at www.bobbhai.com.pk