What the High Street Merchants Taught Us

(Guest Blogger: Paul K. Bates)

How many of you watched Miracle on 34th Street again this past holiday season. I had the chance to watch it (reluctantly at first, I admit it) with my beautiful granddaughter.

The main plot, of course, is the courtroom trial of a New York department store Santa Claus who claims that he is the real Santa Claus. There is a wonderful secondary plot that is the story of a little girl who, with the help of that same Santa Clause, nudges her mother toward a new romance with great promise for the future—a Christmas present indeed.

But I want to focus on a tertiary plot that unfolds. This Santa teaches the store clerks to send clients to other stores when those stores may have the right product for them—products that these same store clerks realize that they don’t have. At first, the store’s marketing department is aghast, until it takes the store President to realize its brilliance and makes it store policy.

Here is a big city department store doing what many small shop-owners have known all along. Go to any small town near you to test it out. Where I grew up most towns had what was known as the High Street; the place to find the baker, the butcher, the florist, the hair dresser, the bank, and so on.

These shop-owners knew that they were part of the fabric of the community. Products were not ‘SKU’s’ and customers were not simply buyers. All were part of the vibrant and complex uniqueness that gave their village or town its identity. Everyone knew everyone’s name, and everyone knew that word traveled fast! With every interaction, the right to do business was on the line, and so was the shop-owner’s reputation.

Some interactions resulted in a transaction, some did not—indeed some should not, because the shop-owner knew that they did not have the product to satisfy their customer’s needs on that particular day; and so instead of automatically trying to ‘cross-sell’ to a substitute, they guided the customer to another store that likely had the right product. They knew that the customer would be back at the right time.

There’s an underlying set of rules here, and they are all based on deep knowledge. Knowledge of products—your own products and your competitor’s products—and knowledge of the specific needs that might be expressed when a competitor’s product is the right product to recommend, based upon the discovered needs of the customer.

Finally, of course is the recognition of service to a community, in full knowledge that not all acts of service should result in a transaction. This service, however, will always build reputation. Sometimes we need Santa to remind us.

Have a wonderful 2016!


Published with acknowledgement to Thomson Carswell, publishers of the 2nd edition of Sales Force Management in the Financial Services by Paul K. Bates, from which parts of this article were drawn.


A Chartered Professional Accountant (FCPA), Fellow of the Society of Management Accountants (FCMA) and Certified Management Consultant (CMC), Paul's career has spanned: senior academic administration; business and divinity school lecturing; investor advocacy; capital markets regulation; investment dealer executive leadership with P&L accountability; expert witness and international consulting in the financial services sector. He is a former member of the council of Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Paul holds a Master's degree in Theological Studies from McMaster Divinity College, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in Theology. Paul is available for consulting and speaking engagements through Blu Pagoda LLC http://www.blupagoda.com/

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Paul Bates

A Chartered Professional Accountant (FCPA), Fellow of the Society of Management Accountants (FCMA) and Certified Management Consultant (CMC), Paul’s career has spanned: senior academic administration; business and divinity school lecturing; investor advocacy; capital markets regulation; investment dealer executive leadership with P&L accountability; expert witness and international consulting in the financial services sector. Paul holds a Master’s degree in Theological Studies from McMaster Divinity College, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in Theology. Paul is available for speaking engagements through Blu Pagoda LLC.