Small lessons for bigger businesses

I run a lot, as you can see from my www.fosterRuns.com blog and as such I get through a steady stream of running shoes and other assorted gear.  At the point where, early in 2004, I started training for the Berlin marathon, a friend kindly introduced me to Kurt, Fred and Tom at the small specialist running shop Run, in Blatchington Road, Hove.

Now in training for the inaugural 2010 Brighton Marathon, I was back in Run late on Saturday afternoon for my seventh pair of shoes and it occurred to me how the relationship I have with this business and others like it, differs to the one I have with the Utility companies, the Banks etcetera.

I return to this store, ignoring the myriad other sports retailers, because I get the benefit of advice and guidance from specialists: people who know their product, understand my needs as a runner and as a consumer and are passionate about what they do.

By contrast, the specialist roles within the Banks and Utilities have been dumbed down over the last few years, reduced to a lower priced common denominator.

Where I used to have great respect for David Barker, my then Bank Manager, who had many years of experience with people and businesses, I am now faced with a relative youngster who has a multiple choice questionnaire to complete.  Where Mr Barker was there to help me with my banking, the young man is there to sell to me, despite having no business experience and scant idea of the challenges that I face.

Crucially, where once I trusted my Bank Manager and would take his advice, thus actually spending money with the bank from time to time, no trust currently exists… and no business.  They have become a utility, much like an Electricity provider: a sender of statements, rather than a trusted guardian of my money.

Clearly, in a downturn such as the one we are currently experiencing, there is a clear need to take difficult decisions regarding costs and I am the first to advocate a lean overhead structure.  However, many of the aspects that separate outstanding businesses from lacklustre ones cost no money at all.

Company culture  should be a cogently planned part of its strategy, as should the dogged pursuit of real experience and empathy in front-line staff.  Customers are way easier to retain than they are to gain and what encourages customers to stay is experience, service, trust, passion.  This builds relationships which are uplifting for both parties: the benefits are numerous to all concerned, the costs to you minimal.

So dump your forced sales quotas, focus on understanding and assuaging the needs of your customers and you may discover that they actually start to want to buy from you.  On a long-term basis.  What you’ll also find as a by-product is that your business will end up with a bunch of passionate Brand Advocates who may help to supercharge your marketing effort.

If you want my advice on which Bank to use, you may as well try the mattress shop.  But if you want some running gear, you have my sincere, personal recommendation!

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