As I write this article, I'm at St. Vincent's Hospital in Toledo, Ohio, experiencing the first hospital stay of my life. I'd been treated earlier in the week for an infection, but it turned out to be a major blood clot in the veins of my right leg. The doctor said that if I returned home on the plane that day, I could very well die.
I decided to let him admit me.
Because I live in Atlanta, this has been somewhat stressful. My wife and children are 15 to 16 hours away. Kind friends in Toledo stayed with me and encouraged me until my wife arrived.
I could have written this article without describing the above scenario. Yet, as I reflected, I came to believe that the stress associated with my hospitalization was probably not unlike what a customer feels as she anticipates spending thousands of dollars on new floor covering. She realizes that if she makes a mistake, she may be stuck with the chosen product for years. Like her, I did not know or understand the critical nature of what I had.
Because I had never been admitted to a hospital in my life, going into the front door of that emergency room generated some anxiety. I was immediately soothed, however. As soon as I entered, the receptionist greeted me. The concern in her voice was comforting. I felt that she was interested in me as an individual and committed to seeing that I get to the right place. She asked all the right questions, which made me feel her sincere interest in my welfare. Her cheerful voice and concern alleviated my anxiety.
Do your customers have a similar experience when they enter your store? Does someone greet them in the same comforting manner as I was? Are your employees and salespeople cheerful?
Britt Beamer, author of "Predatory Marketing," claims that the No. 1 standard by which a customer judges a store is, "Does the employee look as if he/she wants to be at work?"
Do your people look as if they want to be at work? Do they greet customers within 30 seconds of their entering the store? Dealerscope magazine says that if the customer is not greeted within 20 seconds of entering a store, you'll likely lose the opportunity to wait on her.
It's amazing how customers relax when your greeting radiates a welcome and glad-to-see-you attitude. In some stores, I feel as though I'm intruding on the salesperson's life. I imagine he's thinking, "I wish customers would leave me alone, so I could get something done around here."
Now, I recognize that it's hard to be cheerful at work if one has personal problems at home. One of the cardinal rules of selling is leaving personal problems off the sales floor.
We know that customers don't want to hear other's problems. They have enough of their own. Yet, salespeople continue to sabotage many sales when they spend more time talking about their problems rather than the customer's. Are your people sharing their personal problems with any customers?
William James, the father of American psychology, said, "The greatest discovery of this generation is the ability to change our circumstances by simply changing how we think about them."
Nothing surpasses the power of attitude. The nurses' warm, caring attitude alleviated my anxieties. I stayed in the hospital for a week, so I got to know some of them pretty well. Amazingly, several had huge personal problems at home, yet they never showed it. I had to pull their stories out of them.
After the first day, I was transferred from acute care to the transitional care unit. The facilities there were very homey and comfortable for me. I felt welcome and safe.
Does your store sell itself and captivate the customer within minutes of her entering? Does it help build a rapport for the salesperson? If your store doesn't feel like a home, how can a customer believe you can help her decorate her home?
Consider what you can do to make your store feel like a home. Re-examine it with fresh eyes. (Or perhaps ask an outsider to scrutinize it for you.) Is your store clean? Are the racks dusted? Are the bathrooms spotless? Is the carpet vacuumed? Is everything organized and in its place? Have you ever had trouble finding an invoice when a customer returns to change her order?
I often share the story of the dealer who was called by police in the middle of the night. They informed him that they'd found his doors unlocked and his store vandalized. He rushed down to his store, walked in the front door and looked around. The store was exactly as he left it. He had just forgotten to lock his front doors.
He was so embarrassed that he didn't tell the police that he was the culprit responsible for the mess. He went ahead and filled out the police report. The police are still looking for the "vandal."
Does your store invite customers to stay for a while? Is there a children's play area where a customer's child can keep occupied while she looks for what she wants? Is there a place to sit, perhaps with a round table, where the customer can compare colors and swatches?
Is there a place for the husband to sit? I know of a store in Canada that has nine vibrating chairs and a big-screen TV. By contrast, when my wife drags me to go clothes shopping, the only chair I can find is usually in the lingerie department. When they see me sitting there, I'm sure passersby think I'm a pervert.
When it comes to stores, a children's play area and a chair say, "WE CARE."
Don't neglect to manage the visual impression your store creates. Michael Gerber, author of "The E Myth," writes: "A business is first and foremost a visual thing¿What a business looks like communicates more about its thoughts, feelings, considerations, and intentions more immediately¿to the people with whom it interacts than anything else a business can do." Make your bathrooms the showcase of the store. Get your customers to talk about it.
When was the last time you took a hard look at the visual impression of your store? I'm talking about the lighting, the signage, the aisles, the colors, and the flooring. Are they clean and fresh? Second, does your store look distinctive or just like every other store in town? Remember, no one remembers anything ordinary.
My hospital stay reminded me that a company's success is all about people and how we make them feel when they visit our stores. At St. Vincent's, they tried to make me feel as if I was at home.
There's an old saying, "Home is a place where they always take you in." I think the best stores do the same thing -- when I walk in the door, I feel welcome and everyone is glad to see me. It feels and looks like home.
Truly, there's no place like home.