Monday, June 2, 2014

Make Me A Sammich (Tradecraft)

Running a store is not like a relationship, it is a relationship. The saying the customer is always right is a a rough attempt at goading the unresponsive into considering customer service. The reality is the customer is often wrong, unreasonable or simply not really your customer. When the customer is wrong, the customer is generally not happy. That's just part of the relationship, but it absolutely is a relationship. Don't mistake that.

Unhappiness is a misalignment of expectations. Nobody is unhappy about something they don't care about, a business or person that isn't highly relevant to them. They're unhappy because the potential for more is there in the relationship, but it's unfulfilled. Your business is not living up to the relationship expectations you've both agreed to. Sometimes this leads to a break up, which is fine, but more often than not, it leads to a simmering, unhappy, begrudging courtship. Again, this means you're still relevant in their life, you're just not making them as happy as you once did. You can feel it in customer interactions, where your Venn diagrams are just not overlapping.

A store owner has many considerations in customer happiness, the biggest being stock and in the game trade, corresponding events. Stock is going to change. Games will come and go, wax and wane. That's just part of business and if you don't monitor this, you will absolutely fail or flounder about. Not stocking what the customer wants leads to unhappiness, and because we're in a relationship, the accusation that you don't care.

Caring about stock is actually dangerous, and I've made plenty of bad decisions based on personal attachment to inventory, both new and stuff that just had to go. But the customer is not talking about your relationship with your stock, they're talking about the emotional connection you personally have with them, expressed through your inventory practices. I almost said inventory choices. What they don't understand is there are few choices, just practices. You may love 40K, but if you can't sell it, what choice do you have? None, really.

So we're stuck with this accusation of no love based on stock practices. Imagine your wife stops making you sandwiches because she realizes it's not something she wants from the relationship anymore. You need to make your own sandwich, she has work to do, and it's no longer in her best interest after ten years. She still loves you, but no more ham and cheese will be forthcoming in a between bread format. So you make your own sandwich and eat it in the corner, pouting about how you're no longer loved. All stores have customers like this. They don't go away, they pout. We still love them. They don't believe us.

Does this make sense? That I should be expressing my love for you based on inventory management practices? Of course not, but it's where we're at with relationship marketing. If someone else were willing to make a sandwich for you, provided the relationship was otherwise the same, they would be out the back door in no time.

Run a store long enough, and believe me, your customers will be complaining to their "other woman" on a regular basis. I know this because every ... single ... game store in the San Francisco Bay Area has been brought up to me with customer complaints about how they had their feelings hurt, or how there were no more sandwiches. I often defend the "other woman," mostly because I know I might insist they go make their own damn sandwich one day, plus I'm sure my sandwich practices are being discussed as well. However, they will hear none of it. They sniff around, settle in, and our relationship begins.

Personally? I want everyone to have sandwiches. I want to serve all the condiments. I want to run a store that doesn't have to worry about inventory management, or whether players are using space to play games while buying models across town or online. I want to live in a mythical world of 80's game stores where I set the tone of the demand and supply, and customers follow my lead and there are sandwiches for one and all. Sandwiches of my choosing, which will all be delicious (because I like them). That world just doesn't exist though. I use metrics and trends and am either on my way into or out of a game at any given time, and the number of true, exclusive customers is shockingly small.

So what should you do about this sandwich situation? What can you do?


  1. Depending on maturity of the customer: discussion and education are
    valuable and typically well received in traditional nerd culture - this
    blog is one of the reasons I direct people to your store whenever I can
    even if I rarely ever come in anymore.

    Special ordering seems like a way to get a sandwich to people - provided that they are willing to bet they still want a sandwich in 4 days or so.

  2. Thanks Ryan. We went through a great deal of time, trouble and money to implement a fantastic new POS that shines at special orders. Most can be obtained in a day or two. Direct accounts, like GW, take a bit longer like that 4-7 day range.

  3. While I take your point wholeheartedly, I'm a little uncomfortable at your choice of metaphor... It's possibly because I've just come back to do a six hour evening shift off the back of a four day convention and haven't actually gotten home yet (add in inevitable Con Crud for bonus tired and grumpy). The whole 'wife makes the sammich' with associated raft of unthinking assumptions has my hackles rising. I'm re-reading to make sure I haven't read something into it that isn't there, and I appreciate that what you've actually pointed up is a scenario where the wife isn't making the sandwich any more, but the whole thing just makes me wish you'd picked another metaphor. Not that I can think of one off the top of my head, but I thought I ought to raise it. I'll make another comment actually addressing customer relationship management and not derail this further.

  4. Managing ones own expectations as a store owner with regards to the mythical 'exclusively loyal' customer is one of the steps that need to be taken. Possibly because I had a previous job at a mobile telco, I got introduced to the concept of 'churn' fairly early in my working life.

    It is pretty much inevitable that you will lose customers and gain customers, often for reasons that have nothing to do with your store and everything to do with relocation, life events, and other pressures completely beyond your control. Once you've accepted that, it is possible to work on the factors within your control to minimise customer loss while maximising new customer acquisition. If you can divorce yourself from the idea that people stopping being customers is a personal failing, it's a little easier to maintain your confidence. The type of store that I personally classify as 'Cult of personality' stores seem more vulnerable to this.

    It is generally very hard for me to overcome my own 'imposter syndrome' demons, and have confidence in my own store, my own inventory practices, my own sandwich recipes. Borrowing your metaphor (if a little uncomfortably) there are customers who will absolutely behave in the manner of an abusive spouse/partner. These are not customers I want to have, because I will not warp my store and my community around them which is the only way to make them happy. I will not actively discourage them, unless they are negatively affecting the store community, but neither will I put myself out to cater to their whims.

  5. I realized writing it that it might bring up some unexpected connotations, but I also wrote it with my own tumultuous relationship experiences, with my wife and sandwiches.

  6. It has to be said, I've never had a tumultuous sandwich experience...

    Personal policy change over the past year has been the decision to actively let people know when things like this come up. Change cannot happen without people being aware of dissatisfaction with the current status quo. Ending topic derailment here, but thanks for the response!