Monday, February 25, 2008


February has turned into a monster month for us, with sales only second to December (our best month ever). It just about fixed problems from a disappointing January. Retail is like this and there's often very little "cause and effect" that's noticeable. You do a lot of good things, some big and some small and eventually the effort comes back to you. Maybe they don't come back to you right away, but eventually they do. People will come in and say they saw you on a TV station you haven't advertised on for over a year. Perhaps they found a flyer you sent out six months ago. There's the untraceable word of mouth that can raise or sink a small business. Good things are hard to quantify and they take a lot of faith and excellent planning.

Bad things are immediate and devastating. Bad word of mouth travels very fast, as do store odors, news of rude employees or chronic stock shortages. I think the bar for retail stores is set at the level of "very good." If you dip below "very good," you suffer almost immediately, as opposed to the pre-Internet days where you could get away with a lot of bad behavior because you were the only show in town, like the comic book guy from The Simpsons. So at our store I strive for "excellent", and often have to be satisfied with very good. Meanwhile we work on ways to improve processes, especially consistency.

This weekend I noticed that I stopped taking my toddler to my favorite restaurants. My favorites tend to be local mom and pop restaurants. The food is often fantastic and the employees seem to enjoy their jobs. I stopped going there because my son is a big exception in their processes. A two year old needs a high chair and some special treatment. The problem with independent restaurants (and small business in general) is they often can't offer consistency in their service. Consistency means that you never drop a 200 degree plate of food in front of a toddler. You don't avoid doing this most of the time or ninety percent of the time, you never do it because you have training and a process. The same can be true with things like high chair availability or silverware. I love my local mom and pop restaurant but I've seen them put a knife in front of my kid, or big glasses of water that are likely to be knocked over. Now I understand why my parents always took us to Denny's. The food might be bad but the service is consistent. Even consistently average is better than good most of the time.

Our big issue with consistency are the toddler like issues, the exception to the process. Special orders, for example, are an exception. We have a process but we don't always follow them. The biggest violator of the process is me, actually, as I'm used to being there all the time, while now I'm working only some of the time. My employees rightfully scold me. With multiple employees, even small things can get messed up without a process. Not having an in-box can get mail lost or leave invoices unpaid. Any of my wheeling and dealing can get me into trouble if I don't tell every employee individualized special offers. When a store lacks consistency of service, people will go elsewhere, just to feel good about their shopping experience.

I read a business book recently in which the author talked about his experience with a barber. He went to this barber and the barber offered him a cup of coffee. He was happy to get a cup of coffee and his haircut was excellent. The next time he went he was offered a glass of wine. He didn't want a glass of wine, but his haircut was excellent. The third time he went for a haircut, he wasn't offered anything, and the haircut was excellent. After that he stopped going to the barber. The haircut was always great, but the inconsistency of service was maddening. That's a major issue for small businesses. That's also my biggest fear - that I could offer exceptional service as my core competency but be lacking in something I'm unaware of.

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