Creating Customer Centric Showrooms

Almost every business preaches the benefits of customer service. Consider the aphorisms that exist in corporate America. If we believed every trite expression, from "Quality is Job One" to "Have it Your Way," we would never have recessions. Many talk the talk, but how many showrooms actually have the mindset and systems in place to walk the walk?

Jack Mitchell, CEO of Mitchells/Richards Clothing Stores in Westport and Greenwich CT, wrote Hug Your Customers. The premise of the book is that for any business to achieve sustainable success, the focus must be first and foremost on the customer.

Mitchell understands that in today's world of immediacy and instant gratification, customers want and expect more. He places the customer at the center of the universe, and the company's commitment to building effective customer relationships is practiced at every level of the organization.

Mitchell defines every act of personal service as a "hug." A hug can be as simple as remembering customers' names when they enter the store to being accessible around the clock to respond to "clothing emergencies." Hugs come in many sizes and shapes. The goal is to personalize the shopping experience to create relationships that become lifelong friendships.

Mitchell's road map for his third-generation family business should strike a chord with many decorative plumbing and hardware showrooms. He delineates a process that successfully converts an attitude into an operating system to not simply satisfy customers, but to consistently exceed their expectations. Mitchell's two clothing stores generate more than $60 million in annual sales and have among the highest margins in the clothing industry.

Embracing passion
Passion is a key ingredient in creating a showroom dedicated to exceptional customer service. You need to be passionate about what you do and about life.

Passion is evident in our showroom and it becomes infectious among our customers, the representatives who serve our business and the manufacturers who supply our products. As a result, those in our supply chain are passionate about providing extraordinary customer service to our showroom.

Consistency is critical to creating a service culture. Recently, a gentleman entered our showroom. He was shy and did not dress or look like our typical customer. He needed a bidet but did not have the resources to buy one. Instead of turning him away, our salesperson who had won a portable bidet wand from a manufacturer sales promotion volunteered to lend the gentleman her wand to see if it met his needs. It did. He ordered one for approximately $100 and was so appreciative of the effort our staff member went through to meet his needs that he wept.

Mitchell points out that, when you are customer-centric, your bottom line benefits. At our showroom, we have empirical evidence to support that statement. We view problems as opportunities that provide one-time chances to cement relationships by converting anger into hugs.

At Designer Hardware, we hug our customers by preventing problems before they occur. On larger projects, we make site visits after roughs are installed and before sheetrocking, regardless of where the project is located. Recently, we traveled from Oklahoma City to Vail, CO to check the thermostat and balance pressure rough in an installation, only to discover the valves had been switched and were installed in the wrong showers. Had the mistake been overlooked, the large shower with multiple outlets would never have worked satisfactorily.

The contractor was so appreciative of our effort that he has since referred us to five other contractors who are using us for their projects. The return we received on that investment has paid for itself a hundred times over. So, it's clear there's a direct link between the quality of customer service and profitability.

Information a key
At the heart of Mitchell's relationship-building process is access to information. He sends flowers, small gifts of all types and birthday, anniversary and announcements cards to his customers regularly. His sales professionals are trained, in a non-intrusive manner, to obtain personal information that can be used to communicate frequently and effectively.
Information of this type is necessary to develop long-term, loyal customer relationships and to provide a quality of service that constantly exceeds customer expectations. Union Hardware in Washington, DC has created a technological infrastructure that places customer interest first. From the moment the sale is made, Union Hardware's technology transmits an electronic "thank you" with a link to the company's Web page that allows customers to review their order. Trade accounts can review sales tickets online and download invoices and technical specifications.

The company has a database of purchases dating back more than a decade. Because of this, a customer can come into the showroom with a broken handle from a faucet purchased in 1992 and Union Hardware can instantly identify the make, model number and part-ordering information.

As sophisticated as technology systems in showrooms may be, the potential exists for using information even more effectively. For example, creating databases that track trends, staff performance, margins and other financial and performance data can help you exceed customer expectations by providing information that makes their jobs and lives easier. You can determine if particular product lines or styles are frequently specified by designers. You can also ask for permission to send a notice if the line or manufacturer introduces new products they may want.

Decorative plumbing and hardware showrooms can further cement relationships with designers by arranging for meetings with manufacturers and representatives who can explain the trends they're responding to. By serving as a constant source of information, showrooms can ensure that there's no reason for the design community to specify or shop from any other source. The possibilities are endless. They don't exist, however, if there is not the technological awareness and commitment to use information as a competitive advantage.

On-time delivery
You can't exceed customer expectations if you don't deliver products on time. Union Hardware has developed a technology that proactively helps ensure delivery times are monitored and met. Its system tracks, on a dynamic basis, average order time. If a deadline is not met, the system automatically notifies customers, eliminating the need for them to ask when an order will be delivered. If the deadline arrives and an order is not received, an inquiry is automatically issued to the manufacturer and the customer is notified of the status and a new delivery date via fax, e-mail or phone call.

"The system is proactive and sends a message to customers that we're looking out for their interests after the sale has been made,"notes Union Hardware v.p. David Goldberg.
A similar result is achieved at Miller's Fine Decorative Hardware in Dania, FL, where it's the primary responsibility of a full-time customer service representative to track order status.

Owner Debbie Miller relates that the standard delivery time for most orders at her showroom is four weeks. If an order has not been received three weeks after it's placed, the customer service representative contacts the factory to determine if a new date for delivery needs to be set. If so, the customer is called with a status report and receives an update on what has been done and a new anticipated delivery date.

Almost every showroom in our industry has examples of superior customer service. However, there's a need to raise the bar and improve consistency. Decorative plumbing and hardware showroom owners can compete and exceed the performance of much larger organizations with greater resources by becoming customer-centric.

We must learn to "hug" our customers. Our competitive advantage depends on it.
Faye Norton is president of Designer Hardware by Faye in Oklahoma City, OK. She serves as the chair of the Decorative Plumbing & Hardware Association Education Committee that is developing a comprehensive product and sales training and education program for new showroom staff and others who are new to the DPH industry. In addition, she serves as
a director on the DPHA Board of Directors.

DPH Perspectives appears every other mount exclusively in Kitchen & Bath Design News as part of a strategic relationship between K&BDN and the Bethesda, MD-based DPHA.

By Faye Norton, President Designer Hardware by Faye, Oklahoma City, OK