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Death of a Salesman?

The way in which we buy things has changed dramatically over the last 40 years. We can now buy virtually anything without speaking to another person. We have access to all sorts of information on the internet to give us the confidence and the ability to make our own choices about what and how we purchase goods and services. The internet also means that the degree that we can shop around and compare products, specifications and prices is almost infinite.

Going back 40 years pretty much everything you bought involved a human interaction. If you wanted information about a product or service, you had to send off for a leaflet or, most often, get down to the shops and literally ‘shop around’. I remember in my days working in Marketing for a large building society, a key focus of our mystery shopping programme was to find out how quickly, if at all, someone standing in a branch was approached and asked what they wanted. Product leaflets were a key currency in competing with the other building societies and the banks as customers would research the market by collecting a stack of leaflets from different suppliers.

Face to face, you had the opportunity to differentiate the service you provided. How you interacted with a customer was a key determinant of whether they would buy from you or go elsewhere. Creating consistency was always an issue and inevitably you had people who were good at providing a service and those who were, well, less good.

So in 2015, when you can buy pretty much anything without any human interaction and where you have all the information you could possibly need at the other end of a computer, how do organisations differentiate themselves in terms of the service they provide to customers and how can customers feel engaged?

One view is that the rise of ‘brands’ as such and the associations people have with them, has been a direct result of the changes in the way we buy things. The brand identity or image has replaced good old fashioned service and people have become loyal to brands more for what it does to their ‘street credibility’ as opposed to differentiating suppliers based on the quality of the service they offer. Uniformity has surpassed distinctiveness.

Unless I’m fortunate enough to buy my suits from Saville Row (which I’m not), the sight of a salesman in a clothes shop approaching me wielding a tape measure is a sure signal for me to leave – and quickly. I’m conditioned now that I want to make my own choice, knowing that I can return the goods if they aren’t right when I get them home.

Because of having access to information on just about everything, my sense that I don’t need advice any more has developed to the point where any attempt to provide it becomes a positive disincentive to purchase. In short I now buy all the time – in the past I was probably more susceptible to being sold things because that was the norm and the environment was different then.

Apart from at the very high luxury end of the scale where personal service really counts and is expected as a matter of course, the actual shopping experience for many has been ‘dummed down’ either to the extent of routinely buying the same things week on week, with little to differentiate the experience, or simply going online and expecting your purchase to arrive the next day in a big white van.

So how do retailers and service providers differentiate themselves as the world of shopping evolves. The answer remains the same as it was 40 years ago – give the customer what they want. The successful ones are those who are constantly recognising that customers want different things now than they did then and that needs to be reflected in how they interact with customers.

It is the experience a customer has that shapes how they feel about a retail outlet, a bank or a service provider. The way they feel will determine how engaged they are with you and whether they will be back for more or will avoid you like the plague. Of course, some of the basics remain the same: the quality of the product; the price; the value the customer perceives; the ease of purchasing it; the identity of the brand and the confidence all of those things give to the customer to make the purchase. Getting it right when things go wrong is an even bigger point of difference in this ‘instant’ world.
That is where ‘getting it right first time’ is still key.

Times have changed (Bob Dylan was right) though and the way in which customers perceive value has also changed. I’ve never seen any statistics, but I reckon that 40 years ago, the ratio between what we bought (“I want that one”) and what we were sold (“I would recommend that you buy that one”) was near enough 50/50. Today, I think it might be getting nearer to 80/20 in favour of buying.

In the ‘new world’ the thinking that the worst thing you can do in terms of engaging customers is to sell them a product or service that they don’t want or need – and the damage that this does in terms of both trust in the organisation and the potential for future sales – is even more acute.

So what does this mean for customer engagement? We think that leading organisations will ensure that the sales process enables the customer to make the decision to buy as opposed to leading them through the traditional sales process , putting the customer in control and maintaining the organisations credibility, appeal and the potential for future sales.