What happens when there aren’t any sales?

I have talked about customer service and how to keep customers coming back.  I have even talked about sales hiding your mistakes, but what do you do when you don’t have sales?

How do you hide your mistakes when the customers are not coming through the doors?

Erin Burrell-What Happens Via bavidbingham.com
Image courtesy of bavidbingham.com

It is hard finding the motivation when the sales just aren’t there.  When the sales are down, hiring freezes kick in.  With a hiring freeze each employee is asked to pull more than their own weight.  Everyone is so busy they forget to say thank you.  Those missed opportunities for leaders to say thank you lead to the remaining employees starting to feel overworked and underappreciated.

Then they quit.

So how do you stop it?  Controlling the spiral takes a lot of effort that most big organizations don’t take the time to make.

Finding motivation for employees who just had their hours cut takes talented leaders.

Years ago I had the chance to work with such a leader.

To set the stage:

Store sales were in the toilet and associates that had been working 30-40 hours a week were cut down to 4-8 (I was one of them-barely paying my rent while going to school), full time associates were “encouraged” to take half days of vacation or unpaid off without penalty to save payroll and spirits were low.

So this leader hit the sales floor and turned customers into a challenge.  Each associate (including our normally office bound leaders) in the store was tasked with being a personal shopper to those few customers we had.  Tasks were second to being the best customer care associate you could be.  If that meant walking them to light bulbs and helping them chose, you did it.  If it meant debating the power of this saw versus another, you did it.  If it meant escorting them to the bathroom you did it.  You stayed with that customer and made sure they found everything on their list and more.  You got a ladder and pulled the box off the top shelf for them.  You adventured through the chaos of receiving and into the back room to get the colour they wanted. You made sure they knew your name when they left.  You made sure they knew people would help them when they came in.  You made sure they were going to come back.

Then, when the floor was dead we went back to tasking.

It took a few weeks. They were hard weeks with more tasks than staff, but sales started to turn around.  Average ticket went up.  We got more hours on the floor giving us more time to do tasks, and we just kept helping people.

The customer came before getting the stuff put away, and the stuff still ended up getting put away because when someone needed something you were right there to get it for them and leave the rest on the shelf for the next customer.

In the end, we can live without all of the tasks “we think are important” being accomplished, but those tasks don’t matter if we don’t help them buy the stuff in the first place.  Sales can be powerful, but when sales aren’t as high and customers aren’t crashing your site with traffic or blocking your aisles to get to the register, sales are still out there if you focus on the customer’s needs before your own.

Sales Hide All Sins

This is an old adage that comes from my home in the retail world.  My entire career has been focused on getting customers to buy stuff in one form or another, whether it comes via driving them through a conversion funnel online or motivate them with the right price in a flyer to come into a store and lay down their credit card.

A little while ago I talked about customer service and how sometimes you have to break up with bad customers.  While I believe this is true, I still think you need to love and support your customer or client through your entire relationship.  Their dollars pay your bills.  You get to do fun user experience tests and cool projects with YOUR brand because of THEIR dollars.

Sales hide your mistakes.

When you make (or have made for you) a bad buying, pricing or inventory choice those high turning, high selling items balance the scales and hide your mistake.  The business P&L still appears balanced and all is right with the world because there are items offsetting your error.

If there are no sales those mistakes become magnified.  There is nowhere to hide the mistake and you are left with what could be a career ending issue.

Sales motivate your team.

Sales are like a drug.  Each dollar, transaction, swipe of a credit card is its own little high for you and your team.  It makes you want more.  You become motivated to find a way to get more sales or to drive the average ticket.  If there are no sales, it becomes a sad hollow shell of a team.  They slow down, stop caring, pay less attention and sooner than you think have less desire to produce.

Sales put hours on the floor.

There are no staffing hours if you don’t make sales.  In the small business community this is the time that the owner ends up on the floor.  In a big retail store the shareholders don’t often pick up a broom so you end up with staff left disengaged because they are trying to do three things at once without any support to drive profit into someone else’s pocket

Hours on the floor help you sell more stuff.

When there is someone there to read the box to the customer they are more likely to buy it.  When there is someone there to ensure the customer leaves with a complete project of items (eg: brushes and tape with paint) they spend more and are less likely to spend at your potentially closer competitor.  As a perk they often also come back because you treated them well.

Hours on the floor make everyone feel like they aren’t alone.

Even if an associate is run off their feet they will keep going when they see others doing the same thing.

Associates helping customers drive more sales.

It always comes back to this.  In ecommerce great product content, a good FAQ list, quick response to a help email or actually answering the 800 number mean that the customer feels like you took care of them.  They complete their transaction.   In a retail store it can be about being willing to get the ladder, or walk them to the product that makes them engage.

In the end we know that sales make us feel better, but it is taking care of the customer that truly drives sales.

Retail success both online or in store is about a few simple tactics.

Select an assortment that fits your customer’s needs

Be in stock

Be priced competitively

Take care of the customer

You don’t need to have the sexiest system, the best floor plan or website.  You have to know what they are looking for and work to fulfill those needs.

That means that sometimes you might need to sweep the floor or move the box to get the sale

What does a happy customer mean to your business?

A happy customer is so much more than one that doesn’t complain to you.  Happy customers tell stories and recommend you quietly to their friends.  They renew contracts and look to you as a leader in your industry.  They are a revenue and PR source for your business, but they are not the only customers you have.

Everyone has had a customer complain and demand things.  Everyone knows that there are also unhappy customers out there that just seethe quietly and wait for the contract they have to expire.

BUT… this is your chance.


Make them happy.

Change their minds.

I’m not talking about offering them discounts on the next chunk of money they need to spend with you.  I’m talking about improving what they already have with you.  Possibly improving what they have already paid you to do.

If you are selling a service, don’t sit comfortably on your laurels.  Improve the service.  Ask for feedback.  Implement the feedback.  Thank the people who gave you this chance-publicly if possible-for giving you their opinions that were able to improve your business for others.

Ok, you also know that there are customers who are unhappy and complain.  Some people are just complainers, while others really have a valid issue.

Over the span of my life I have experienced complaints of all kinds.

  • The complainer with no friends:

This is a person who really just needs someone to hear their beef and tell them you understand.  They aren’t really looking for discounts or freebies, they want to voice their issue and be offered a solution if one exists.  I find these are also the same customers that want you to read the box to them when they are looking to make a purchase.  Do your best to help them; even if it means telling them to unplug the system and restart; they are likely to become overnight advocates.

  • The complainer looking for solutions:

This customer really just wants you to fix their problem.  They usually have a valid point that needs correction.  Likely they have already read your FAQ’s and looked over your site for a way to fix their own issue and have only complained as a last resort.

Note:  These are customers you can turn into ADVOCATES if you are good to them.  Take care of their needs and use their issue as a way to improve your business.  If you can implement some of their changes make sure they know you learned from their criticism.

  • The complainer with a cause:

Their cause is 100% themselves.  They want something for nothing and are willing to threaten you to get it.  Likely you have all heard the “I have a zillion twitter followers and they are going to boycott you” threat.

I have a mixed opinion about how to take care of these guys, but have settled on a three step approach.

  1. Always listen to their feedback.  Do unto others…think of your karma.
  2. Validate their complaint as though they weren’t opening with a “What are you going to do to take care of me?”  Beyond their desire to gain from a challenge, there may be a chance for you to learn from this.
  3. If you can fix their issue do so, if you can’t because it is from the land of unicorns explain that and offer them a refund.  Void their contract.  Do what whatever you have to do to end the relationship NOW (I can hear your shock and awe).  In the long run breaking up with a customer is sometimes the best thing you can do.  Their only public complaint when you follow this process is “They couldn’t make me happy so they gave me back my money.”

This isn’t a real complaint.  Their zillion twitter followers won’t care, and in the long run you won’t deal with a barrage of complaints from the land of unicorns on a monthly cycle because they want their free stuff fix again.

Each and every customer complaint is a chance to improve your product or service.  Don’t approach them as something that you have to avoid.  Look to them as something that will make both you and your business better.

Getting new customers and clients is hard (and expensive) work.  Put the same level of effort in making your existing customers happy as you do in new customer engagement and you are going to have more business than you know what to do with.

I have talked about great online service in the past you can hear about my awesome rollergirl.ca experience here.   Service so good I’ve gone back more than once and personally talk people into buying from them.