Focusing on Your Customers

Do you truly provide your customers with the shopping experience that they are looking for? And, if so, how do you know this? We all know that customer service is the number one priority in just about any business. But, there is quite a difference between customer service and knowing what your customer wants. When a store provides excellent customer service, they typically have a strong presence on the floor, are very communicative, helpful, polite and knowledgeable. All of these qualities will most certainly enhance a shoppers experience in your store, but, does this mean that your produce department suits their needs? To truly produce a department that reflects the needs of the shoppers of your community, you must first find out what those needs are. It's easy and tempting to assume that you know your customers very well, after all, you see them quite frequently, have enjoyable interactions with them and even know what they typically put into their shopping carts. What these interactions demonstrate is that you know how they respond to what you have already set up. But, if your customers walked into a "clean slate" how would they set up your produce department? What product selection would they choose; how would the merchandising look; and what type of service would they expect? It sounds pretty basic - to understand exactly what your customers want and then provide it. Amazingly, very few operations actually know what their customers really want.


There are a couple of strategies in place that will allow a retail operation to gain insight into their customer’s wants and needs. One is a customer survey. Survey's can be very helpful in gathering some general information from a large base of customers. The downside to a survey is that they usually require written responses and in our current "rushed culture", it is sometimes difficult to get very detailed information this way. Still, a well-crafted survey can give a store some very valuable information from which they can move forward. Perhaps the most effective (and least implemented) strategy for understanding your customers is to set up a focus group. A focus group is typically a handful of shoppers who come together with key people in your organization and provide interactive feedback on whatever you want to know about how they experience your store. Typically, a focus group session will go for about one to one and a half hours.


To go about setting up such an event you start with a simple flyer (bag stuffer) announcing to your customers that you want their input (quite different than feedback) in order to create a business that can best serve the community. Five regular customers is a good number to select. Typically what works as a nice enticement is to offer a healthy gift certificate to the participants.


The actual event should be held in a relaxed environment (not necessarily the store itself) with food and beverages available. Although key store personnel should be present, none of them (including the store manager) are the best candidates to actually facilitate the process since the focus is on them and their departments. Perhaps someone outside the store operations within the community that everyone knows and trusts. Very simply, you let the gathered group know that you are interested in their most honest input and dialogue about your store and how to improve it. It's important to have a handout of about five or six areas of focus. These may include the obvious; customer service, product quality and selection, cleanliness, pricing, and ease of maneuvering while shopping. Having a representative from the store present whose responsibility it is to take notes on the dialogue will be invaluable.


Once the dialogue begins your role is simply to listen and answer questions. Avoid being defensive. This session is not about you defending what you or your store is trying to accomplish. This session is about clearly understanding what your customers are looking for. The more you can truly just listen and hear their needs, the more productive and valuable the group will be. The biggest mistake people make in focus groups is to try to explain or defend their current positions. Make sure that the participants feel heard by you and your store!


Having a focus session once a quarter can prove invaluable to your operation. Once the session is over then the real work begins. Within a week after the focus session you should come up with an action plan based on what came out of the group. The quicker you implement some changes the better. Realize that quite often, most of the changes that are recommended from these groups do not involve expenditures at all. They simply require a different way of doing things. The only down side to a focus group is if you do not seem to act on what your customers propose. Then, it merely looks like the process is for show. Many successful companies across the world have taken advantage of focus groups to completely turn their businesses around. After all, what could be more valuable, than to know what it is that the people who support your business want.


If you have the resources, there are trained professionals who can help you from start to finish with this project. What I have proposed is a very simple version of a focus group, but still, one that will allow you to gain very valuable information with very little cost. No matter what the state of your financial resources, you can implement this tomorrow! Good luck. It's time to find out what your customers are really thinking!