Retail Podcast 409: Richard Shapiro on Creating Human Connection
Bob Phibbs interviewed Richard Shapiro, founder and president of The Center for Client Retention. In this episode Bob and Rich talked about mastering client communication.
Tell me something good about retail
Richard Shapiro on Creating Human Connection
Bob: Why retail? Let's start there.
Rich: Sure. Well, you know, I was very fortunate that I grew up in retail. My dad owned a small men's clothing store in Northern New Jersey and starting at age eight I worked there every Saturday and every holiday like Christmas and Father's Day. So, you know, retail has always been very exciting to me.
I did end up working for a startup at the time called ADP. Many of the lessons that I learned at ADP, which are all about, you know, customer retention and increasing market share from your existing customers are certainly very applicable to also increasing, you know, wallet share from your consumers. And, in the last five or six years, I've written two retail books.
Now I teach a retail course at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and I'm a retail consultant and also research retail trends. So, I'm back to retail after a short, probably 30-year-gap in my career, but I just love it and I think it's a great spot to be in.
Bob: So, let's go back. You started off with your dad's men’s store, and so, starting at eight, I would hope you weren't waiting on gentlemen trying to buy a suit, but, what was it that you think you learned at that time by watching how your dad did business there in your New Jersey store?
Rich: Right. Bob, that's an excellent question.
Well, number one, yes. I wasn't actually a salesperson at the time. I was the cashier. And the beauty of that is the cash register was centered in the middle of the store. So, I could view every interaction that my dad had with customers. And three important lessons that I learned is, number one, my father viewed all customers as people first, customers second.
You know, let me repeat that. He viewed all customers as people. We're all people, whether it's your neighbors, your kids, your parents, your students we’re all people first. The second lesson I learned is that, my father welcomed everybody into the store just like he'd welcome them into our home.
You know, to my dad, the store was just an extension of our home, another place to make people feel welcome. And the last thing I learned, which is really tied into my business today is my father taught me the importance of, and how to create an emotional bond with each customer from day one. And today in retailing, it doesn't matter whether it's a brick and mortar store or an eCommerce site, it's important in both of those channels to make sure that you think of ways of creating a relationship and maintaining that relationship.
Bob: Well, I think that's really true. And you know, I was fortunate. I started in retail, well, not as young as you, but I put myself through college selling shoes and my very first job, I was probably like, I don't know, 16 or 1,, and I learned from the old ladies, the blue hairs, and you know, my training was two weeks before I ever got on the floor.
And they made this big point that the customer's the most important person and everything stops when they walk in the door. And so, I think both of us have that, that was modeled for us. But let's face it, retail in 2020, I don't think you would see that out there even modeled, would you? So, so how do we start to kind of get that idea that it's about somebody else other than your phone first?
Rich: Yeah. Well, you know, that's a good point. I think, listen, I developed in my second book, which is The Endangered Customer, eight steps to guarantee repeat business. You know, I did develop this eight-step process, which are all tied into human emotions.
And, you know, the reason why it's important to think of us all as people are that even though there's eight steps, they kind of fall into three basic, you know, emotional components of hope, trust and intimacy, and pretty much, you know, no one walks into a retail store or clicks on a website unless they're hoping something can happen. And you know, it's so important that that first interaction, whether it's on an eCommerce site or it's on a telephone, or it's a face to face walk in, that you deliver that hope, or at least you give the customer the hope that you're going to be able to, you know, help them. Cause that's what customer service and retailing is all about - helping the customer find what they're really looking for.
Bob: Well, and to build on that, when you don't do that right, you extinguish the hope. And I think that's what a lot of people don't realize about websites. A friend of mine was telling a story about how she went on Target's website just to find Oil of Olay, like her grandmother used to. There were three pages, Rich, and she got so bogged down in it. She just clicked out. And to that point she just lost hope, right? To be able to make this a simple decision.
Rich: Right, right. So, before I get to the other two, I just want to, you know, relay something to you that I think is very appropriate. And I talk about this in my class a lot. Unfortunately, my wife and I both lost our spouses in about 2009, 2010. But we're very fortunate to meet each other on Match.com, which is a dating site. And I often tell my students and clients that when companies think of creating their website, they really should do it as if it was kind of a dating site.
In other words, certainly you would never connect with a person unless you saw their picture, unless you knew something about their background. So, it's so important to think of any eCommerce site as getting the customer to want to engage with you before they ever want to buy with you. You know, in retail, brick and mortar, you'd never have a sign on, or I don't think you'd ever have a sign on the outside of your door saying, “Don't come in if you're not ready to buy.”
But that's basically what you're telling eCommerce visitors to your site when you don't have a telephone number, when you don't have a Contact Us, when you don't have a live chat agent, you're basically telling the customer, “Don't do business with us if you're not ready to buy right now.”
Bob: Well, and you haven't evolved, right? That might've been fine 20 years ago when your website was little more than a brochure we put up online. But today it’s being available and making it easy, right?
Rich: No, absolutely. And, you know, I was at a retailer in Miami. We spend part of our time in Miami or Fort Lauderdale area and part in New York.
So, I went to a manufacturer that's doing very, very well. It's Anatomie. They're actually in the travel light business where they make these garments for women that - and my wife now that she is familiar with the firm, loves it - that are all coordinated, that you can wash yourself and they dry in five minutes and they never wrinkle.
And, when I spoke to the owner Cade, and I'm sure she'd be happy to share the story, she did have a telephone number. They are extremely service oriented. They have the best customer service, but they have a telephone number on the site, which was the first step. And I said, “Well, why is that telephone number on the site?”
And she looked at me like, “Well, what do you mean? It's for people to call.” And I said, “Well, it doesn't really tell the people to call.” I said, “If somebody sees an 800 number and they think the only reason they'd be calling that 800 number is to buy something, then you're discouraging prospects. So, change the terminology to say, ‘Please call us with questions and actually please call Patty or Rochelle,’” because that's who normally answers the phone. So, make it personalized and encourage customers or prospects to call, even if they're not actually ready to buy at the time.
Bob: Well, but to build on that, that you were thinking like a customer, like just putting the number up there wasn't enough. It's being able to say “Call for” to make it easy. And I guess that also fits into your idea of hope. What was your second part of after we've got the idea of hope when we're interacting with people, whether online or in a brick and mortar store?
Rich: Sure, and just one other thing tied into that hope is I always tell retailers that no matter what somebody is asking for, whether it's over the phone or brick and mortar, always say, “I can help you with that.” The “I” happens to be one of the strongest words in the English language, one of the shortest words, and most impactful.
So, by saying “I” that gives the customer hope. Now the person might have to refer them to their boss or even refer them to a competitor. But when someone says, “I can help you with that,” it fulfills that hope. The second one is trust. So, once that person starts talking about their background and their knowledge and shows you maybe stock, you know, you start to build trust that that person can help you and maybe that person can help you on the transaction.
But the last part is the intimacy. In other words, how do you show the customer that you care about them after the transaction is over? And a lot of retailers fail on that. You know, sending somebody junk emails every day, I'm going to call them junk, with specials and promotions, that doesn't show the customer that you really care about them.
So it's hope, trust and intimacy. You know, if you use a good CRM platform and you train your people well and you give them time to communicate with customers after the sale, it's definitely going to help increase their percentage of repeat business.
Bob: Well, and ultimately you're building on that trust and then saying you're not just a transaction, right? You're a relationship, so I'm going to treat you differently than, “Oh, great, Rich, you bought those garden gloves. I'm going to make this offer just for you.” Thirty percent off power tools along with 3 million other people isn't going to resonate as much as somebody who knew that you had a project, let's say, and was able to just say, “Thanks for your business and let us see the garden in the spring.”
It could be as simple as that. I think that's what we've, I think we've made it so hard these days to realize that just even a personal text from someone that just says, “It was great to meet you and I look forward to hearing your results,” is enough because you've used that “I” word again, right?
I mean, it's simple, isn't it? It doesn't have to be really complex.
Rich: No, it's not. And to your point too, you know, and I know they changed it, but in 2015 my wife and I had never gone on the Saks Fifth Avenue site. We were looking for a wedding gift, which we had wrapped by SAKS.
It was a wedding gift, and we bought these beautiful Georg Jensen candlesticks. And every day. I'm not exaggerating, every day for four years. Saks Fifth Avenue would be sending us or sending me, it was under my name. You know, ads and emails for skirts and dresses and blouses.
It was only, I would say about three or four months ago that all of a sudden somebody, I guess, woke up and started sending us specific emails about Georg Jensen items. So, but why did it take them four years plus, you know, to figure it out? It just doesn't make sense. So, when you target and make it very special to whatever the sale was, that also shows the customer that you care, it's a good indication and a good way to get that customer back in that category.
Bob: Yeah. Now you're also an educator, so you're there at FIT in New York and, shaping the minds of the new retailers of the world. Is there a disconnect between people who are learning about retail in general and people who are actually in retail right now, meaning the boutique owners that are already there?
Is there a difference in the two mindsets do you think? And is there a way to bridge that or is it fine to be two different types of people?
Rich: Well, I happen to be teaching a continuing education course. So, the students are like 25 to 35. So, you know, it's a mixture in the class. Most of the students buy things online, I would say, except a lot of them go to places like Sephora or they go to Zara.
But when I looked down at the floor and they're wearing all sneakers, my next question is, well, where did you buy those sneakers? Did you buy them online or did you buy them at a brick and mortar store? And every single one will always tell me that they buy them in a brick and mortar store.
So, I think if you have the right kind of product, whether you're a millennial or a baby boomer or whatever it is, you're still going to go into the store probably at some point. And the whole point of trying to build the emotional connection is to connect with that customer so they come back.
In my book, everybody is a real person. They're all real stories. But the only name that I wasn't able to use was my wife's daughter. I won't say it now. Or shall I say it anyway? Christie is a corporate attorney and she had a baby and she was buying everything online.
And of course, my wife was the one who was returning the things to J. Crew and Gap and everything else. But then she had a baby and she was going back into the corporate world to be an attorney and she needed new outfits. And she walked by this boutique on the Upper East Side, you know, just a mid-level store.
And as soon as she walked in, she happened to have the baby with her in a stroller, and the woman said, “Oh, look around, I can hold the baby.” And you know, two hours later she'd bought 10 outfits and she kept all 10. So, I think no matter what the age is, if you have an opportunity, if you get that golden gift of somebody actually walking to your store, then you need the right people to help create that relationship.
And certainly, I am totally against the Amazon Go Cashierless store. I think that's a big mistake. Even a cashier can make a tremendous difference in trying to build the relationship.
Bob: So yeah, that is a great story because, I maintain anyone that walks into your store is invested. People aren't walking into stores randomly anymore. You know, the lookers are all online, right?
We look online, we decide if that's what we're going to do. I want to get this one thing. It's a certain microphone. It's certain speaker, whatever. So, I'm educated as I go out, but anyone that walks in a store these days and doesn't convert, I always say it's your fault. Would you agree with that?
Rich: No, absolutely. And, I know that you're focused on stories, and one of the key learnings that I teach my students are, you have to uncover the story behind the purchase. And I did a panel discussion for the Accessories Council, and I also did one for Accessories Magazine and Lauren Parker was the editor and I was doing a panel for her at the Javits Center.
And she was mostly asking me questions about my book, and she said, “You know what, Richard?” and she told the audience, “You are 100% right. I was going to go on a photo shoot and I needed a new outfit. So, I went to a store and I picked out what I thought was the perfect outfit, and the gentleman said, ‘Why are you buying this outfit?’” You know, who was covering the story? And she said, “Well, I'm going on a photo shoot. And he said, ‘Well, this outfit is not going to look good on a photo shoot.’” And she said, “If he hadn't asked me that question, I would have bought the wrong thing and it would have been a big mistake.”
Bob: See, I think that's, to me, that is the key between a great salesperson and someone who does the job, because a great salesperson realizes that I have to challenge the customer at this point. Right? And that's a gift to the buyer because to your point, you go on a photo shoot and it looks bad.
If you don't know that ahead of time, there's no backup story. Right. She couldn't just say like, “Oh, well, I also have this outfit.”
Rich: Absolutely. And it's not that hard. Of course, you know, it boils down to not only having enough people in the store, but, in my first book, The Welcomer Edge, I categorize everybody into four categories: welcomers, robots, indifferents, and hostiles.
And of course, the welcomers are people like my dad is the customer as a person first. And welcomers, when I interviewed them to find out why they were so good at selling, they all had a history, number one of helping people. They were tutors, they were nurses, they were teachers. You know, maybe their family worked in soup kitchens.
And the other thing is they all had a sense of curiosity. If you don't have a good sense of curiosity to know why, what's the story or why they're buying something or talking about their baby or their dog, or what kind of shirt they have on if they're a young person, you know, the sports store or something, I think you're missing a big point. And if you can hire people who are welcomers, they're naturally going to engage and create great relationships with their customers.
Bob: I couldn't agree more with that. Because you've now tweaked my interest here, I’d love to hear about the hostiles.
I mean indifferent is one side, but I like that you actually put it because there, I think there are people, let's call a spade a spade. There are people that are hostile because they don't like working in retail. They don't like people and yet people put them on the floor. Or worse, they've been there for 20 years because, well, she'll show up every day at 10.
It's like, that's not a good thing.
Rich: Bob, you know, you're right. There's two parts to that question. Number one, I always say, well, hostiles not only are nasty to customers, they’re also nasty to their coworkers. That's number one, cause they're just mean and nasty people. And the second thing, I will sometimes or more often get the question from students, “Well, can a hostile be turned into a welcomer?”
And the answer is, “No.” But the corollary to that is that sometimes welcomers can be turned into indifferents or, I wouldn't say hostiles, but I've seen so many cases where someone starts off in retail and they are definitely a welcomer and they like to engage, and they have a terrible boss who's disrespectful of them and talks down to them and doesn't appreciate all the things that they do and that welcomer can turn into, certainly an indifferent, they wouldn't turn into a hostile.
Yeah. So that, that's a shame. And that's a big part of retail too. You need someone who's really going to motivate and bring your people up, not bring your people down.
Bob: Well, that brings me to a point I always say is people don't quit businesses. They quit managers. Because the feeling that they have to work with, really does tend, you know, if you don't make the employee's day, I don't think you're going to make the customer's day.
Right? I mean, that simple.
Rich: No, absolutely. And I'll tell you, when I was writing my first book, I tried to interview as many welcomers and their bosses as possible. And there was this one welcomer, it was at Equinox gym where I went at like at 5:30 every morning. And this woman was amazing. I mean, at 5:30 in the morning, she'd give you the biggest smile.
If you missed a day, she'd find out why. And, I finally got a chance to speak to her boss and her boss basically, you know, he didn't really want to talk to me. And then two days later I walk in and she's there, but there's someone else that's also there. And she said to me, “You know what? They just changed my hours from full time to part time.”
I said, “What?” And not only was the person who was going to replace her just a different person, he was like a security guard. So, if it was raining out at 25 after five, she’d let everybody in. But this guy actually was looking at his watch until 5:30 if it was pouring or cold out and he wouldn’t let anyone in. So, unfortunately, there's a lot of stories like that, but there's also a lot of good stories as well.
Bob: Yeah. Good. So, do you have any advice for retail owners, like three of your top tips. We obviously want them to read your new book, but what would be three things that you think, somebody could actually drop everything, write down three things, and actually put into practice this week to have a better operation.
Rich: Don’t say “No.” “No,” which happens to be a two-letter word, is the biggest killer of loyalty. You know, people get very frustrated when they hear “No,” and no matter how long someone has been a customer, when you say “No,” you're basically telling them that you don't want to do business with them.
And “No” is not getting back to them, saying we can't do this, or it's our policy or things like that. You know, good retailers and good businesses always figure out a way to say “Yes.” And most of the time you can say “Yes.” And the other thing that I would say to that before getting to the other two real quickly, is if you have to have to say “No,” never say “No” on the spot.
Say, “Let me get back to you. Let me check.” Because people appreciate that too. The other thing is, I was on a panel with Cameron Silver, who wrote a book, Decades. And he opened his first store in Rodeo Drive, for selling vintage clothes. And his closing remark was, “Use handwritten notes.”
There's no substitute for a handwritten note. And the last thing is, I would say, getting back to the website, cause so many people do have websites that are not friendly. I love to have pictures of people on websites. I love to have the Contact. I love to have it on the right. I never ever want the customers to search, you know, for a telephone number or a Contact Us page at the bottom of the site.
It just doesn't make sense. So, I would say, you know, don't make it difficult to speak to a customer either in a brick and mortar store by having an answering machine, or on an eCommerce site. And don't say “No” to customers, especially for your best customers. And for new customers or major purchases, write that handwritten note.
Bob: See, that's great because I think an awful lot of people think there is some shiny object out there that makes the difference and quite simply it is going to be being brilliant on the basics, which while people may get older or they might be younger, ultimately if it's not more human in an increasingly technological world, I think they're going to miss the boat.
So that brings me to the end with my final question, my friend, and tell me something good about retail.
Rich: I think there's a lot of opportunities for retail because if you look at all these malls and everything for specialty retailers who really know how to serve the customer and hire the right people and give them the tools, I think retail is going to continue to survive.
But whether it's a big company or a small company, I always tell them, “Think small.” You know, if you're a huge corporation, break things into teams and make sure your people, if they can't get ahold of one specific person, they're just speaking to another four or five that know each other.
So. Work in a team, keep it small. Don't think of yourself as a large corporation. Think of yourself, just like my dad, where it's, you know, one store and you have customers coming back all the time.
Bob: Perfect. Well, how do we find out more about your company, Rich?
Rich: Sure. Well, the company is The Center for Client Retention, and my website, you know, is the same letters. It's TCFCR, but I'm also on LinkedIn. I write a lot of blogs. I usually trend under Richard Shapiro on LinkedIn. It's pretty easy.
Bob: Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us today, Richard, and I look forward to hearing more of your insights and reading those on LinkedIn and your new book.
Rich: Thank you very much, Bob. I appreciate the opportunity.