Maintaining eyeball-to-eyeball retailing

The trouble with business success is that its like a computer game – you overcome one set of problems, arrive at a new level and then find that there’s a whole new set of problems to overcome. What’s more, because they are always new challenges, you encounter them with no experience upon which to base your response, so you are perpetually learning on the job. And its a treadmill that once you are on, you can’t get off – every level of success brings new challenges and every solution moves you to the next level.

Organisations in every sector will know what I am talking about and one of the major challenges that becomes bigger with every advance you make is that of just managing the day-to-day of your business. Those of you who know me or who take the time to read my stuff or turn up for my seminars and workshops will know that I’m no fan of routines or bureaucracy, but I’ll be the first to admit that you have to have a way of tackling the ever-growing challenge of the day-to-day. You’ll also know that one of my big things is the impact that apparently insignificant actions, that happen well away from the boardroom, will always have on your overall success.  This also highlights the demand for a way of passing information up and down the chain of command.

It’s a dilemma with a couple of possible solutions. The one favoured in the past and which is still, sadly, adopted by the head-in-the-sand school of management is dictatorship – basically you give nobody the space or the authority to do anything other than what you instruct them to do. The problem with this, as many organisations and a number of countries have spectacularly demonstrated, is that it involves a level of micro-management (and/or a degree of coercion) that no organisation can sustain and even if you succeed in controlling things you are going to miss out on a bunch of valuable and increasingly rare opportunities. The other route is delegation … Agaaaaaaaaaaaah! I can hear the muffled cries from below sand level in boardrooms around the world right now, but if you are one of those to whom this sounds like heracy, there’s no escaping it – its time you went cold turkey on those old habits, put down the stick and find yourself a carrot – yes, as the man said, your future is orange!

I spend a great deal of time in the retail world. One of the things that I have always loved about the sector is that its one of the last bastions of the entrepreneur, where you can actually get stuff done and try new ideas while they are still new. New stuff often represents less of a risk for a retailer than it does to other types of organisation because retailers have eyeball-to-eyeball contact with the customer and therefore understand them better and therefore have maximum scope for making a sale. That’s why when an fmcg company wants to understand customers one of the places they go for insight is the retailers who channel their products.

Retailers are big businesses these days. They have access to an unbelievable volume of data and partners who can analyse it inside-out and tell them the innermost secrets of consumer minds. However, its a two-edged sword. Because they are so big a retailer’s chain of command has lengthened. No longer can it be taken for granted that the folks on their front line have that retail blood, possess the corporate gene or really understand the objectives that you set for them – unless you tell them that is.

Did you ever play Chinese Whispers as a kid? You know, that game where you all stand in a line and the person at one end whispers a message into the ear of the second and the message is passed down the line from there, usually to arrive much changed at the other end? The famous example being “Send three and fourpence …” quoted from the first world war (so Google it!). The same applies to the instructions and customer feedback that is transmitted back and forth between the shop floor and the retail boardroom. Most organisations, retailers included, now acknowledge the need to give their sales people, at least, some discretion at the point of sale. The trouble is that in order to make the right choices the shop assistant needs a load of information and motivation and that’s where most organisations fail.

What I am talking about here is internal marketing. When I started my career in what was called the “Advertising, Marketing and Display Department” of a national retailer I tackled this by introducing a regular (weekly or monthly, I can’t remember) bulletin containing instructions and insights, which we mailed (can’t even imagine doing so now) to every manager of every one of our 100+ stores (that was a big retail chain then!). My contemporary take on this solution is a far more complex integration of things like Internet, direct mail, mobile training workshops and special events, based on my essential tool for all businesses the Full Effect Marketing Brand Model.

Internal marketing for today’s unwieldy companies, if tackled in this way, provides the essential two-way flow of information that’s the stuff of success and absolutely essential to retail and a few other sectors where entrepreneurship still lives. The Full Effect Marketing Brand Model establishes ten critical aspects of the brand, including the Brand Promise that will be an important basis of every decision in every corner of every business and the integrated communications routes that are Full Effect Marketing itself ensure consistency in message (in just the same way that your external communications should). If everybody in your business “gets it”, as they will if this is done properly, the decisions that they make in their every-day functions will be the right ones an you’ll get accurate reliable feedback from the shop floor that in turn will make the decisions you make than much easier.

It may well be that, given the number of employees involved, internal marketing is more complex for retailers than for other types of business, but we have the technology and its really just a matter of understanding how to use it. A typical retail integrated internal marketing campaign might incorporate in-store radio or TV, a LAN or WAN university and direct mail. I recently created a travelling circus for a retailer that took training to the shop floor in a way they had never seen it before and I created a plan for another retailer that involved a radical internal promotion/event that was never launched (due to unforeseen circumstances unconnected to the event) but which was exciting, colourful, competitive, contemporary and above all very educational.

I see signs all the time of retailers who are losing their grip. The ideas that are agreed on in the boardroom are not always being represented on the shop floor. Sure this happens in other sectors too, but for a retailer, building that up-close-and-personal relationship with customers is what its all about. So, get a grip. sort out your internal marketing and let’s not lose it!

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