Furniture sales are strong, but retailers have an opportunity to build something more durable, Jeanne Bliss said: emotional bonds with their customers.
Bliss spoke with Home Furnishings Association CEO Mark Schumacher in an HFA Live webinar Oct. 8. She is founder of CustomerBliss, consulting with C-Suite executives of major corporations around the world about earning growth by improving customers’ lives.
That has never been more important.
“There’s never been a time like this in our lives.” She said. “A time in our life that we’ll always remember. I think that’s especially important for you and the work you do. People are trying to create a safe, safe space, a nest, a home. And your purpose actually becomes so much more important. You’re not delivering a couch, you’re delivering a peace of mind.”
Bliss has worked building positive customer experiences at Land’s End, Coldwell Banker, Allstate and Microsoft. But she’s also been building on lessons gleaned from childhood.
Lessons from father’s Buster Brown shoe store
“I learned about humanity early in life by watching my dad in his Buster Brown shoe store,” she said. “He shoed a generation of children and his children’s children, and just like the work that you do, he became a part of the story of people’s lives. He put their very first pair of shoes on. Remember back in the day when we got a fancy pair of shoes for Easter? He put them on. For all these occasions in life, my dad was there.
“It was not just about the shoe. It was about the life and how he cared for you and remembered you. … When he retired – Mark, I love this story – a line of people three blocks long stood to say goodbye to him, (because) buying shoes would never be the same. They couldn’t imagine that part of their life without him. And that’s really what I’m urging people to do. Find your three blocks long.”
The sofa isn’t only a sofa if a family is spending much more time at home, and the kids have had to sit on the floor. It changes their lives. And, when life has been so challenging, furniture retailers have an opportunity to mark that sofa in a family’s memory as something that helped them get through it.
Understanding customers requires fearless listening
Connections are made through listening, Bliss said. Understanding customers begins with asking your employees. “Ask them what’s happening out there. … Do the fearless listening with your customers, too. Bring them in and, this is bravery, I call it leadership bravery … you’re not always going to get what you want but, guess what, you are going to get so much credit for being the leader who was willing to sit there and ask with your heart open and your mind open.”
This can be done remotely, of course.
“What’s really cool about Covid, and it’s a weird statement, is it gives this opportunity to really flex our humanity,” Bliss said. “Sit on a couch, wear a sweater, let people dial in and ask how their families are. Ask what they need. … How can we help you?”
Unfortunately, the Covid crisis also creates problems – such as short supplies, unpredictable deliveries and long wait times – that can spoil the customer experience and put retailers in line for complaints. Don’t dodge them, Bliss advised. Don’t pass the buck by blaming your supply chain. Own the problem. Admit it and apologize.
“Then do something more that creates a memory in that moment,” she added. “It doesn’t have to be about giving away something. … Just think of it as you chipped away a little bit at your credibility. You chipped away a little bit at their feeling about you. What is the salve? … It has to sound and feel sincere. It’s just the humanity of it. Have a team of customer rescue artists. Give them some kind of hug, whatever your version of a hug is.”
Hard times should bring out your best
Hard times should bring out a company’s best.
“Going back to 9/11 and the financial downturn,” Bliss said, “the companies that prospered out of them and recovered the quickest did so because they shifted, not what they did but how they did it. Their communication, their people. If you have to disappoint someone, you can do it in a way that makes you show up differently than the others.”
It can be inserting fun and flair into relationships with customers.
“Find your personality and your tone in this, and have at it,” she said. “We’re all looking for a little joy in this, so find the joy. You can put it on the top of your website.”
Again, Bliss referred to early lessons.
“The whole point of customer experience is you show up differently in the marketplace. You’re an elevated kind of company, you perform differently, you do different things. Your employees are watching right now, and they’re making judgments about you. What kind of people are we? Are you letting me live – and I learned this from my dad and my mom – what I call congruence of heart, what we know is right, the way we’re treating people in business?”
Employees must feel supported, too
It’s not only about customers, she warned. This is a stressful time for employees, too. They need to feel supported.
“Are you a caring company? That will only happen if you care for your employees first.”
Furniture retailers carry responsibilities as they take advantage of opportunities, Bliss said.
“It’s so fascinating to me the power you have in your hands right now because you’re feathering the nests of the only safe things we have in our lives.”
Customers will long remember how they do.
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