Everything old is new again—or so they say. I am not sure if that is true about most things, but I do know it is true about retail. As the retail landscape becomes more competitive, in order to win it has become critical for retailers to trade on what has made them successful in the past: great customer service.
There is much buzz about supply chain, endless aisles, and omnichannel… but at the end of the day, the retailers that win are the ones that meet and exceed their customers’ expectations. For years, retailers have been chasing shiny objects in their unending pursuit of sales growth.
However, many retailers would immediately see success if they just stole an idea that is as old as retailer itself—clienteling.
What is Clienteling?
While you may not be familiar with the term, you are familiar with the concept. Clienteling is simply relationship-building with key customers that takes into consideration information about their preferences, behaviors, and purchases. Clienteling is what the best sales people have been doing for years.
In 18th and 19th century America, retail was often identified with the town general store. It was not uncommon for a proprietor to open a general store with certain merchandise but over time completely overhaul what he sold. Why did this happen? The short answer is clienteling.
Clienteling throughout history
General store owners quickly realized that if they asked their customers questions about needs and wants and took meticulous notes, they would be better able to serve the customers. Not only could they ensure that they had the right merchandise, but they could also make suggestions about new products. In essence, they knew that retail was not just about selling, but about relationships too.
Fast forward to the 1950s when commission sales started to take root in America. Not long after, the “black book” was born and sales people started being compensated only on what they sold. The best sales people, much like the best general store owners, would keep meticulous notes about their customers and would make sure to tailor their sales presentations for each customer.
Leap ahead another 50 years and smartphones have become ubiquitous. Great salespeople, whether you know or not, are taking notes and communicating with your customers via phone, text, and email. However, most organizations are only seeing the value in increased revenue but are missing the boat on the rich customer data that is being gathered and shared.
In the 1950s, companies worried about what would happen if their best salesperson left for a competitor. In the 2010’s, for most organizations, the worry is the same. While the concept of clienteling is as old as retail, the tools to facilitate it are continuing to be improved. Whether it is an in-store CRM, an assisted sales tool, or mobile check out, there are many solutions out there that not only make it easier to build relationships, but that also provide rich data.
How to apply clienteling today
What the general store owners and others in the past were keying in on was relationship-building. They knew if they understood their customers’ wants and needs, they would be better equipped to manage their inventory and drive revenue. So how did they accomplish this? By asking questions and keeping meticulous notes and ledgers, and then guarding their “black books” as closely as their own most personal secrets.
For retailers today, having salespeople who understand the importance of relationships is a huge win. Those salespeople should continue to be encouraged. The ones that don’t have their own black books should be gently prodded to start one.
Organizations that pride themselves on training salespeople to build relationships should also pride themselves on arming their salespeople with the best tools to do so. Not only do your salespeople expect it, but so do your customers.