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CEO of the front counterCEO of the front counter

One of the most basic rules of business is also one of the most often overlooked. You must know what your customer wants in order to succeed. More than that, you need to provide the product or service your customer needs at a price he or she perceives as being a fair exchange. Even better, at a price customers consider to be a terrific deal.

As business owners and operators we intend to do just that, too. It’s our intent to provide high quality products or services at prices that are fair and equitable. However, the effort we put into achieving that goal is often based on little more than our own perceptions and impressions, not hard research. Sometimes we’re right and our business thrives. Sometimes we’re wrong and our business struggles. That’s the nature of going with a gut instinct. The results can be as erratic as the weather.

Fortunately there is a simple, accurate, inexpensive solution to the problem of trying to figure out what your customers want most. Ask them!

Doing a customer survey doesn’t require a team of experts, dozens of data entry workers inputing massive quantities of information, or super-computers to crunch all the collected data. All it takes is a desire to gather useful information and a mechanism to get the job done. You could put a clipboard with a pad of paper and a pen on your front counter. You could ask customers to fill out index cards and drop them anonymously into a box. Or you could make it a point to converse with them on a regular basis.

Consider this true story. In 1930 a young man named George Jenkins opened a grocery store. He opened it directly next door to another grocery store he’d been managing until he felt the ownership insulted him. So he quit, opened a grocery store right next door, and set out with the goal of driving his former employer’s store out of business. He succeeded. Today southerners know the chain that grew from Jenkins’s lone store as Publix. With more than 1,000 stores open across the southeastern United States, it would seem young Mr. Jenkins knew a thing or two about doing business with the public.

Legend has it that Jenkins had seven rules of business that he adhered to religiously and expected his managers to fully embrace. Rule No. 1 was simple, powerful, and has lasting impact. It is this: Be there!

Jenkins wasn’t content to be in the office out back doing the books. Even when his company grew, he didn’t move to the corporate offices and disappear forever into an executive suite. Jenkins bagged groceries. He believed there was no better way to get to know your customer than to interact with them on a personal level. What better way for the president of Publix to get to know what his customers wanted, disliked, or appreciated most than by standing at the end of the checkout bagging groceries for them?

Jenkin’s first grocery store was small, with no modern conveniences, and only a handful of employees. Today, Publix boasts first quarter sales for 2013 of $7.5 billion, proving the point that talking to your customers and caring what they want is a reliable path to success.

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