Monday, March 1, 2010

The Modern Haberdasher


I am a rare breed of man who is as comfortable in suits as others are in a well-worn pair of jeans. As a result, I tend to burn through them quicker than most. An unfortunate realization, I generally buy them from stores that have “depot”, “wearhouse”, or “factory” in their names. One day I may evolve to purchasing suits from the array of stores that end in apostrophe “s”, but for now, I’m still a bit of a skinflint.

One time, my wife went to one of our neighborhood haberdashers and had four suits held aside for me to peruse later. That evening, the two of us returned to the store where I was greeted by one of the clerks who asked if I needed any help. Out of habit I immediately dismissed him but my wife thankfully stepped forward to tell him we had several suits on hold. He fetched them and we met near the dressing rooms. I tried on each of the suits, subjecting myself to the three-way mirror while my wife editorialized about cut and color. We whittled the selection down to two. Throughout this, the sales person hung back quietly. I voiced some concern over the particular cut of one of the jackets when he finally chimed in with some nonsense about it being very popular now because all the newscasters are wearing them. The extent of his influence on my buying decision was infinitesimal.

As the cashier rung up the final choices I noticed three of the sales staff coagulating near one of the bargain racks, eerily reminiscent of a used car lot. From across the store another sales associate, probably a supervisor, called out, “No clumping. Remember the meeting. Circulate. Circulate.” They quickly scattered with laughter. The gentleman who had “helped” me earlier walked passed the supervisor with a smile and remarked, “Of all the places I’ve worked over the years, this is the only place I’ve been that the sales people actually work.” Pathetic. What sales “work” actually occurred? It was nothing more than demand fulfillment. Now, I may be guilty of turning suits into a commodity, after all my buying criteria tend to be price and overall look and feel. Still, how successful was the sale? I had four suits in my hand but left with two. How could this have been a more effective experience for the store?

At another establishment, where price is commensurate with value, they also value team. The sales person measures me, asks what I’m looking for, gushes over how wonderful I look and what a smart choice I’ve made. He then introduces me to a charming sales associate who suggests a new shirt that can make the interwoven threads of the suit “pop”. She’s right, of course, and what’s the point of a new shirt without a new tie? She offers two, taking the guesswork out of it. Can’t decide? Buy them both and bring one back later. (Like that would ever happen.) What about cuff links, or brass stays to keep those bothersome collars from winging up? In this establishment I am cared for as an intelligent and powerful man, capable of making scores of decisions which are repeatedly validated through the sale. Do I value that? Yes, who wouldn’t? Yet the money I spend on that value-added white glove treatment never fails to make me feel a little worked. Is it all worth the price of an additional suit? Not to me, right now.  This is still old school, because value-add is generally for the benefit of the seller. There’s not much sales work to be done. It’s like an ineffective real estate agent taking a grown man and woman through a house and proudly beaming, “and this is the kitchen.” No kidding, a five-year-old child could figure that out.

Business development is about demand creation. How could a suit sales person be an effective business developer? They would canvas a particular geography, or demographic. Study what is being worn. Know the industry well enough to accurately tell someone his or her size and complementary color scheme. Know the customer’s preference of form or function. Then address the target market with custom tailoring. Perhaps offering cuffing and minor repairs onsite or within an hour. They would know if prospective customers needed suits or casual sports coats. They would know when their clients needed to look especially sharp and respond accordingly.

The sales profession is often maligned. Unfortunately, as happens with the practice of law, faulty practitioners create the perception. Mediocrity disguised as effort. The professional who makes the time to know their client, to truly care about their well being and success, who feels the compulsion to serve, rather than an attitude that they deserve, will far exceed the results of those who still think shepherding customers to their already researched and decide conclusion is hard work.

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