Part 2 : You need to know what your competitors are selling, but is it ethical to pretend to be a customer? Is it worthwhile to hire a secret shopper?
In the August/September issue of FURNITURE WORLD we looked at the reasons why every retail furniture store and each salesperson needs to know more than just their own product selection, services and pricing. This second installment looks into how to go about shopping the competition effectively and, at the same time, professionally.
To start with, I am not in favor of sneaking into our competitors’ stores incognito, alone or with someone else posing together as a couple looking for furniture. It is not naiveté that moves me to oppose shopping incognito, for while it is true that a couple shopping incognito has the added advantage of testing the manner in which salespeople and other personnel in a given store normally treat their customers, I object to shopping incognito on two grounds.
In the first place, the main purpose of shopping the competition is not to ascertain how well our competitors treat their customers. Personally speaking, I find that bit of information of little if any value, unless yours happens to be the kind of store that gets its jollies knowing how bad the competition’s customer service is. All each store really needs to monitor is how well its people treat their own customers.
Nor does a store need to hire incognito shoppers to do that. In addition to post sale surveys and follow-up phone calls, a wealth of information can be derived from informal conversations with customers who are waiting for service.
In the second place, it does seem a bit strange for us to go about testing how professionally other stores treat their customers when we ourselves are willing to act unprofessionally in order to obtain that bit of information.
After all, how professional is it – however effective that ploy might be – to dupe our competitors’ salespeople in order to obtain our end. The highest principle of ethics is that the end does not justify the means. Macchiavelli, of course, found that principle naïve. I do not. As the recent Enron debacle dramatically illustrates, the first slip along the slippery slope of ethical behavior can easily lead to a giant slide, the kind Enron experienced. Big things start out small, the saying goes. Some might think it a trivial matter to dupe a given salesperson into believing the incognito shoppers to be genuine customers; I do not. As one who knows what it means to work on commission, especially on those days when you have only one up all day long, I find it anything but trivial to be willing to dupe that salesperson in order to obtain information.
However, there is another reason I am against shopping incognito. The strategy isn’t necessary. During the years I worked for one company during which I was the first to make President’s Club twelve months in succession, and during the other years in which I sold on commission, I always introduced myself to the salesperson who greeted me when I entered his or her store as a shopper. Never did I experience negative treatment from the salesperson. In fact, I often heard the grateful reply of that salesperson for letting him or her know. By the way, whenever a shopper made himself or herself known to me, I not only welcomed that shopper; I also offered him or her a cup of coffee. One of those shoppers went on to join our ranks. During her interview she stated that the main reason she was joining our company was, to use her very words, “I had never before been made to feel so welcome.”
The main golden rule for shopping the competition is based on the law of reciprocity. (See “Listening To Your Customers,” Parts 1 & 2 from the June/July & August/September 1999 issues of FURNITURE WORLD posted to the Sales Skill Article archives on furninfo.com).
Naturally, the shopper is obligated not to wear out his or her welcome by behaving unprofessionally while in the competitor’s store. It is especially important that the shopper not interfere with customers in that store. Nor should the shopper walk around with a camera of any kind.
If the situation naturally presents itself, it is a good idea to thank the person who greets you and also invite him or her to feel free to visit your store.
But what should you do if later, a manager who decides that she does not want you checking out her store, rudely bids you to leave? Do as that manager bids, without your showing that person any rudeness yourself. As you leave that store, pity that store, for if the manager treats you that rudely, there is a good chance that manager treats his or her staff and other customers in the same way. My mother used to say that the wolf changes the color of its hair, but not its habits.
Never shop a store without a list of objectives. Sauntering about the store without specific objectives is an exercise in futility. As soon as you have conducted your business – shopping the competition is business – leave the store as graciously as you entered it.
These are the simple rules for shopping the competition. Remember that shopping the competition isn’t a nice thing to do; it is a necessary thing to do. Don’t fall for the insipid dictum that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. Ask the sorry woman who didn’t check for breast cancer or the sorry man who didn’t check for prostate cancer if she or he believes that dictum. Finally, get to learn a lot about your competition’s merchandise, its store policies, in short, John F. Lawhon’s Five Groups of Knowledge. The poet Pope was right: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Get to know a lot about your competition.
Trainer, educator and group leader Dr. Peter A. Marino writes extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. He has deep experience as a top salesman, sales manager, corporate trainer and consultant. Dr. Marino has undergraduate degrees in English and philosophy and a Ph. D. in ancient Greek and Latin. His books include “The Golden Rules of Selling Bedding”, “Stop Losing Those Bedding Sales” and “It’s Buying, Silly!” available through FURNITURE WORLD. Questions can be sent to Peter Marino at email@example.com.