What I Say or What I Do

To many retailers customers are a conundrum.

They make or break a business. Every smart retailer on the planet recognises the need to be customer centric, but few understand what that really means. Many talk about putting the customer first and listening to what the customer says they want and yet often there is a massive difference between what customers say and what customers do.

The key is in understanding what customer centric actually means. Customer centricity is a business philosophy focussed on building and embedding the quest for ongoing customer relevance at the heart of the organization. It does not mean putting the customer first as that is a recipe for disaster. It does not mean asking the customer for answers because that is not within their capability.

In a healthy retail business, store staff (the front line) come first because they are the ones who make – or break – the sales. Customers can give us great feedback on issues, problems, likes and dislikes. But 90% of why we buy is unconscious or sub-conscious and the remaining 10% is subject to the vaguaries of individual articulation and interpretation. As Larry Light (McDonalds Global Marketing Director) once said "If a customer can give you business solutions that work you should hire them not interview them".

Richard Branson is quoted as saying "Businesses exist to make people's lives better". The job of the customer is to identify the issues that – properly solved – could make their lives better. Our job as retail professionals is to come up with ideas that solve them profitably. Frequently, behavioural observation is a more powerful tool than listening to what customers say – often because they are unaware of what they actually do themselves.

"Actions speak louder than words" applies to retail as well as any other area of business endeavour. What a customer does is far more important that what they say. While we may feel the need to know the cause as well as the effect from a professional confidence point of view, asking customers to post-rationalise why they do things is fraught with danger. And at the end of the day, while most of us don't know the mathematical equation for gravity, we do know that what goes up comes down.

As retail professionals we really only need to know that if I do this, the outcome will be this. If I provide this, the customer will do this. And that comes not from asking the customer what they think or how they feel but from exploiting the greatest strength of retail. The ability – every day – to be able to confront the customer with in-store options and see how they act.

Create an innovation or improvement. Test it in a real store/s. Measure customer response against a benchmark or control. Analyse for insight. These are four stages of retail improvement that work universally because they focus on what customer's do, not what they say.