10 Questions with Lisbeth Calandrino

Blue-shirt Lisbeth Calandrino is an author, speaker and business strategist focusing on retail sales and web marketing. She’s the author of the new book Red Hot Customer Service: 35 Ways to Heat Up Your Business and Ignite Your Sales. Here, Lis shares her insights on where retail is headed, and what you need to do to stay on board. This interview was first posted on bluepoint0.com.

1. What are your thoughts on the current economic environment and is there an end in sight?

That’s really a double-sided question: Things will eventually get better but if you mean do I think that things will go back to where they were 5 years ago, the answer is no. Many business owners I speak with are waiting for the economy to go back the way it was. This is impossible because the economy five years ago wasn’t very real. Consumers were overspending using their credit cards, not saving money, buying houses that they couldn’t afford. It’s all been brought to a halt. Institutions that we depended upon for strength, such as lending institutions, the car manufacturers, mortgage lenders and many investment brokers have all let the consumer down. We  will never go back to the reckless abandonment of spending. Many people have lost too much: homes, jobs, retirement—and we know who they are. It’s not happening to "them" it’s happening to us or our friends. Think about this, we are the next generation to say, "I remember the good old days." This recession has made everyone from 12 years and up cautious.

2. What can business owners be doing to weather the storm and keep customers?

The first thing is to realize that some things have not changed. Consumers are still looking for true value—the feeling that I got more than I paid and from a person I trusted. These two things are more important than ever and the business owner may have to work twice as hard to make it happen. The most important thing for any business is to have a plan, teach people about the plan and follow through. This may be tough for many business owners because of the consumers' previous pent up demand and their reliance on credit cards. You see any consumer with a credit card could get pretty much what they wanted and they did. As a business owner, you didn’t have to have a business strategy to acquire customers, you just had to open your doors. This lulled businesses into a false sense of security. "Build it and they will come" pretty much worked. The problem was that business owners thought that they were doing something to bring in customers but they weren’t. It was the consumers' ability to get credit and then buy what they wanted. Businesses that had a plan, even though the economy is pretty terrible, they have put their heads down, banded together and stayed focused. There are some areas such as the Detroit area that are pretty much disaster areas and still have retailers that are doing great business while everyone around them is falling apart. They have cut their overhead, found cost effective ways to bring in customers and are moving forward. They have adjusted their pricing and merchandising to meet the consumers demands. One of the keys is not to change your core business and become price driven. If this isn’t your business you are putting yourself in an arena where the competition is tougher, the margins are slimmer and one might not be familiar with the chain to obtain the right merchandise at the same price. The key is to be who you are, add as much value as you can and learn all there is to learn about your industry.

3. Why is it that the Web is still an overlooked part of a typical business' marketing strategy?

The business owner has probably not been involved with the evolution of the web. He was told 10 years ago that he needed a web site, and of course he knew nothing about the web or what it meant. He may not have even had an email account. It was out of his realm of everyday enticing customers. His world consisted of newspaper advertising, radio, direct mail and supporting the local Little League team. Remember he was also very busy. Customers had their credit cards and were just spending. The next thing that happened is he hired someone to build him a web site — not that he wanted to he was told that he needed to — in order to not get behind . He had little to do with the day to day activity  of the site or making changes to the content. It was all managed by someone else which made it easy for business owners to not know what was going on with their site. For some small businesses, the web site was more about pride than it was being involved. The web was very stagnant, more like a yellow pages than anything else. At this point the web and the consumer connection has changed immensely; the consumer is looking for something different such as an interaction and businesses are unprepared to move forward. They don’t know what forward means.

4. What are some challenges you've seen business owners face when it comes to improving their marketing efforts?

The challenges are many. One is to examine their past marketing strategies and look at what is working and what is not working. Rather than continue to do the same things over and expect different results (Einstein’s definition of insanity) and bring a halt to their thinking. It’s wise to look at one’s core customers—who are they, what do they like and where do they hang out.  The consumer isn’t coming out for sales so it’s time to stop running sales and ask, what will they come out for? This takes a true understanding of your customer. If it’s home furnishing most everyone knows that the consumer is female and that they shop much different than male shoppers. I use the analogy if you send a man out for a pair of blue pants what does he come back with? The answer invariably is a pair of blue pants. If you send that same man out for the blue pants with a female he may come back with several pairs of pants, maybe one blue, shoes, several shirts, ties and some cologne. Woman just see the process differently. Once this is established the business owner must begin to think, how do I get this person in my store?

Businesses should look to women for ideas, if they are trying to attract the female customer. It’s really impossible to understand how your consumer thinks unless you have done a ton of research or you actually share the gender. The other thing is to be aware of how this consumer has changed and what they expect.

There once was"push advertising" — when you put the ads out there and the customer has no choice but to see the ad and respond. Well, anyone who has been paying attention to their marketing knows there's something wrong—the customers aren't coming in like they used to. Many blamed it on the economy and continued advertising the same way. A
gain it’s the insanity rul
e, just keep at it and it will change. Consumers had decided that they were fed up with the “push”, it was never about them and turned to what’s known as the “pull.” If I want to get in touch with you I will; if I want to see your ads I will seek you out; if you invite me to “opt in”  via email then you are free to contact me. The customer is tired of not having a voice, they want a voice, they want to be heard. Look at Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn — these mediums allow people t be heard and even seen.

5. What is the number one thing businesses could be doing right now to improve their sales?

Businesses still profit from staying in touch with their past customers and figuring out ways to delight them. A satisfied customer will not necessarily refer a new customer. You know how that is. You go to a restaurant, have dinner, it’s okay, the waiter doesn’t spill soup on you, the food is on time, the price is reasonable and you go home. It’s pretty much what you receive and expect going out for dinner. Do you refer anyone, not necessarily. Let’s say you are greeted at the door by the hostess who has a great smile, makes a fuss over you, “it’s great to see you again,” and " how’s the family?" You feel special, the chef comes out to say hello, spends some extra time at your table and everything else being equal such as food and price, you are pretty happy, feel good and send in a friend. You go home, get a call thanking you for coming, maybe get a coupon for a free dessert and you again feel special. So special you decide to not only send a friend but go with them. You have gone from a customer to an ambassador for the business. Businesses should be creating ambassadors. Calling customers, following up, sending them tokens of friendships and inviting them to bring in their friends. Businesses should create Facebook pages and invite their customers to join them in getting to know their business and share their experiences with their friends—online. They should go to home furnishing sites, paint and flooring sites looking for possible customers and offer an invitation to join them on Facebook and learn more about their product and their friends.

6. In Red Hot Customer Service, you write about allowing customers to tell you how they want to be treated. What do you mean by this?

Consumers have long wanted to be part of the process; no one really ever asked them—only the smart businesses. Years ago no one asked you what you thought or even called you after you bought. In fact it was often said, “no news is good news.” This really wasn’t true — no news was just no news. You didn’t get the accolades, if they were there, or the opportunity to “repair” a relationship if necessary. Customers were just thought of as customers, in some instances just to be tolerated. Someone who complained was considered “a complainer or hard to please.” The business was not interested in fixing, finding our making better. They just moved on to the next one. Smart businesses continue to do online surveys, offer you a free meal if you fill out a survey, ask you to return for a special or just ask you—what do you think? When the customer gives them information they listen, and make changes.

The key is asking your customer what they think and knowing that what comes out of their mouths will be gold. Too often customers' opinions are thought of as opinions rather than the lifeblood of the business. Doing surveys of unhappy or lost customers yields amazing data as does information from customers who absolutely love you. Both will tell you what you don’t do so well and what you could to get better or keep your business. There is nothing so powerful as a customer who has taken their business to your competitor and trashes your store. Many businesses bask in the glory of a customer who says, I was at the Home Depot and they are just awful. Little do they realize that there were probably a dozen or so that left their store last month, went to Home Depot to pick up garbage bags and bought the same product that they looked at in your store, and paid more. This is a result of someone not following up and asking, “what do you think?”

I think that businesses think that customer service is just something that happens. You arrive on time, get the job done and are pleasant—customer service. This is just the beginning, it’s the ticket of admission if you want to play in the world of retail. If you can’t deliver the basics the customer won’t wait around for the end. Their mind is made up and you lose. Unhappy customers who allow you to repair the relationship are your best source of new revenue.

7. Who do you consider to be your role models in today's business world?

Companies that continue to innovate and stay close to their customers. I know Dell has been through a lot but I bought a mini computer from them about a year ago and they continued to call me, ask what I thought and what could they do better. Apple is certainly a leader, it’s obvious that they talked to their customers about the iPhone, made changes for their customers, charged more money and continue to move. The phone has such value that the Blackberry businessman now sees the phone as desirable. Before it was just seen as “their “ phone with pictures and stuff on it. Companies that are very involved with their customers and listen to what they have to say are at the front.

I was amazed to see that Dunkin' Donuts has 350,000 fans on their Facebook, monitor the conversation and offer new products based on their customers comments and preferences.

8. Do you have a favorite quote for times you find particularly challenging?

In 2004  I came down with lymphoma. It was pretty frightening going from feeling great, to maybe a little tired and then finding out you have a rare blood disease  – one with very little research done on it. I kept wondering how I'd get through this, what will I be like afterward. It was at that point I started reading about Lance Armstrong. I could really relate to his book, "It’s Not About the Bike." Being an athlete, I really understood what it was like to want to work out as hard and push yourself even if it hurt. Daily I would try to get on the treadmill and say to myself, "it’s not about the bike, Lis, it’s about your life." If he could do it I could do it or I would give it everything I had. For years I ran 7-10 miles a day in the worst weather, hail or rain and would have to get in bed with the electric blanket on. People thought I was crazy but it was all about pushing myself past the pain. I think things really start to change when you push past the pain. That’s when real progress occurs.

I think it's very important it is to have a connection to one’s body. Keeping it strong, feeding it well and giving it enough rest. It needs caring and exercise and good nutrition is very important. I am very conscious of what I eat, count my fruit and veggies as well as my intake of calcium and protein. It doesn’t take away from the joy of eating but I am aware of what I eat and the effects on my body. I
want to be able to maximize my body and my mind as long as I am on earth.

9. You travel a lot for business. What are a couple places you love going to and why?

I have several favorite places — all for different reasons. I was brought up in a desolate part of New York state on a wonderful lake in the Berkshire mountains. I love tiny charming towns  such as Colorado Springs which also brings the old west culture, horses, the outside and of course the beautiful Native American jewelry and rituals. I contrast this with New Orleans with its theater, art and Creole background and Zydago music. I love the French influence and the Cajun people. New Orleans and its people still have a great deal of energy despite their struggles. I also love to visit health clubs when I am in a city; I guess I’m a gym rat at heart. My favorite time is to visit factories or farms, to me it’s like a living museum. I loved the BMW plant, the Sunkist Raisin plant and my visit to the Louisville Slugger plant. I even took a tour at the Hellman’s plant. I guess the most fun I had was the Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam, Holland. I  have a lot of admiration for businesses with strong mission statements, prideful workers and a culture that is all about excellence.

10. What are your next steps?

I am always looking at a venue for my energy. People always say, where do you get it and what do eat. It’s part of who I am; for good and bad it’s what keeps me in touch with myself and the world. I get excited about new things, my acting and speaking classes and learning in general. Learning and education are probably my highest values. I love writing and speaking and helping people get in touch with the part of themselves that truly represents who they are and makes them unique.

I have become very interested in writing, I actually never thought I was that good but I love blogging and connecting with my readers. Both my mother and aunt wrote articles for a magazine called True Romance. I shudder to think that there is one of them lurking in my head.

I think my next step maybe more introspective and thoughtful about my place on the planet. I have become very interested in the area of micro-lending to cottage industries in other countries.

I am working on a series of marketing applications that combine traditional ways of attracting customers as well and the power of the internet. Oh and yes, to spend more time on a jet ski and wind surfing.

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