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Eileen McClelland

How and Why to Hug Your Customers

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LAS VEGAS — Retailer and author Jack Mitchell was in college in 1958 when his parents, Ed and Norma Mitchell, both 55 at the time, opened the first Mitchell’s men’s clothing store, an 800-square-foot space in Westport, CT, where his mom brought in the coffee pot from home and took it home every night to wash it.

He joined his parents and his brother in the business in 1969, after earning a master’s degree in Chinese history. The store grew rapidly and his dad lived to be almost 99 years old.

Over the years, the family business thrived, based on a simple philosophy of treating clients as friends. Now the Westport location sprawls over 27,000 square feet and the family has eight stores and sells jewelry, as well as men’s and women’s clothing. Nearly every member of the third generation is active in the business now.

“Customers are the center of the universe,” Mitchell says. “We have great respect for the product but the driving force in our business is personal customer service. We are all about hiring great people, and then, by the way, we sell clothes, and by the way, we sell jewelry.”

Mitchell wrote the 2003 Wall Street Journal bestseller “Hug Your Customers: The Proven Way to Personalize Sales and Achieve Astounding Results,” after listening to experts at a CEO summit for the clothing business announce that the era of brick-and-mortar was over and that e-commerce would prevail.

As one of the panelists, he had a response to that.

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“I knew that not only would we survive but we would thrive,” he says, “because we do everything to make a personal connection.”

Someone who heard him speak said, “I suppose you’re going to tell us that you hug your customers!”

“I said, `Doesn’t everybody hug their customers? Why else would they come back?’”

Hugging isn’t always literal, though it can be, but as a metaphor it’s the perfect description of how the Mitchell family makes customers feel. Personal touches make customers feel that “they are nice people,” and they want to come back often.

Mitchell is also the author of “Hug Your People: The Proven Way to Hire, Inspire and Recognize Your Employees, Personalize Sales and Achieve Astounding Results.” When Mitchell’s son suggested the family explore the jewelry business, they were able to make it work because the trust had already been built.

“We are one of the largest jewelry stores in Connecticut because our customers trust us,” Mitchell says. “It just works. That’s what we are all about.”

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How to begin to hug everyone

Know your customers’ nicknames and use them.

Pay attention to the details. Deliver purchases. Walk customers to the car.

Find out their important dates and keep track of all details in a POS system. Send hand-written cards and gift certificates for birthdays and anniversaries. At Mitchell’s, 80 percent of big sales are for occasions like birthdays and anniversaries.

Don’t hesitate to open your store up after hours if someone needs something in a hurry.

Identify the top 20 percent of your customers. Mitchell calls this group its “clients” and makes sure everyone knows them by name and reaches out to them regularly. “We try to hug everyone but we focus on the clients – the top 20 percent – and we have a program to turn customers into those clients.”

Really get to know your customers. Start with a goal of getting to know the top 25 and then increase that number incrementally over time.

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Hire for life. At Mitchell’s they’re looking for honest, positive, competent and nice people who have a passion to listen and learn and grow. How do you hire for nice? Usually, you can just tell, Mitchell says. Ask job candidates, “What’s the nicest thing you’ve done for someone lately?”

Get to know your vendors as families, too. Many of them are in family businesses. Know their birthdays. Take them out to dinner when they visit you.

Mitchell’s stopped paying sales staff on commission in an effort to encourage teamwork and discourage barracudas. It worked. Now sales staff is paid generously and is eligible for end of the fiscal year bonuses, too, based on performance reviews. “We pay well, but they sell a lot,” Mitchell says.

Eileen McClelland is the Managing Editor of INSTORE. She believes that every jewelry store has the power of cool within them.

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