Tuesday, October 06, 2009


This article originally appeared in The National Networker

How often do you interact personally with your customers? Whether it’s working directly with them, speaking to them on the phone, visiting their offices. If you’re not in regular direct contact there’s a good chance it’s impacting on your ability to either upsell to them or to inspire them to refer you.

A couple of weeks ago I Chaired The Retail Conference in London. One of the speakers was Hamish Paton, the Commercial Director of Brighthouse Stores.

Despite having a presence across the UK, Brighthouse may not be a name you recognise. You won’t find a Brighthouse in the main shopping centres or streets of any of our major cities. Instead, their stores are situated in the suburbs, within three miles and easy access of their main customer base.

Location genuinely is vital for Brighthouse, because their customers need to visit them every week. In a business model more common to the US than the UK, Brighthouse customers purchase products and pay for them on a weekly basis over a period of time, normally three years, without the need for credit checks.

With the theme of the Conference being responsiveness and adaptability, it was no surprise when one of the questions directed at Hamish after his presentation was whether Brighthouse had considered changing their model with the times, bringing in monthly payment by Direct Debit or internet purchase.

Russell’s response was very interesting. Brighthouse had considered such moves but had dismissed them for two reasons.

The first is that the Direct Debit/Monthly payment market is very different and one where Brighthouse don’t necessarily understand the customers and their needs as well as they do their established market. They currently service a much needed niche and feel that it is better to build on their expertise than try to dilute it through diversification.

Secondly, Hamish sees tremendous value in the weekly connection with their customers.

“Our staff are counselors”, Hamish told the Conference. “They get to know their customers well and if someone misses a payment, the first thing they will do is work with them to get them back on track.

“If someone doesn’t turn up one week we will call them to find out what the problem is and see how they can be helped. That personal relationship is absolutely vital and we wouldn’t be able to provide the same service, or enjoy the same interaction, if people paid automatically through Direct Debit.”

After Hamish’s response, I asked him how much of Brighthouse’s business comes through up selling to existing customers. The answer was an astonishing 80%, a particularly impressive statistic when you consider that Brighthouse advertise on prime time television, including a sponsor slot on the Australian soap opera Home and Away.

Equally revealing was Hamish’s response to my next question. Despite their advertising strategy, 40% of Brighthouse’s new business comes through referral from existing customers.

With retail having a very transactional business model, many retailers will be much less dependent on direct referrals from customers than other industries. I asked the audience how many of them could boast a similar or greater rate of referrals from the existing customer base. Not one person raised their hand.

Yet Brighthouse have a strong focus on winning those referrals, and the opportunity to both ask their customers and remind them of the request. They operate an incentive scheme which rewards both the customer making the referral and the new customer signing up with them. That incentive scheme is featured on in-store promotions and in the pack that new customers receive, but it is the weekly meetings that make the difference.

“When customers make their payment each week, our team take the time and speak to them,” Hamish said. “We try to engage them as much as possible; we call it ‘till talk’. We train our staff to have a conversation with our customers rather than just process a transaction.

“One of the really unusual things about our business is that the customers and staff know each other by first name and greet each other outside the shop as well. We have a coffee machine in store and sometimes people just come in for a chat.

“Our staff are genuinely members of the local community, and there are very few places on the high street where you can walk in and expect people to know your name.”

The growth of internet solutions, remote banking and autoresponders has moved businesses away from our customers in recent years. We increasingly find ways to provide solutions without the personal touch. While there are very strong commercial arguments for developing such a strategy, are we in danger of losing the personal touch?

Surely the less we see and speak to our clients the weaker the bond between us becomes. That can impact a business not just in terms of reduced customer loyalty and the ability to sell more to them, but it also reduces the opportunity to ask them to refer us to others. Among the conversations Brighthouse staff have with their customers, they will regularly remind them of their referral incentive scheme and ask for their help.

It’s the relationship that makes that possible, and for Brighthouse that’s built through weekly contact with their customers. How many of us can say the same?

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