Retail expert Kate Hardcastle, 'the queen of customer service', talks to WWB about common retail problems she troubleshoots.
As a leading commercial and retail expert, Kate Hardcastle has been advising businesses of all sizes and sectors on how to turn around their fortunes and is often dubbed the “Queen of customer service”. Isabella Griffiths gets the lowdown on Hardcastle’s view of the current retail landscape.
Isabella Griffiths: What services does Insight with Passion provide?
Kate Hardcastle: We specialise in providing targeted hands-on advice for businesses, such as how they can transform their fortunes and develop a strategy for growth and sustainable success. We work with retailers, manufacturers and suppliers of all sizes and all sectors, but most frequently in the fields of fashion, charity, music and interiors.
As part of our work, for instance, we do a lot of mystery shopping, or, what I call “emotional mystery shopping”; we look at things like are the lights on properly, is there rubbish outside or lying around, the interaction of the staff with the customers and so on, and then we look at the areas that can be improved.
My background is in senior board level roles at national and international companies – it’s important to me to stress that I have done all the work before I started talking about the work. I offer a hands-on, jargon-free approach. I have met so many consultants in our industry, and I do not believe in the jargon that so many use.
Finally, we also offer a social enterprise element and give up 20 per cent of our time and invest that back into the communities, working with charities, young fashion designers, start-ups and small businesses on giving board-level business advice. It’s very important to me that we give something back, and it’s been rewarding on so many levels.
IG: What is the most common problem you come across when it comes to independent retail?
KH: I firmly believe that many of the problems retailers are faced with are caused by a reduction in customer service and not putting the customer at the heart of the business. Get in tune with your customer and things can be turned around.
I have a “two ears, one mouth” philosophy, meaning talk less and listen more to your customer as they are the reason why you started your business.
A lot of people think it’s all about expensive fixtures and fittings and costs, but some of the best achievements can be made just by working with your teams. Instead of a major shop re-fit, often it’s enough to integrate your team and share your thoughts and decisions with them. We see it time and time again, unmotivated sales staff with bad attitudes that put off customers, but few retailers realise why their staff are like that. Especially in a small business it is important that you lead by example.
If your head is down all the time and you are being negative, that will be very visible to your team and you will negatively influence them. In a recession, we see it all the time. But be open and honest with your staff, if you’re making decisions, tell them why.
For instance, if you’re having to reduce your staff’s hours, be honest about it, and maybe some will be happy to take some unpaid holiday days, or even help out for free for a few hours on a Saturday to help you bridge a difficult period.
IG: What are the most common mistakes small businesses make in their day-to-day running?
KH: Firstly, communication or, more specifically, miscommunication; some people constantly talk and talk too much, and some don’t communicate enough. Secondly, not being focused on what the customer wants.
I think it’s a common thing particularly with shop owners that they think they know what their customer wants, but don’t really. Thirdly, a lot of retailers underestimate the need to understand just how competitive the game is now, and not how it was 10 or 15 years ago. Fourthly, a lot fail in terms of leadership – as I said above, be an effective leader, create a vision.
And finally, isolating yourself. Be a brand partner, a retail partner and work with others – be that in your community or with your suppliers. There are success stories out there, and a lot of good retailers at that, but the reality is that you have to work so much harder at it these days than in the past.
IG: With this in mind, what is your assessment of the retail landscape in the current economic climate?
KH: There is hope. I don’t believe that it’s the end of the high street and town centres, as is being pronounced by the media. But there is no denying that it is incredibly challenging out there. There is a much needed realisation that not everyone is going to make it. There is an opportunity to turn things around, but retailers can’t just continue to do what they have been doing forever, they need to change with the demands of the times.
People change, and people’s behaviour changes, so we can’t think that retail and the way it’s conducted isn’t changing. Retailers need to find a balance between creating short-term objectives to stimulate footfall and long-term plans on how to keep those customers in the long-run.
IG: There is a noticeable movement going on in terms of reviving the high street and a return to British manufacturing and so on, fuelled mainly by Mary Portas and the Portas report. What is your take on this?
KH: It is all very worthy and good merit in it, but there is so much more work to be done, and the Portas report is just the tip of the iceberg. For me, it’s not so much about the British aspect, but about community. I believe that community will be the saviour of the high street, we need to revive the community spirit and link back to our local communities. We live in such a multi-cultural and multi-faceted society, I would hate to think that Britishness is the only raison d’etre we are driven by.
We can’t just wave a few Union Jacks and think things are going to be better. We need to put long-term structures in place, go back to our communities, go back to deciding what our offer is and making that clear. A lot of support and training has to be given to smaller businesses and retailers.
As a company, we give up one day a week for free to help small businesses and organisations – if more organisations do that, we can get there.
- Kate Hardcastle is founding partner of retail consultancy Insight with Passion, which operates nationwide and internationally, working with businesses of all sizes and sector and is a leading business adviser and commentator.
- Hardcastle has been called the “Queen of customer service” and believes that, by engaging with customers, shops have a better chance of surviving the economic downturn.
- She is an advocate of creating “retail theatre” and has run numerous Retail Clinics in town centres, working with retailers to develop a strategy for growth and sustainable success.
- Insight with Passion is also running its Access for All programme, which provides free help for start-ups and charities.
- For more information visit Insight with Passion
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