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Relationship advice: Building bridges

Building and maintaining strong relationships between staff, customers and suppliers is essential to running a business. James Knowles finds out how a little help from your friends can go a long way.

Running a successful business is all about the relationships you enjoy with your staff, suppliers and customers. Establishing, developing and maintaining relationships is essential in today’s crowded market where customer pickings are slim. Any successful, long-standing relationship takes constant work and without it, suppliers, staff and customers could fall out of love with you and head elsewhere.

Today’s customers are still reeling from the global financial crisis and are currently having to contend with the government’s austerity measures and public sector cuts, widespread job insecurity, and rising commodity prices. Put simply, retailers have been left fighting over an increasingly smaller cake as shoppers become more selective about where to spend their dwindling disposable income.

Woo your suppliers
Getting customers through the door and staying ahead of the pack is all about having the right brands in your shop, and you can’t do this without winning the support of suppliers. “We ultimately want to bring our customers the hottest new designs at the best possible prices, so it’s in our best interest to cultivate strong relationships with our suppliers to ensure we are in a position to do this,” says Alan Street, area manager for jewellery chain Rox, which has four stores in Scotland.

Street says the watch brand that the retailer stocks carries out inspections every six weeks and works closely with the company’s visual merchandiser, Marco Barro, to ensure product is displayed to maximise its commercial appeal. Rox also appoints brand ambassadors within its staff, giving each one in-depth training on their range. “We always strive to be the best, and to be the best you have to work with the best - across staff, suppliers and brands. We have nurtured relationships over the years based on our honest and open approach to business,” says Street.

Jeweller Jeremy France stocks a raft of premium brands in his eponymous Winchester store. He often has to turn away companies that aren’t right for his store, but he maintains a relationship with those brands in case they become appropriate in the future. “It’s about keeping the lines of communication open and not burning bridges, because you have to remember that just because a brand isn’t right for your store now, it might be the right fit in the future,” says France.

It takes two to tango and the relationship between brands and retailers works both ways. When brands take the time to educate their retail partner’s staff on the products they are selling, they help to bring them closer to the brand. “Normally certain brands will invite the staff up to their headquarters to teach them about the brand’s history and the products. This helps the staff come to understand the brand and the products it is selling, which inevitably improves sales,” says France. “Pandora regularly trains staff and Thomas Sabo even gives them product to wear on the shopfloor, which is a great advertisement for the brand,” he says.

Peter Jackson, owner of the eponymous five-store chain in the North, agrees brands need to maintain good relationships with retail staff to boost enthusiasm about selling their products. “The relationships between brand representatives and a retailer’s staff is crucial. Some of the best brand representatives come in to see my staff and they’ll bring them chocolates, or I’ll come down from the office to find they’ve already been there for half an hour happily chatting away to the staff,” he says. “In business, relationships are everything and that sort of contact makes the staff even more enthusiastic about selling the product,” he says.

Service with a smile
Today’s cash-strapped consumers are not only demanding the best products, they also want the best service. Establishing and maintaining great relationships with suppliers might mean that you secure the best brands for your store, but the benefit of this will soon be lost if customers come face-to-face with an unhappy and de-motivated staff member.

Ensuring that you have a healthy relationship with your staff and that they have good relationships with each other means that they will be happier in their jobs and more motivated, creating a more attractive shopping environment for your customers. “It’s really important that the staff have a good relationship with each other and with management. A customer can sense whether there is a good atmosphere or not when they go into a store and that can leave an impression,” says Adrian Mellish, group training and development manager at multiple jeweller Fraser Hart Fields.

Rox is committed to developing its staff, many of whom have been with the retailer since its launch in 2002 and are now in senior management positions. “We believe in nurturing and rewarding our staff for their achievements, which in turn promotes a positive and healthy workforce,” says Street.

It’s important to retain your authority, but talking to your staff as equals and rewarding them for their hard work will boost motivation and is likely to drive your sales up. “There has to be a line in the sand that isn’t crossed, but I’ve never been into authoritarian management and I consider my employees as my friends. We encourage our employees to have a sense of humour and we celebrate people’s birthdays and Christmas, when staff also get a bonus. It’s really about treating people with a common decency,” says Mike Rice, managing director of jewellery chain Hugh Rice, which has eight stores across the country.

France agrees it’s important to treat staff as equals and advocates allowing them to explore the business to find their own strengths. “We don’t have a formal structure, and there aren’t any managers. We allow our staff to find their niche. And we avoid any confusion over salaries by pay based on length of service,” he says.

Staff outings are a good way to boost morale and build relationships. “We regularly have staff nights out. A good example is the Miss Scotland 2011 competition, where Rox was a sponsor of the event. More than 30 members of staff from across our Glasgow stores attended to celebrate,” says Street.

Jackson’s business enjoys a high staff retention and he puts part of this down to the good relationships his employees share with the company’s management and each other. “We hold Christmas parties each year and we held an Oscars-themed event last year, where we handed out awards including Best Store,” he says.

France agrees social events are an essential component to deepening relationships between colleagues.

The jeweller has taken his staff on paid-for trips to Lapland, to Paris for the day and on activity trips including Go Ape, sky diving and an all-expenses-paid skiing holiday to Courchevel. “These events help staff to bond and mean that they work alongside each other as friends rather than just colleagues,” he says.

Customers come first
Securing the best brands and ensuring that your staff are happy and motivated is a sure-fire way to create a welcoming shopping environment, but it’s crucial to build relationships with customers when they come into the store. The relationship between a jeweller and its customer is sacred, and in many instances customers can build up life-long relationships with their local jewellery shop and the staff that work there. “The products that people are buying very often signify special events in their lives, such as birthdays, engagements, weddings and anniversaries, so it’s really important to make sure that the service is first class, because people remember those shopping experiences,” says Jim Sharples, regional manager for the North at Fraser Hart Fields.

Maintaining and nurturing these relationships will not only secure repeat sales every time the customer celebrates a special occasion, but it also means that successive generations of the same family are likely to shop in your store.

“People buy people first, and then they buy the product,” says Mellish. “If you’ve got the right products in your stores then the other 80% of closing a sale is about forging a relationship with the customer and the service you give them,” he says.

Establishing relationships with your customers and making them feel that their custom is valued by your business means that they are likely to tell their friends and family about the great service they received, potentially securing you a whole host of new clients.

“We try to makes sure that we have a light but firm contact with our database, so that we’re not bombarding our customers but are reaching out about three or four times a year. That ensures that whenever they’re thinking about making a purchase we’re at the front of their minds,” says France.

“Building relationships with customers happens on a one-to-one basis over time, and the power of word-of-mouth advertising can’t be underestimated,” says Rice. “We’re going to be taking a select group of our clients out for a social day at the Silverstone racing track in collaboration with Swiss watchmaker Blancpain, including transporting them there and putting them up for the night. These sorts of things help to make people feel special,” he says.

At Fraser Hart Fields staff are told to adopt the attitude that the customer is always right, and return items where possible. “There needs to be a lot of allowances for customers and you have to be prepared to do whatever is needed to make them happy,” says Fraser Hart Fields Southeast regional manager Mike Oldroyd. “Because we adopt that policy it means that the number of damaged goods we take back has gone up, but so too has the strength of our relationships with our customers. And we get lots of good feedback from customers about
the quality of service that they have received,” he says. The power of word-of-mouth marketing can’t be underestimated.

The rise of the internet, and in particular social networking, has opened up new avenues to creating and maintaining relationships with your customers. Jewellery retailers are increasingly using sites such as Facebook and Twitter to advertise promotions, competitions, and, most importantly, to talk with customers. “There is nothing more powerful than good word of mouth and this is something that we are very conscious of across the company; when a customer has had a great experience in your store, not only will they return but they will tell all their friends about it too,” says Street.

“We are also very active on Facebook and Twitter so our customers can engage with us online as well as in-store by checking out new products and services, asking questions and posting their own experiences of Rox,” Street adds.

Go local
The internet and social networking isn’t going to be for everyone, and there are more traditional routes to making yourself known to you potential customers. Getting involved in local events, sponsoring local organisations and raising funds for charities are all ways of letting the local community know that you are there, meeting and working alongside potential new customers and promoting your business to them, and gaining press coverage for your store at the same time.

The staff at Jeremy France have been doing just that by taking part in a raft of charity initiatives. Sarah France, director at Jeremy France, and one of the jeweller’s goldsmiths recently completed a trek across the Sahara desert to raise money for local charity Cash for Kids. France is very closely involved in his local community, where he chairs the local Business Improvement District and also supports a number of charities. “We do lots of charity work, and if somebody approaches us to donate something to their raffle we normally say yes,” says France. “We then send them an email to thank them and ask them to forward that to their own database, which spreads the word even further.”

The jewellery retailer even produces a ring splint for sufferers of swan-neck arthritis, only charging customers for the materials used in manufacturing. “We’ve been doing this for 15 years now after a local surgeon approached me with the idea, and now it’s something that anyone who joins the business’s workshop learns how to do,” he says.

Holding in-store events is a great way of rewarding your existing customers for their loyalty and also introducing new shoppers to your store. “We send out Christmas cards to our customers and hold an in-store event every year, which helps us retain that personal touch with our customers,” says France.

Rox recently refurbished its Argyll Arcade store in Glasgow, adding a room on the first floor that it has been utilising for customer events. “A few months ago we held an intimate wedding fair offering 20% off wedding bands, which we targeted at customers who had bought engagement rings from us in the past six months, and, more recently, we invited our regular customers to a sale preview evening before the official launch. These have been exceptionally popular and we have had great feedback from our customers,” says Street.

When it comes to business, relationships are king. Failing to nurture the bonds you share with suppliers, staff and your customers could leave your business lacklustre and lifeless. However, building bridges with everyone involved in running your company will mean that it will flourish for years to come.

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