An Open Letter to Retail Stores – You Need to Serve People to Survive

May 13, 2013

Dear Retailers,

Where are all the sales people who actually serve people?

Where are all the people who look beyond the value of a single transaction—and instead make it their job to become experts and build relationships?  That’s what hooks a buyer, has them believe in you, has them buy from you, has them come back, and has them refer you.  I see fewer and fewer of these trusted advisors nearly everywhere I go these days.  I must say, I don’t get it.

I recently visited a mattress store and no one knew more about the models than what was on the show sheet.  I recently visited an electronics store and within 3 minutes on my smartphone, I knew more about a television set than the guy helping me did. The retail value proposition is thin and getting thinner every day.

Retail establishments complain about “showrooming”—people coming in to see the products in their stores, but then buying them online for a better price.  I don’t know the answer to this problem, but my gut tells me it starts with filling your stores with trusted advisors—people who buyers find knowledgeable and helpful.  After all, service is the only sustainable competitive advantage a bricks-and-mortar store has these days.

If you hired me to work in the TV department at a large retailer today, this is what I’d do.

  • I’d take a week and learn everything I could about the TV’s in the store.  I’d also ask for comparative info on competitive TV’s.  If my company didn’t have it or couldn’t provide it, I’d dig it up myself.  Every few months, I’d update my knowledge of the market.
  • Then I’d form my own opinions on what TV’s work well for what price points and for what specific situations (sports, movies etc).  If some of those answers are TV’s we don’t carry, so be it.  I’m there to serve the customer.
  • Then when a consumer comes in, I’d ask about price points and their objectives.  I would listen intently, ensuring I understood what they were looking for before launching into suggestions.  I’d probably ask some probing questions to help them consider some things they hadn’t thought about.
  • Then I’d give them my informed opinion based on my research.  I’d tell them where I was confident in my research and where I wasn’t.  In a word, I’d be honest.  I would also mention that I don’t see my job as selling them anything.  Sure that’s nice, but it’s more important that they get what they need to meet their ultimate objectives—the right features at the right price.
  • Then I’d hand them my card and tell them to give me a ring at any point—before, during or after their purchase, whether they bought from me or not.  I’d say, “I know how tough it is today to make purchases like these and I’d love to help you if I can.”  Maybe I’d close them that day, maybe I wouldn’t.

One thing I know for sure is if I did that 100 times in a month, there’s no way I’d fail.  If the whole department, store, or chain did it, I can’t imagine it wouldn’t make a huge impact. People buy from people who truly serve them.

My cousin Ken Sundheim, who runs KAS Placement (, a sales recruiting agency in NYC, has found the same to be true in placing sales people at companies across the country.  “The dynamics of selling have changed over the past few decades.  It used to be that a sales person facilitated a transaction, but that can all happen online now.  The best sales people now and in the future will be those who know how to go above and beyond the transaction to truly serve people.”

If you want to fix your business, start serving people again.


Doug Sundheim