Liz Mills has been involved with Ballantynes for most of her working life. Now the heritage Christchurch department store’s sales manager, she began her career washing dishes in the tearooms during her teens.
Mills spoke at the Retail Australasia Summit yesterday on how to create the right environment for retail success. She talked about the lengths Ballantynes management went to remain “the anchor” of Christchurch’s quake-hit CBD – trading from warehouses, temporary premises made out of shipping crates, and even busing shoppers to the distant Timaru branch.
The four-hour round trips were a big success, Mills said, as the customers were a “captive audience”. Demonstrations and talks given on board by Ballantynes staff kept them entertained and whetted their appetite for shopping.
“We had a ball, and our staff learned that they were great tour guides.”
It has now been more than three years since the central Christchurch store reopened.
Mills tied Ballantynes’ longevity with its laser focus on customer centricity. She pointed out that with the internet, customers are more empowered and have higher expectations than ever before.
“We’ve got to adopt this notion of stepping outside of our businesses and looking in.”
Emphasising the lengths Ballantynes will go to accommodate customer needs, Mills spoke of being once called to the office of a former managing director after dismissing a customer who wanted her to process a return for a duvet they had purchased at another department store. Ballantyne advised Mills to go ahead with the return.
“He said, ‘Do what the customer wants you to do and you cannot go wrong.’ That’s customer centricity.”
She challenged the audience to look at their policies and procedures and ask themselves if these were in place to protect the business or to enhance the customer’s experience.
Mills encourages her staff to refrain from treating customers who approach the returns desk with suspicion by telling them, “You look after the customer, and we’ll look after the company’s bottom line.”
She spoke about the importance of skilled salespeople who could “sell dreams” by telling a customer about the benefits a product will confer on them, not that product’s features.
“People don’t make buying decisions on what a product has, rather on what that product will do for them,” Mills says. “We sell great dinner parties, not frying pans. We sell gorgeous silhouettes, not suck-it-all-in knickers.”
Department stores are about “retail theatre”, Mills says, of which flawless customer service is only one aspect.
“The whole thing is an experience from beginning to end.”