Retailers should be shouting about their customer service skills, which are in demand across multiple sectors of business.

Recently I became involved with a new business that does specialist property management of blocks of flats.

A big challenge is recruiting new clients, since flat-owners are generally very passive about changing their block manager, even when the service is poor. So we have been experimenting with various forms of marketing and business development techniques.

In the past, businesses like this would have done mail shots and tried to form relationships with local estate agents. They would certainly have opened an office and taken out listings in local phone directories. And then waited for the business to flow in. Today, this would be a recipe for certain failure.

Instead, we have had to approach it in a much more proactive way – defining a distinctive offer, identifying and recruiting target customer groups, competing on price and service, working social media, using web technology to offer points of difference, generally making noise and so on.

What struck me with all this was its similarity to what I have been doing in retail over many years. I have been using my retail experience far more than I would have expected, in a business with little obvious connection to retailing.

Catalysing customer interaction

The fact is that developments in technology, and the new ways of doing business they have spawned, have brought many sectors much closer to retailing in the way they operate.

In particular, the internet has put all businesses in direct contact with consumers, even if it is only for providing basic information.

“The internet has put all businesses in direct contact with consumers”

Simon Burke, Bath Store

A website is the ‘shop window’ every business must have. Competing for attention in web searches and other arenas is similar to competing for footfall on a high street. Designing your site’s presentation to hook potential customers is like laying out your store to stimulate buyers. I could go on, but you get the idea.

What this means, I believe, is that retailing skills are more widely valuable than ever, across many sectors.

Indeed, I have found this also when acting as a non-executive board member of a business that is not in retail.

Consumer expertise

The particular viewpoint and experience of a retailer has been both different and very useful to those businesses, offering them a new and valuable perspective.

But we are not making the most of this opportunity. In fact, many commentators see ‘traditional’ retailers as having been left behind by the revolution in technology and struggling now to catch up.

Someone who is running a web start-up is more likely to be seen as a consumer expert than an experienced retailer is. But many web start-ups fail precisely because although they are great at technology, they don’t have the retailing knowledge.

We should be selling ourselves with more confidence to the wider business world. Today, every business needs some element of customer-facing expertise.

With our long history of fighting to win every customer, nobody is better placed to offer it.

  • Simon Burke, chairman, Bathstore