Find an innovative way to build a relationship with your customer, says Jacqueline Gold

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It’s often said that retail is detail and there’s no doubt you can always improve your sales and margin by making sure everything in your store and head office is just so.

But I’ve always found this maxim to be very inward facing and operational, when the truly outstanding retailers are those that look outward and are customer-centric.

At Ann Summers, we know a thing or two about getting up close and personal with our customers and not just because of the products we sell.

There’s rarely a dull moment in our customer services team, especially when an employee gets to assist a customer who hasn’t read the instructions properly. One member of staff had to explain to a Friday night caller exactly where the off switch was; the customer replied that she didn’t want to turn it off, she just wanted to know how long the batteries lasted as she had to be at work on Monday.

Products aside, the great advantage we have as a business and the place where we are most intimate with our customers is in Party Plan. We have the privilege of being invited into our customers’ homes, introduced to their friends and then given the floor to both entertain and sell.

I’m sure there are brands that would kill to get this close to their customers and agencies that would charge them the earth for what is the ultimate in experiential marketing.

Aside from sharing wine in their homes, there are other ways to make the relationship with your customers more personal and, once again, John Lewis has done it brilliantly with the launch of its

Partnership Bond. On the one hand, it was a request for help - we need some cash and we don’t want to borrow it from those rogues at the bank, as they’ll just rip us off. But on the other hand, an invite to its retail party - bondholders are friends who get lots of vouchers to spend in our fabulous shops. Of course, the real genius was the timing, just as it announced how its staff will share in the profits.

Another initiative to be applauded, with a desire to cement the relationship between customer and retailer, is happening near my home in Kent.

The Chamber of Commerce in Sevenoaks, in partnership with the local paper, has launched a loyalty scheme for local businesses. However, this campaign is not just about rewarding regular local custom. It’s more about encouraging the community to cherish the town’s retail diversity - the kind you only truly get with locally-owned and managed independents.

With luck, the people of Sevenoaks will feel a sense of responsibility for the success of these shops and act on it.

The implicit message is: use it or lose it or, better still, love your neighbour. Something I’ve been assured the citizens of Sevenoaks, like those in suburban towns everywhere, are very open to doing anyway.

Jacqueline Gold is chief executive of Ann Summers