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Sound Bites From a Seminar: Commit. Don’t Just Try.

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Change is certain. Progress is not.

When you attend as many conferences as I do every year, it’s invigorating to come away with new perspectives on retailing and what it takes to succeed. It’s dangerous, perhaps even sophomoric, to reduce a conference to sound bites, but at the risk of showing my business naivete, allow me to share some of the key takeaways from two days in late February in Sarasota, Fla., at the Service Management Forum for Multi-Unit Executives, produced by Service Management Group (SMG) of Kansas City, Mo.

“Change is certain. Progress is not,” said Jack Mackey, SMG’s VP of sales and marketing. Kim Lopdrup, president of Red Lobster, put it a different way: “It’s demoralizing to be in a company that is not growing.”

One way to achieve progress and raise morale is by enlisting associates in the effort and rewarding them for achievements. But make sure the reward is what they want. Joe Wheeler, executive director and founder of The Service Profit Chain and co-author of “The Science of Delight,” related how Prairie Store Pharmacy of Minnesota wanted to reward its pharmacists with a trip to Hawaii. As strange as it may sound, they didn’t want that reward, said Wheeler. They desired more access to their customers. “Understand what your employees value,” is the lesson to be learned, said Wheeler.

He advised retailers not competing on price to build a business that is emotionally attractive and significantly memorable, a concept such as Build-A-Bear Workshops. Of course, retail discipline is needed, as well. Build-A-Bear, said Wheeler, strictly monitors its “sounds and shoes to skins” ratios. Every 15 minutes managers check to make sure the staff is selling the right amount of add-on sales (sounds and shoes) to the number of skins (bears) sold.

There can be a tendency in retail and foodservice to focus on the selling floor, while behind the scenes employees are not given sufficient recognition. In restaurants, the kitchen staff usually works in the “back of the house.” Not so at Pat & Oscar’s Restaurants of San Diego. There they work in the “heart of the house,” said chairman and CEO John Wright.

Many companies have product experts. “Be a customer specialist, not a product specialist,” advocated Polly LaBarre, author of “Mavericks at Work,” citing as an example Vermont Teddy Bear Co. It doesn’t sell bears. It sells peace of mind, by solving last-minute gift-giving needs, especially for men at Valentine’s Day. And for the man who has second thoughts about sending a bear with an “I love you” salutation, the company can even stop a delivery after the bear is on its way.

In the most moving presentation at the SMG summit, Liz Murray exhorted the 200 attendees to “Commit. Don’t just try.” Liz Murray knows of what she speaks. Raised by loving yet drug-dependent parents, she dropped out of high school in New York City and wound up living on the streets. Yet she made a personal commitment to take responsibility for her actions. She went back to school, graduated and is now just six credits shy of a degree from Harvard. Her life story has been the subject of a TV movie and a “20/20” profile. She regularly speaks to teenagers and business groups about overcoming adversity.

Commit. Don’t just try.

© 2014