A complaint I often hear from commercial district managers and customers is that merchants are lacking in basic hospitality and customer service. Not all merchants (and certainly not the successful ones) need lessons in customer service. But the archetype merchant who has been on a district for decades through changing neighborhood demographics (many times both racial and ethnic) and who can barely disguise the disdain they have for their customers…well, unfortunately I have come across this merchant too many times in my work. These merchants are ready to blame anyone else but themselves for the sorry state of their businesses. As commercial district management professionals, we can usually spot them right away. Their merchandise is usually dusty, business is slow, they have an attitude and they are the first to tell us that we are wasting our time because nothing will change… “these people” don’t want quality or good service, all they want is “cheap”. The only thing you can do is walk away from those individuals and keep them from bringing you down.
As easy as this merchant is to identify, commercial district managers also need to practice hospitality and customer service towards their merchants – and sometimes they don’t do this. In this field, our work is all about relationships. But the challenge is that many district management organizations are hurt by frequent staff turnover, making it hard to build trust with local merchants, property owners and residents over time. That said, building relationships and demonstrating hospitality towards your merchants is THE MOST VALUABLE thing a district manager can do. Every successful initiative is based on merchant engagement. From cooperative marketing, to participation in promotional events, to creating a more appealing shopping environment…successful outcomes are based on merchant engagement. Here are a few things that district managers should be doing a regular basis to build relationships with their merchant community.
1. Participate in local events, particularly when working with an ethnic community. Go to their religious events or special holiday events. Offer to help with expediting street closures for their parades and activities or help them develop better relationships with public officials. Gain their trust by being available and helpful.
2. Walk the street EVERY week (every day if possible) and walk into every store on a regular basis (not just the ones who are receptive towards you). Even if you get attitude, say hi, offer your help, hand out your newsletter and walk out. In one city I was in recently, city officials expressed frustration that in many cases the local district managers didn’t know their local merchants. This has serious ramifications in that city programs such as façade grants and loans never made it out the door. Although these managers spent their time putting on events – they avoided the messy work associated with engaging merchants. The result? The events did little to help merchants grow their retail sales.
3. Be flexible. If you get a last minute request from a merchant or local elected for help – do what you can to accommodate. You never know what kind of good will you are building and how it will come back to you.
If you start with these three activities you can raise your own Hospitality Index Quotient!