By Brian Berk
“He’s a joker. He’s a smoker. He’s a midnight ‘toker.’ He gets his loving on the run.” You can also say he’s a nitpicker, a curmudgeon and, at times, he can be flat-out nasty.
We are definitely not alluding to Steve Miller.
MI Spy would be happy to admit that he (or is it she?) possesses all of those qualities. But, like Simon Cowell, former “American Idol” and current “X Factor” judge, when MI Spy applauds the effort made at your music store, you know you truly offer great service and deserve the accolades.
Most stores MI Spy visits do an excellent job of serving their customers. But one store needs to win each month. Somehow, one shines above the competition.
What do retailers do so well to get the elusive MI Spy stamp of approval? As a companion story to a roundtable discussion moderated by The Music & Sound Retailer Editor Dan Ferrisi at the NAMM show this month, we gathered three retailers to tell you how they earned an ‘A’ from MI Spy during 2011.
Professional Guitars, MI Spy Winner, May 2011
When you operate an independent store in the Detroit area, you need to be good. Really good. The big-box retailers are there to compete against you. And then there’s the knowledge that you are selling instruments in the city perhaps worst hit in the United States by the “Great Recession.”
To succeed in such a difficult environment, first impressions are everything. MI Spy liked Professional Guitars in Ferndale MI immediately when he/she shuffled in the door last year. “It had a real clean and friendly vibe, which was only reinforced by the conversation the Owner proceeded to strike up,” wrote MI Spy. “He told me there had been another guitar shop just across the street, but that it had closed about six months prior. He said the store’s Owner was some curmudgeon who refused ever to budge on anything and that, at the time he closed up—after about 20 years of business—he still had some equipment from when he originally opened.”
First impressions may be everything. However, Professional Guitars delivers knowledge along with the ambiance. “You would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of people in the metro area who know more than the man at Professional Guitars does,” said MI Spy.
How does Professional Guitars do so well in a depressed economic environment? “You have to identify what you can do well,” said Owner Patrick Doran, who has operated the store since 1990. “As an independent store, I knew I couldn’t offer the selection that a big-box store could. So, I have to excel when it comes to service and knowledge. Customers need to know you will give them a straight answer that will not be self-serving. You have to think of their interests first.”
Knowledge is crucial, but Doran said you can’t come across as a know-it-all. “You can’t ever make customers feel like they don’t know what they are talking about and you need to educate him,” said Doran. “Listen to what they are telling you and gently point them to better directions if that’s what you think is best.” To express a commitment to customers even further, Professional Guitars provides a free setup once a year following a guitar or bass sale that takes place at the store.
As for further words of wisdom, Doran said that, if you are an independent retailer, you need to be open to advice from others. Unlike a chain store, an independent store owner would not give him- or herself annual performance evaluations to see where he/she needs improvement. Therefore, you must be open-minded and remain accountable for all your decisions.
Doran added that, if you are a smaller store owner, you have to identify your personality and model your store based on that. “In my case, I carry a few more archtops than most stores my size would,” he said. “I’ve been playing jazz for the past 25 years or so. So, I know a lot about those guitars and it gives my store a personality and accent.”
However, Doran cautioned against using your personality too much when making decisions. “If you go too far, you could reach a blind alley with a dead end,” he said. “But how you stock and what you are interested in can make a store unique.”
Educator’s Music, MI Spy Winner, June 2011
Showing MI Spy’s apparent versatility, he/she entered Educator’s Music in Lakewood OH, a suburb of Cleveland, seeking a clarinet repair. According to MI Spy’s account of events, the salesperson at the independent store truly went the extra mile. He admitted he wasn’t qualified to assess the repairs necessary for the clarinet.
In this situation, some store owners might apologize, alert the customer when a repair technician would be on site and politely ask the customer to return at that time. However, the salesperson at Educator’s Music asked MI Spy and a female companion, M, to wait a minute. “It’s not that busy right now,” the salesman said. “Let me see if [the repair technician] will come over from the shop next door.”
A pleasant repair technician quickly walked into the store, assessed the problems with the clarinet, did so correctly and assured MI Spy that the clarinet could be repaired within the requested timeframe.
That level of service led M to remark, “I almost feel guilty not leaving [the clarinet with the repair technician]. He was right about all the work it needed, and it was nice that he came over just to look at it.”
Going the extra mile and quick thinking truly are qualities that make an MI retailer great. Educator’s Music has been in business since 1952 and, clearly, the business philosophy has worked. What are Educator’s service philosophies? “We do whatever we can, if we can, for the customer,” said John Stavash, Owner of Educator’s Music, who has served the store for the past 40 years. “If we can’t repair an instrument within a customer’s timeframe, we’ll often offer them a loaner until we can get it finished.”
Stavash added that customer service is everything. “We’re not trying to be the big spoke in the wheel,” he said. “We try to help our community in any way we can. Customers who walk into our doors do so for a reason. We get a lot of repeat business due to our longevity and positive reputation.”
Stavash’s best advice for new owners and MI veterans alike: always try to treat your customers like adults. They are your future customers and, if they do not have a positive music store experience, they will never forget that when they mature into prime adult buyers. “Younger customers deserve to be understood and talked to with as much time and courtesy as an adult customer,” said Stavash.
Knowledge of the instruments is also vital, but it’s difficult for an MI retailer to know every detail about each product it might sell. “If there’s something that stumps me, I know whom to turn to,” Stavash said.
“I’ve had people come into our store and tell us they are intimidated when visiting a [big-box retailer],” he continued. “Making your customers feel comfortable is very important. I think there’s a place for a business like ours.”
Cape Fear Music Center, MI Spy Winner, October 2011
When MI Spy visited Cape Fear Music Center in Fayetteville NC, he/she had already seen some good service on his/her visit. These were the words he/she had to say about Cape Fear:
“No other store showed as much passion for music or genuine interest in my needs. When two employees offer to stay after hours to accommodate a customer, that’s service….”
MI Spy continued, “By starting a dialogue with me, asking questions and understanding what I was really saying, he succeeded in up-selling me on a kit approximately double the price of the one I intended to buy. Yet, his pitch never sounded desperate or pushy. He was in business to sell me the best drum that would meet my needs, and he did it with passion and expertise.”
MI Spy concluded, “Not only do the guys at Cape Fear understand music, they also understand people. And that makes for a great combination.”
In his/her 20-plus years, MI Spy has hardly ever given such a glowing review, even to the stores he/she loves. In fact, these compliments come as often as Lady Gaga wears conservative outfits. So what does Cape Fear, which has been open for five years, do so well? “We really love what we do,” said Co-Owner Jeff Stone. “We’re musicians. We just happen to work in the music industry. Instead of being businesspeople working in the music industry, we are musicians who own a business. Second, [Co-Owner] Tony Harrison and I both grew up in retail. We try to treat people the way we want to be treated when we walk into a store. When people walk into the store, we are very attentive and let customers know that we’re aware they are in the store. Lastly, we just listen to them. We find out what they are looking for and go from there.”
Other than the Co-Owners, Cape Fear employs four full-time employees. Those employees need to be an extension of the Owners and help make the store a destination location, as opposed to a place that simply fills musicians’ needs. But it can be difficult for employees to have the same passion that the Owners have for music. However, Harrison said the passion is contagious and Cape Fear overcame that obstacle by hiring the right employees, who were interested in more than just a paycheck.
“In larger stores, the people who are most affected by the bottom line are not out front [in the retail location],” added Stone. “I’ve worked for other companies, so I understand that position. I have never worked as hard in my life as I have for this business, because I know its success and failure is solely dependent on what we decide to do.”
Other than passion and love for the business, Harrison said the key to being a successful MI retailer is finding your own niche. Stone and Harrison decided to open their store after Brook Mays’ bankruptcy. But the Co-Owners did not immediately jump into the retail waters. “We decided to pursue the education and repair portions of the industry first. We did that for 18 months before we got into retail,” Harrison said.
“You can never be complacent,” added Stone. “We are never satisfied. It’s not that we’re money hungry. It’s that gratification of being successful and getting what we went after. If you asked me 10 years ago if I wanted to own my own business and be an entrepreneur—especially in the music industry—I would have laughed at you. But, sometimes, opportunities present themselves. And if you don’t take advantage, you may never get another opportunity again. We constantly push the envelope to look for better ways to do what we already do.”
Pushing the envelope involves reaching out to the community via events and social media Web sites. “Things are not the way they were 15 years ago, or even the way they were 10 years ago,” said Stone. “You always have to look for new ways to reach out to the customer and the community.”
Community events and social media engagement can save money for your store, as well. “I think we’ve spent a total of $300 on advertising in the five years we’ve been here,” Harrison concluded. “We didn’t need to [spend any more money].”