This interview is an excerpt from my book “Forget reach, start selling”
The optician sector has, like many other sectors, been hectic in the last couple of years. A number of price fighters have entered the market. They advertise large discounts daily. There are also a number of internet shops, especially selling contact lenses and maintenance materials for these lenses. I have asked Stephan Spoormakers for an interview, because he managed to grow his business regardless the price pressure. What is his secret?
“There is sufficient space for a retailer like me, as long as you really differentiate yourself from the competition”, he starts telling. The customer that feels attracted to ‘Stephan Optiek’ is someone who selects his glasses with care. The term ‘target group’ is not the correct according to Stephan, because he just runs the shop exactly as he thinks it should be. The clientele simply is a consequence.
Glasses at Stephan’s are not necessarily more expensive. They offer glasses at a wide price range. The common denominator is that all glasses have been selected for their quality and style. ‘Care’ is a word that immediately pops into one’s head when entering the store. Every detail in the shop stands the test. The design, the furniture, the flowers and the collection of spectacles; everything is selected with great care. To every element there is a story they’ll gladly tell all about. But it would be too easy to attribute the success to the objects in the store.
Care is, though unconsciously, the key element in the identity of Stephan Optiek. “Running a shop is not only very easy,” Stephan says, “it also is the most pleasant type of work one can think off.” Genuine behavior always comes easy, but I’m certain his customers experience this as something special. Stephan and his employees approach a customer with the intention to really understand him. They want to grant each customer the best matching pair of glasses to go home with. A pair of glasses that delivers the best sight, taking the specific way the customer will be using them into account ánd with a design that matches his personal style.
At Stephan’s, the team explicitly puts the customer in control of the interaction, but most customers eagerly respond to their open attitude and persuading genuine interest. They frequently spend half an hour or more talking about things that have nothing to do with glasses or eye measurement, but are just of importance to a customer and interesting to discuss.
Cost of being interested
“What does it cost to be interested and kind?,” Stephan asks. “Nothing!”. My own corporate history would produce a different answer immediately. Many companies work with internal calculations using hourly rates, Stephan never does. Most companies strive to upsell to customers, Stephan never does. He runs a growing, profitable business, but money never is a topic of discussion. He doesn’t want his personnel to think in financial targets, nor does he prescribe interaction scripts. The only thing that matters is the customer. People are social beings and require a PERSONAL approach. They want to feel welcome. They want to be cared for. They want the best for themselves, within their budget. The philosophy at Stephan Optiek is that there is just one measure of success: a happy customer.
He illustrates this with a recent event. A customer liked a pair of sunglasses very much. She and her husband discussed the purchase, because of the price. Many shops would try to convince the customer that these glasses look really special on her. Stephan on the other hand almost forbade her to buy them and together they found a pair that looked even better, for half the price. This customer will be happy whenever she wears her glasses and that is all Stephan wants to care about.
When I showed Stephan the Vocification model, his first reaction was that he doesn’t work with a model, and would even hate to do so. To him, everything is important at the same time. attention and INFORMATION are inseparable. Information is only valuable when it answers a question or interest of the customer. Flow is a continuous concept to him. “We like to call it ‘dancing with the customer’, ” says Stephan. It’s a term introduced by Jan van Setten, a well known sales trainer in the Netherlands. “We want the customer to resolve any query, any uncertainty and any obstacle in a way that makes the customer happy. We can help, because we have experienced many other customers resolve similar concerns. We can help, because we have top knowledge and top products. We can help, because we care.”
The term IDENTITY confused Stephan a little at first. “I am not important here. Only the customer is. I am grateful for each customer that chooses to enter my store.” Only then he realized that putting the customer central in everything he does, might be called his identity. Two years ago he stopped advertising in an posh local magazine and he is now using that money to pay his customers’ parking fee. He has limited the number of displays to be able to fit in some comfortable furniture. His measurement rooms are spacious and have glass walls to avoid any customer to feel uncomfortable. All these things cost money, but they are the right thing to do when you want to create a happy customer.
Stephan confirms the impact of craftmanship. Love, passion and the ambition to be the best are important to his success. He never does any financial planning, never discusses growth and doesn’t consider opening a second store. Yet his store has grown year after year, even during the financial crisis and the booming internet competition.
Price discounts have never been considered, at least not to win over a customers. The most important reason is that Stephan expects that a discount for one customer will come back to him like a negative boomerang. Other customers will feel mistreated. They will start haggling or even worse, they might not return at all. Stephan only uses discounts to help customers in specific situations, for instance when a customer accidentally damages his brand new pair of glasses. The rules for these discounts haven’t changed over the past 16 years and all of his employees are entitled to grant these discounts when the conditions apply. This straightforward reliable behavior creates TRUST.
The interaction model of chapter 7 generates a wave of recognition. “This is exactly how I work.” questions are key. “I’m truly interested in what moves people, so I ask them. Once we get going, they start asking the questions, which again triggers me to share information and tell STORIES about why I value our products and producers. The strategy to fully focus on happy customers generates a lot of word of mouth. All new customers have heard about us from one of their relations.”
I thank Stephan for sharing his inspiring way of working with us. There is an enormous gap between his way of working and e-commerce. With my book and tooling I hope to improve the online shopping experience of shops that are willing to invest in customer happiness. Because customer happiness is what made Stephan Optiek grow, regardless the fierce competition.