August 17, 2020 I The Experts I by Peter Dods

Becoming the Comms Guy

Afew years ago, George Hines from George’s Music and I discussed the importance of having a general call center to field sales leads to the right people. He asked me how the phone system works at my store, and I admitted that it was a catch-as-catch-can system in that whoever picked up the phone at that moment had a chance at making the sale. He told me that a system like that was not good, and that it pays dividends to have one or two people skilled at working with customers on the phone acting as a call center. He said this way a store can allocate human resources across sales more efficiently, and it would provide more benefit than it would probably cost me. At the time, I felt like this was big-store-chain advice, and I completely ignored what George had to say.

Well, fast-forward a few years as COVID-19 hit us hard and fast. Hawaii called for a lockdown on stores like Easy Music Center in March, and we would not get to reopen until May. We were not ready for this situation and as much as I grasped the severity of the coronavirus, I had not done the planning necessary to enable us to keep operating in lockdown.

Now, when I get someone on the line telling me about something they want that we don’t have, I’m the guy. I’m the triggerman.

There was a week where we were not answering our phones and only following up with people who left voicemails, which is about 5% of the calls we receive. We were not even sure if we could go into the store. I moped around the house, dreaming of better days. Then it hit me that I should be answering the phones from home to keep customers informed of what we were able to do. My CTO got me set up with a call-forwarding app named Bria, and I’ve been the first chair on answering phones ever since.

What have I learned? I’ve learned that communication is the most important thing when you are facing a crisis. I’ve learned that customers will try multiple channels of communication if they don’t like what answer they hear on one channel. I’ve learned that my sales people don’t always follow up as they should. I’ve learned that there were more than a few flaws in our special ordering system, and that it wasn’t being kept up to date with enough detailed notes. I’ve learned that what we carry isn’t always in line with what customers want.

I’ve learned about cool products that we weren’t carrying. I’ve learned about awesome new trends in streaming and recording audio. To sum up, I’ve learned an absolute ton about my business.

My dive into communications didn’t stop at the phones. I took back the task of managing the store’s main email address. I took over our Yelp and Google review accounts. I took over the newly minted live chat function on our website. I became the de facto comms guy.

I realized in doing this that we have customers who will try us on all different channels to circumvent policy. I would have customers call and ask to do things that we just don’t do. When they were told we couldn’t do that, they would then try to email the address, not realizing they were contacting the same guy, me. Then they might go to Yelp and send the same message, finding me again.

I started to take detailed notes about the products we weren’t carrying that people requested and kept an ongoing list to note any frequency trends. I quickly realized that the comms position is the best place to be if you want to grow your business. Sure, I could work the sales floor now that we are open. But I would come into contact with about 1/10th of the customer requests compared to the comms position, which is a natural feeder for special orders and generating revenue that would have been lost otherwise.

I learned that our special order system was a convoluted mess. It was too hard to get anything done and there were too many middle men. I streamlined all this.

Now, when I get someone on the line who is telling me about something they want that we don’t have, I’m the guy who can cut a discount, give an ETA, access the dealer portals and know what’s going on with backorder units we have coming in. I’m the triggerman. There is no need for me to put you in touch with someone else. There is no need for a relentless game of phone tag and following up. You tell me what you want. I make sure it’s in stock and email you an invoice to be paid via our website. I’m also the guy who will check our special order list and follow up with our sales reps to be sure the product is coming in according to the ETA the customer was given.

I would like to take a moment to publicly apologize to my sales reps out there. I’m a bulldog and relentless.

It’s been years since I was the triggerman at EMC. I have to admit that it’s a stressful, all consuming position, but in a time of crisis, it was the absolute best place for me to be. That continues to be the case as the pandemic wears on.

I know more about my business now than I ever did. Even when I first started 15 years ago, I didn’t have my finger on the pulse as much as I do now. People send me chats and emails at midnight, and I follow up. I’m interested to see just how far I can take this position and the financial impact a truly dedicated comms person can have on the overall operation.

Special orders now constitute a much larger portion of our ongoing revenue than they did before, and in this economy, we can use some extra revenue. I can see my contributions on the sales report daily. These days, having a comms position is responsible for about 10-20% of total sales revenue. We were letting special orders pass us by constantly because of our inability to make things faster and easier on the consumer. These were sales that we were just never going to get otherwise.

The comms position has helped sculpt our stocking profiles. I got a call from a customer to special order a high-end audio interface from Universal Audio. It seemed out of our range price-point wise, but after securing the special order and then later receiving an additional phone inquiry, we decided that it was time to stock that unit. Since then, we have already sold another!

There is money to be made in managing your communications better. I’m not sure what that means for your business, but I certainly get what George was talking about now. Over the next year, I’ll start to pencil out how this position could work for someone else to do it. For now, I’m relishing the opportunity to be the guinea pig. MI

Peter Dods is the owner of Honolulu-based Easy Music Center.

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