Retail visionary Jack Mitchell explains the power of “hug” culture and how it can transform your sales force, your productivity, and your business.
I wasn’t born a hugger but learned at home from Mom and Dad and in school from several teachers and on the playing field from coaches. Then I learned even more about the power of hugging when I joined my family’s business almost fifty years ago. What I’m talking about here is “hug” as a metaphor for any kind act or deed that makes someone respond, “WOW, you really care about me as a real person.” What I discovered about hugging changed my life. It also changed our family business, Mitchell Stores, and it will change any business, whether you sell sparkplugs or lamp shades or index funds or, like us, men’s and women’s clothing.
Even today, after all the suits and trousers I’ve sold, my passion is the people, not the clothes. That’s why hugs mean so much to me. Hugs are a marvelous way to connect with people in a pleasant manner. Other than hermits, who doesn’t want that?
The Power of Hug Culture
What hugs have I learned? I smile a lot at people, because–guess what–people like to be smiled at. I write thank-you notes and sign them with a real ink pen, because that shows it’s a genuine sentiment. If I’m on the floor of one of our stores—we’ve got eight of them now—and a customer admires the tie I’m wearing, I instinctively take it off and give it to him. I haven’t yet given the shirt off my back, but my brother, Bill, has. He’s a Hall of Fame hugger if there ever was one.
O.K., so that’s me. But what could hugging mean for your business? As it happens, a great deal. There is no doubt in my mind that hugs go straight to the bottom line. Our own business is proof of that.
Let me explain. Hugs make people happy and happy customers become loyal customers. Loyal customers mean happy profits. Our vision is that anyone who becomes a customer of our stores enters an enduring relationship with us. He or she instantly becomes our friend. That’s our motto: “Once a customer, always a friend.” It’s been that way since the day the doors opened, and we’re determined that it will always be that way.
The Appeal of Relationship-Driven Companies
It’s clear to me that customers are thirsting for relationship-driven companies. Always will be. They want to be coddled. They like it when they are greeted by name, especially the nickname they favor. As for me, I’m Jack, not John. And great sellers want to work for relationship-driven companies. Those companies are more successful because relationship selling inevitably leads to high productivity and high profitability. And, on top of everything else, hugging is fun. And we want to have fun. Lots of it!
We’re successful at Mitchell Stores, I believe, not because we recognize that relationships work. Many companies grasp that. The really difficult part is getting relationships to happen. And that’s where hugging comes into the picture. Execution is everything. After all, it can be boring to sell a suit over and over again, or to sell a car or a popcorn maker over and over again. But you can meet this challenge by approaching every customer as a unique challenge and opportunity.
That’s why, without in any way being intrusive, we learn a lot about our customers—what clothes they’ve bought before at our stores, but also their hobbies, what their kids are up to, their dog’s name, their favorite yogurt, the little details of their lives, and store this information in our computers—only for our use. So when our customers stop by, we can talk to them the way friends talk, with knowledge about who they are. That’s hugging 101.
Imagine how you would feel if you walked into a store—or any business environment—and the sales associate who last waited on you strolled up with a big smile and said, “Hi Norman, great to see you again.”
Better yet, imagine if he followed up by asking, “How are little Jimmy and Sarah? They enjoy their time at Camp Moose Lake?”
And then imagine how you’d feel if he then said, “How’re you doing with that blue Zegna suit you bought here last Spring? We just got a new one in the other day, a dark gray pinstripe, and we have one in your size, 42 Regular.”
That’s knowing your customer. That’s hugging. How many businesses can pull that off on a daily basis?
The Benefits of Hugging
The economic advantages of hugging are numerous. Just to list a few of the main ones:
- You attract the best sellers, who are more productive because they make more but cost less as a percentage of sales.
- Traditional marketing costs are lower in a hugging culture because your huggers are your marketers.
- Gross margins are higher, because you can sell more product at regular price. When you’ve developed genuine relationships with your customers, they trust you and know you’ll be fair to them, so they’ll also be fair to you. That means they’ll be less interested in only what’s on sale or is cheapest.
- The revenue stream is long term and not highly variable. If you stay close to what your customers desire, you don’t have the steep ups and downs and big markdowns that businesses less acquainted with their customers have. The relationships you build up mean that when they’re ready to buy, customers buy with you rather than shop around.
There are so many marvelous things about hugs. Best of all, most of them are free. They don’t cost a nickel. There’s no charge for a smile. No expense for a kind word. Nothing out of your wallet for carrying someone’s packages to their car.
What’s more, when you hug someone, guess what often happens? You get a return hug. Makes you feel great for giving someone a hug, and makes you feel great for getting one back. Two greats!
In a hugging culture, everyone hugs, and that’s what inspired me to write my third hugging book, “Selling The Hug Your Customers Way: The Proven Process for Becoming a Passionate and Successful Salesperson for Life.”
Practice Makes Perfect
To get good at hugging, you need to do it. And do it. And do it. You have to practice, just like you have to practice tennis or the tuba if you want to get good at those things. Here’s a little tip I picked up to help you practice. I learned it from a jeweler. It’s the penny-in-the-pocket technique.
What you do is you place ten pennies in your left pants pocket at the start of the day. Every time you “hug” someone—you know, smile at them, compliment them, do them a little favor—move a penny from the left pocket to the right. Keep at it and see if you can get all of those pennies jingling in the right-side pocket by day’s end. If you do, that’s a great day! You’re on your way to becoming a true hugger.
And listen, it’s not against the rules to start with fifteen pennies or even two dozen pennies. There’s no hugs limit. Matter of fact, people who know me and my philosophy have asked me, “Jack, can you hug too much?” What I tell them is, “Well, maybe you can, but I’ve been doing this a long time and no one has told me to stop.”
Jack Mitchell is Chairman of the Mitchell Stores (Mitchells/Richards/Wilkes/Marios), a three-generation family business that operates men’s and women’s specialty stores that are nationally renowned for their personal service touches and strong relationships. Jack himself has been recognized as one of the top ten retail visionaries of his time by the Women’s Wear Daily. He is also the author of Selling the Hug Your Customers Way.