Home > Uncategorized > Time to be Honest with Customers?

Time to be Honest with Customers?

Sometimes you want to tell your customers how it’s going, and sometimes you’re better not to say anything. How do you strike the balance? In the past we’ve seen what we thought was genuine communications play out like a game of broken telephone:

  • we said, “We don’t want to think about closing;”
  • which was read as “They’re thinking about closing;”
  • which got passed on as “They’re shutting down;”
  • which ends up with a customer dropping in months later saying, “This is wild! We heard you had closed.”

So one hates to be preemptive, but there is a need to be honest with customers. That was the spirit of a letter Faith Family Books in Toronto sent out to its customers two weeks ago on January 20th:

I would not normally ask for your help but this time I must make an exception. We felt that if we were not open and honest with all of you about our current needs, and then something happened to us that “was shocking,” you might wonder why we didn’t ask our community for help. So let me explain why we are asking for your support and your prayers.

Like any of the bookstores and retail businesses that depend on strong Christmas sales that allow for their survival the rest of the year, we find ourselves in a difficult circumstance that many find themselves in.

Our normal sales in December account for 25% of yearly sales and 90% of all profits for the year so it is a vital period. It is common for a store’s major sales to come during the 2-3 weekends just before Christmas and then through Boxing Day. This year, in the 2 weeks leading up to Christmas, we had a major snow storm on one key weekend, an ice storm the weekend before Christmas and then an arctic freeze (Polar Vortex) ever since. The ice storm brought our sales to a full stop for a solid week while people waited for their power to come back on. As Toronto experienced the worst weather of any December in decades our “life-saving sales period” was lost and resulted in significant financial losses for Faith Family Books.

As we enter the lean days of winter where many businesses find themselves not able to survive, we are in need of the support of all our faithful customers more than ever to keep us open…

At my own store, things weren’t on the same scale financially, but to us the need was just as acute. On December 28th we wrote:

From day one… more than 18 years ago, people have always wanted to know “how it’s going.” …[I]t thrilled me back then when people, in a figurative sense, “took ownership” of the place. A handful of anonymous people over the years have taken this one step further and provided us with short term financing. It’s nice to know that people are invested with us in seeing the capital-C Church having some visibility in the larger marketplace.

Normally we pay [our operating loan] off completely the second week in December and start the year with a zero balance. The key word is normally.

Although we’re current with all our suppliers, our landlord, and our employees, we’re down about $11,000 from where we’d normally be at this time.  Having daily sales in the four week lead-up to Christmas … higher would have minimized this, and again normally, that’s what we expected.

…People who operate retail businesses are always lamenting lack of activity, even when things are great. But the thing that grieved me most this Christmas was the downturn in Bible sales, both for adults and for children. The inventory level we committed to back in September seemed conservative at the time, but we have stacks and stacks of Bibles left over this year.

Another area which was disturbing was in our Children’s books department. I can’t think of anything better for a kid than to curl up with a good book, but many of today’s parents find it easier to place the child in front of a screen with a DVD or video game. This trend ought to be causing all kinds of red lights to appear on your dashboard…

The letter to Faith customers concluded:

There are many ways you can help us continue to be a centre that provides resources that Christians and churches need to grow in their faith. If you have not visited our store for a long time please come and see our great new product selection. You can tell a friend about us or bring one in to browse around. You can hold off on that “on-line order” and instead let us meet your needs. If you are a pastor, please remind your congregation that Christian stores like us depend on them.  Our customers are essential as we forge ahead…

We concluded in a similar way:

…I will keep fighting for its existence as long as it remains viable, because I see the positive results first-hand. I hope that some of you will want to join us in this mission, and even though the formal season of gift-giving is now past, consider ways you can place a Christian book or music CD or a Bible in the path of a neighbour, co-worker, friend, extended-family member, or even a stranger.

I should add here that I am aware of at least one person who was very critical of Faith’s approach — that was how I heard about the letter — and that I had to spend 20 minutes defending ourselves to a customer for our own letter. But I think that in our particular type of ministry, you have to be straightforward with your customers.

I believe the times call for us to be totally transparent.

  1. February 6, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    As I have thought about the letters sent out by Faith Family Books and your store I have some thoughts you may or may not want to hear. We as Christian Bookstores are here to serve the customer, not to lay a guilt trip on them for not shopping enough, or purchasing elsewhere. It is not their responsibility to make sure we stay open. Sure, bookstores will close if customers don’t spend their money there, but times change and as the tide turns to shopping online or choosing e-books over paper books bookstores may well become obsolete. That will be a sad day for me but I will not take the negative approach. I will be here to serve my customers as long as it is relevant to them and as long as God sees fit to bless my store with enough resources to carry on.

    • February 6, 2014 at 2:16 pm

      Gwen, thanks for your comment.

      I think to do a letter like this two things have to be in place. First, you have know the general mood of the customers who are going to receive it, and whether they want to, as I described it, ‘take ownership’ of the store or whether, as Faith described it, they would be upset if something happened without forewarning. So it’s not going to work in all markets. Second, I think you have to be the kind of person who is willing to write such a letter in the first place. It doesn’t suit everybody’s personality set to compose a letter like the two under discussion here. So you have to know the people who are getting the letter, and know that you want to write such a letter at all.

      But you’re right. It can be read as you’re trying to ‘guilt’ the customers into making a return visit, and doing so in a season when, apart from Valentines Day, there isn’t any particular gift-giving occasion in view and there aren’t a lot of new releases.

      The person who alerted me to the Faith letter wrote this on his blog:

      Sending out emails guilting me into shopping there smacks of the January 1987 announcement from Oral Roberts which basically said “cough it up, or I die”.

      Certainly the person who got upset with us over our letter was expressing something similar, but that’s the only complaint I heard. I guess we felt we needed to do something and that this was a better course than doing nothing so we took the risk. Many of our emails get filtered out, and Facebook now restricts views, so it’s harder and harder to get our message out to people.

      On the other hand, since the Faith letter linked back to Larry’s article at our website, we know that nearly 250 people clicked through in the days that followed, so they were interested; they were concerned.

      Overall though, we agree with you that the general tenor of our customer interactions should be to stay positive.

  2. rae-anne
    February 7, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    did you feel a positive response? were January sales up from last year?

    • February 7, 2014 at 4:06 pm

      I don’t have final numbers, but this is about being transparent with customers. When our letter went out it was still December, there was no way of knowing what the weather was going to do, but I’m sure the numbers were down considerably for January.

      A provisional layoff notice was sent to our staff just moments ago, in which we said that “it would be presumptuous to assume that we will be following the same staff schedule or open the same hours as of March 1st.”

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