Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Customer Service and The Downtown Manager

I know these are two concepts that you don't often see together, kind of like chocolate milk and salt (trust me, you won't be sorry).  As a follow-up to last month's "How's Your Customer Service" post, it's time to take the focus off the business owners and shine the spotlight on some of the hardest working people in the business - downtown managers.  I've been with my community for a total of twelve years, six as the director.  In that time, I've witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to working with business owners.

Back in the day, I was a bright-eyed, incredibly enthusiastic Promotions & Marketing Coordinator ready to change the world (or at least my little corner of it).  First task on my list was to get out and meet the downtown business owners.  I was working for them, so it seemed like a good place to start.  That decision, hands down, was the best thing  I ever did and now in my capacity as Executive Director, it is still paying dividends.  I have always believed that we are in a service business and the downtown businesses and property owners are our key group of customers.  But how do you measure your customer service efforts?

Indicator 1:  Shoes 

Yes, you read that right, shoes.  The person who gave me my start in this business, Bob Donohue, told me that he would know if I was doing my job by how many pairs of shoes I went through each month.  And as much as it pains me to admit that Bob is right about anything, he was absolutely spot on with this one.  Cement and asphalt are especially hard on the soles of your shoes and provide irrefutable evidence of whether or not you're getting the job done.  On the plus side, this phenomenon complemented my over-the-top shoe buying habit quite nicely.

Indicator 2:  Establish Relationships 

Let's start with the basics - do you know your business owners by name? When was the last time you walked into your businesses just to check in?  I attended a seminar where the downtown manager boasted that he and a group of board members conducted an annual downtown walk of their business district.  He described it as a generally unpleasant experience with the fervent hope that a random thunderstorm would strike, thereby cancelling the walk until next year.  He further explained that he didn't understand why his merchants weren't engaged and always complained.  Hmm.

Visiting once a year on a sunny day is just not enough.  Like any good relationship, you'll only get out of it what you put into it.  Consistency and variety are the keys to making this connection.  Everyone engages in different ways.  Try hosting merchant meetings at the same time and place every month.  They might not be able to attend every month, but at least they will know that the opportunity exists.  Some of your business owners might not be the social types, so how about a merchant newsletter or weekly e-blast to let them know what's happening around town.  The goal is let them know that their input is not only desired, but required to make your downtown a better place. 

Indicator 3:  Establish Value

What's in it for them?  Yes, I know they should want to participate by virtue of the fact that you are trying to help them, but I'm sorry to say that good intentions are not enough to engage the independent business owner.  Their focus is on their business, and rightfully so. Not sure where to start?  Try sending out an annual business survey to discover what their expectations and feelings are about your organization. Forward the results to your appropriate committees to see if there are some actionable items.  If you can make a few of the requests actually happen, you'll be their hero.  People, by nature, want to feel validated.  When you take the time to listen to their ideas and concerns, it goes a long way.

Will working with your businesses always produce a positive outcome?  No, not always.  Inevitably, you will come across someone who has no interest in you or your organization, but that doesn't mean that you should stop trying.  In short, customer service can be a valuable tool in your community revitalization efforts.  It takes time, a sincere effort and some comfortable, snappy shoes but in the long run, it is one the best things that you can do for your downtown.

Want more?   I'll be presenting From Zero to Hero:  A Main Street Manager's Story at the National Main Street Conference in Des Moines, Iowa on Monday, May 23, 3:45 - 5:00 pm.