Earning customers’ trust

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Lutterworth Sound & Vision was the winner of the Best Customer Service title in the Independent Business Awards 2010. Ian and Sharee Jones, the owners of the company, told Anna Ryland how they built their business on customer service and what it takes to deliver a consistent level of service over 26 years.

Over a quarter of century Ian and Sharee Jones have made their business an integral part of the Lutterworth local community. The old market town on the border of Leicestershire and Warwickshire has two claims to fame. In the 14th century, John Wycliffe translated the bible from Latin to English while he was the rector at St. Marys Church in Lutterworth. Also in the 1930s, inventor Frank Whittle developed the first jet engine at the British Thomson-Houston works in Lutterworth. Today the town is a large logistics and distribution centre which is the main source of employment.

Ian, always passionate about electronics, began his career as a service engineer for an electrical dealership. Next he went to teach television servicing at a local college. When in 1984 a suitable shop premises became available he launched Lutterworth Sound & Vision. “My dad was a farmer but he always said; ‘If you can provide a service you’ll have customers.’ With this in mind I started my business but I had to add sales. Yet, the most important element aiding the growth of the company was television rentals. It still constitutes approximately 50% of the company’s profit,“ explains Ian.

Over the years the store has undergone three major extensions – from the original 330 sq feet it grew to the current 1,500 sq feet. The last major extension in 2003 was undertaken to accommodate domestic appliances, and in particular the Rangemaster collection.

Lutterworth Sound and Vision specialises in television sales of Sony and Panasonic and bespoke installation. It also sells domestic appliances of Bosch, Miele, Hotpoint and built-in Beko and a small range of floorcare and SKA. The company has a full representation of the Rangemaster range cookers, being a Rangemaster Elite Design Centre.

The customer base

“The majority of Lutterworth residents are in the middle income bracket due to the price of housing. They are very mobile because of the M1 motorway. They work in Birmingham, some commute to London,” says Ian.” Because the business has been in existence for 26 years we are now catering for the second generation of our customers, aspiring to be ‘a cradle to grave’ business partner for them. We have a few customers who moved away but whose parents still live in the area. They trust us with their credit card details and say to us ‘If our mum/dad’s television goes wrong please just sort it out and take the money off the card.’ This kind of trusted relationship took us a long time to develop.”

“However, our customer base is getting younger,” adds Sharee. It includes people in their 30s. We are doing our best to attract younger people.”

The LSV team

LSV has ten members of staff, including office administration. “The age of our staff ranges from 17 to 57 years. It is important to have a diversity of ages because a twenty-odd salesperson can better engage with younger customers. You have to make sure that the right person is visible to the right customer at the time,” explains Sharee.

Both Ian and Sharee work full time in the company. “It’s a blend of both our skills which works well for us. Sharee with her marketing background has a good eye for detail and has recently improved the branding and store lighting,” comments Ian.

How do they go about retaining their staff, I ask. “We are trying to make it fun for staff to work with us and make training enjoyable,” says Sharee. “Some members of our staff are in the local dodge ball team which we support.”

However training is absolutely key. We make sure that all our staff attend product training courses provided by manufacturers and we also run our own in-house training courses and various fun initiatives.”

“For example, we have recently treated each of our staff to an evening out, explains Ian. “We asked them to go for a meal and to report what customer service they received. Were they made to feel special; were they welcome; were the staff just indifferent? This was a fantastic exercise because it made our employees realise how they may appear to our customer’s. For our in-house training we use George Morton’s Top Level Solutions.”

“We teach our staff to address regular customers by their names, and to enquire about something from their last visit to the store. Customer’s history can be checked on our computer system.”

The point of difference

With such staff training it’s perhaps not surprising that customer service at Lutterworth Sound & Vision is second to none. “We are trying to remove all the hassles from the customers’ point of view,” continues Ian. “If they want a washing machine today – we will do everything to get it to them the same day. If there is a problem with a product, we just deal with it and don’t make an issue out of it. We try to recognise problems before they occur.”

Sharee adds: “We care very much that we do a very good job and frequently this gets beyond the call of duty, such as when our engineer went to get medicines for an elderly customer.

“However we also feel that a part of the customer service is to break the barriers of complex technology down. It is important that we can help our customers not to feel baffled by the technology. Our customers should be excited about their new products not intimidated by them.”

Ian doesn’t hesitate to stress that the key of the company’s success is “service, service and service. Because we have been delivering a consistent level of service over the last 26 years we are trusted.”

At the same time Ian is acutely aware of the cost of customer service. “We have to be very selective and make sure that we are profitable in what we do, because this is what keeps us going. We must never forget this. Hence the absolute importance of rental in our offer which probably subsidises the sales to some extent.”

The company is perceived as an integral part of the local community, and Ian and Sharee support many local initiatives. “For example, at Christmas, on the day the lights go up, we open our door and treat everyone to a glass of wine and cheeses and biscuits – this goes a long way with our customers – the existing and the potential ones.”

The challenges

In Ian’s opinion the greatest challenge for the company and the industry is ensuring the profitability of the independent business in the future marketplace. “Many people in the industry seem heelbent on driving sales forward through narrowing their margins. We all have to learn to walk away from the deals which are not right for us.

“It is a fantastic industry but we have to watch very carefully what the future holds. I follow what the independent does in the States. It is difficult there and will get more difficult here. But I am happy to encourage our children to get involved in the industry. There is money to be made out of it as people want to deal with people – even if the internet gets the major share of the sales.

“Now the internet is the main threat; thirty years ago there were Comets and Curry’s. However, lots of people still want service. Coming home from work they wish to find their television in the lounge working; they are not interested in playing with cables and brackets. Also less and less people have practical skills to be able, for example, to connect a washing machine properly. “

Ian regards the recession as a part of a business cycle. “I started in a recession and I expanded in the curre
nt recession. We all would like to see a continuous growth of the business, but the market doesn’t work like this. The profit of boom years has to subsidise the business when troughs come. The overheads have to be watched closely because if turnover declines the staffing levels have to be appropriate. But making the customer feel special goes a long way.”

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