Inky Saperstein was the Albert Einstein of the second-hand clothing business. He was the best salesman we had at the pawnshop. He could sell anything to anyone and sometimes for more than it was marked. And, he was instrumental in teaching me an important lesson in marketing.
In a business where our dress code was drab, his was flamboyant. He wore expensive shirts and colorful ties. He had a pressed handkerchief in his breast pocket-he had a breast pocket. Most of us never wore jackets. There was nothing carnival about Inky. He was pure theatre.
His extravagant style was particularly helpful when he was selling clothing. He would try a suit jacket on a customer, step back, and bring his hands to his face as if in shock. 'My God. My. God. You. Look. Fabulous. My God that fits you great. My God.'
He'd drag the customer over to the mirror, 'My God look how great this suit lays on you. It doesn't need a stitch of alterations. It's perfect.' He'd say all this standing between the customer and the mirror so the customer couldn't get a clear view of what he was trying on. Or, he'd fiddle with the jacket buttons or pockets as a diversion. Inky would yell over to one of us, 'My God, look at this. Look how great it fits him. Have you ever seen a suit fit more perfectly? My God.'
For Inky, selling suits was a choreographed dance. His hands would be constantly running over the jacket. Pulling. Pushing. Flattening. At some point he'd go over to the tie rack and find an appropriate number and show it to the customer. 'This suit fits like it was custom-made it for you. It's fabulous. I want to give you this tie. You must have this tie. It's my gift. My God it looks great with that suit. Do you need a dress shirt? I'll sell you one at cost. My God.'
It was just another day at the pawnshop.
Part of what made Inky such a good clothing salesman was that he dressed well. He exemplified to people what they could look like. He had credibility. He was enthusiastic. When a customer believes in you and can relate to you, the sale is much easier. My God he could sell. That was an important insight to learn about selling, but that wasn't the best marketing lesson I learned from Inky.
Unfortunately, Inky applied that same aggressive technique to people who came in for a loan-only he did it in reverse. If a customer wanted to borrow $3 on a radio Inky would automatically offer less. But, many of our customers were regulars in the pawnshop who always borrowed the same amount on their property each time. Most of our customers borrowed money during the week and paid us back on Friday when they were paid.
One day I overheard Nate talking to Inky about this. He gave Inky a little philosophy on lending. And that was the most valuable lesson I ever learned. Nate said that our business at the pawnshop is to lend money. The more we lend, the more interest we make. With regular customers, we should always try to lend the maximum the item is worth. The risk is small-more than 85% of our customers retrieved their belongings.
He said that 'the business is not about squeezing someone for a dollar less than the asking price. The business is about making that customer happy. It's about getting the customer to come back frequently. It's never giving a customer a reason to visit the other pawnshops. When customers feel they have been fairly treated and are pleased with the transaction, they're more likely to recommend us to others.'
That's the real lesson. Marketing is everything you do to win the sale and win over the customer. It's about the long-term process of building customers for life.
Everything you do to win over customers includes every contact and activity that a customer has with your business. The way your receptionist greets someone is marketing. The cleanliness of your trucks on the road is marketing. The way a stamp sits on an envelope is marketing. Anything that comes in contact with your customer is marketing.
There are few things more dangerous to your reputation than an unhappy customer who wants to tell everyone how he was wronged. This is a particularly sensitive issue in the era of the Internet. Unhappy customers have email and chat rooms where they can share their misery with millions of strangers.
Winning the sale and winning over the customer is an equation that business people have to solve constantly. It's easy to achieve some of that formula some of the time. It seems difficult to do all of it all of the time. Yet, in every business category it should not be surprising to learn that the market leader wins business and wins over customers.
Anything that touches the customer is marketing because it has an impact on how that customer perceives your product or service. Great companies make customer service a part of the fabric of their operation.
The Pawnshop Chronicles: Street Wisdom for the Business World is available at www.pawnshopchronicles.com, among other online venues.