When the first stirrings of market trade happened centuries ago it was all very simple.  There was a need and there was a supply.  There was a man or woman who had what you wanted and you went to them to get it.  If they didn’t have it, and they saw an opportunity to make more money, they often attempted to provide it.

A fair bit of price haggling and bartering went on but ultimately it was a transaction between two people.  The likelihood of you returning to that merchant rested on them always having what you needed for the right price, and on how they made you feel during the transaction.

No one bought from someone they didn’t like or didn’t trust and loyalty wasn’t bought, it was earned. And in those early days, merchants survived not just by providing a supply, but by listening to the needs of their customers and building relationships with them so that when a new arrival appeared in town hawking the same goods, it didn’t disrupt their happy livelihood.

As merchants became fully-fledged businesses and they hired people to help them grow their retail empires, training them to understand the customer/merchant dynamic and how to build a relationship with a customer was key.  The great butcher became the great butcher’s shop, which in turn became the trusted butcher in three towns over and so on.  The consistency of experience and expertise, along with adapting to market forces meant the good became great, and those who focused purely on transaction fell by the way side.

It comes as no surprise that by the time the likes of Aristide Boucicaut of Bon Marche in Paris, Marshall Fields in Chicago and Harry Selfridge in London had done their bit, successful merchants had become retail magnates.  And a compelling and consistent customer experience was at the heart of their success.

As times changed and technology advanced, most retailers’ focus moved away from the one thing that made them great in preference of building ever more complex and efficient systems and processes to get their products to market quicker and with more ease than their competitors.

And as technology has provided customers with ever-growing access to information and knowledge to help them in their paths to purchase, many retailers have taken their foot off the pedal when it comes to great service and listening to their customers.  In the haste to be the most efficient, many retailers have decided it is far easier to assume the internet will do much of the heavy lifting in the customer journey.

Don’t get me wrong, harnessing technology to optimise the retail experience as the landscape changes is important, but despite the fact every day sees another launch of apps that enable custom orders, digital interfaces that expose the customer to an ever growing portfolio of products and services, self-ordering kiosks and checkout tellers, special offer coupons or even theme-park style skip-the-queue features; it doesn’t necessarily enable customers to make better decisions or improve their experience of the brand itself.

Henry Ford is famously attributed as saying that if he had relied on his customers to inform his business there wouldn’t be the motor car “they would have asked for faster horses” and this saying has often been cited as almost categoric proof that customers don’t know what they want and therefore asking them is pointless.  But Ford’s success came from envisioning and realising the mass production of automobiles through adaptation of the moving assembly line enabling him to manufacture, market and sell his Model T at a lower price than his competition.

And it was his inability to listen to his customers and their changing needs that reduced his market share from two thirds to 15% when GM started to listen and adapt to consumer feedback and trends in the 1920’s.

By contrast back in 1909, Harry Selfridge understood the transformative power of customer feedback and made it a point of his day to walk round and speak to customers, asking them how they found the experience of his store and trying to elicit ideas of what would make his store their favourite in London.

And he also did something else that few did in his time, he spent time talking to his employees, asking them what customers were doing and saying (so he could act quickly to address their needs and desires) but also empowering them to help shape the offer of the store thereby instilling in them a natural excitement and motivation for delivering the best possible customer experience.

By contrast, in the early 90’s an eager and talented sales assistant in a well-known shoe shop who kept hearing her customers ask if they had any shoes like the pointed kitten heels Audrey Hepburn favoured (they didn’t) told her store manager, who in turn told the buying team, but the feedback was dismissed and no action was taken.  This sales assistant was also a student at the School of Fashion and Arts and within 12 months had designed and created  the first shoe in what was to become one of the best loved footwear businesses of the last 20 years.  That first shoe was the very same kitten heel she had kept hearing customers ask for.  Using her talent, nous and belief in listening to and then acting upon customer feedback resulted in her building a multi-million-dollar shoe business that is still one of the leading brands today.

Had her previous employer believed in the value of customer feedback but more importantly the value of employee feedback, and how it can be acted upon both to improve strategy and the customer experience they might not have gone out of business within 5 years.

And so it is that whilst ‘listening to customers’ is a phrase almost every business likes to use when describing their customer-centricity, the more I see and the more I am exposed to through my own retail habits (experiencing the feedback systems most retailers are giving a cursory nod to) the more it reminds me of something my father used to say to me when I was being told off as a child.

“You’re hearing me but are you listening to me…?”