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Get Out of Town - Really

by Matt Parmaks, Senior Consultant

It is impossible to direct an operation without knowing how it works. How it really works, not how it is supposed to work.


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If you are in charge of a retail operation and don’t have your next out of town store visit trip booked …do it now. It’s more important to visit out of town stores more often than you visit stores in close proximity to Head Office. In town visits are really not as productive, for you or the company, as out of town visits. There are many reasons for this but among the most important are familiarity and favoritism. The home town Store Managers are usually more familiar and friendly with Head Office staff and out of town stores perceive the in town stores to be favored…true or not. For everyone’s sake, get out of town regularly.

Call the District Manager and each of the Managers you plan to see during your trip and ask them to prepare a list of questions for you. This call should be made by you, not your assistant. Tell the Store Managers that no topic is off limits and that you are sincerely looking forward to hearing their ideas, answering their questions and discussing the business with them.

Make sure you let them know exactly when you will be in town and then work together to come up with the best day and time for you to meet with them in their store. Remember that, during these visits, your schedule is much more flexible than theirs. They must consider floor coverage, breaks for staff, etc.

Let them know that you would like to do a store walkthrough and then meet, out of the store of course, for lunch or coffee.

After doing all of the above you will already have accomplished a great deal. You have made a commitment to meet with certain individuals and, barring an unforeseen disaster, you will show up at the date and time agreed to. They are counting on it; their staff members are counting on it. The operation is important to you and, while you are out of town visiting your stores very few things should be allowed to take priority over your scheduled meetings with Managers. What you learn from these meetings will be very valuable for you and the organization.

You have elevated your business partners. They are excited about your visit and they are feeling more like a valued company professional than they ever did before. With your phone call you have personally acknowledged their importance to the company and their level of motivation has shot right through the roof. They are pumped and they will rally their teams to get ideas, questions and concerns. When you arrive they will be ready to contribute.

In contrast to this scenario many VP’s and Directors do something like this: Make a decision to fly out in a few days; have their assistant send an e-mail to a District Manager to make sure they are picked up at the airport; the assistant is instructed to tell the DM that there are certain stores they want to see, certain stores they do not need to see and the schedule, or order of store visits, can be worked out when they arrive.

The DM then lets his/her Managers know that there will be a Head Office visit during a specified period of time but no one is sure whether the visitor will come to their store or not. The reason for the ‘possible’ visit is not known. Even if a particular Manager is told that the Head Office visitor will come to their store, no time is set because the visitors schedule is subject to change if something more important comes up. Perception is reality and all that. My opinion is that there are very few things more important than meeting with a Store Manager who is expecting you. I have witnessed many cases where a store team knows of a pending visit and waits the entire day (and evening) only to have a Manager of another store call to say ‘they’re not coming because they got off schedule’ which translates into ‘too bad you waited; you’re really not that important.’

In this scenario no one is expected to prepare anything or to contribute in any way. They are just the keepers of the stores. This is a completely wasted visit. Unfortunately, the Store Managers are likely to be de-motivated by all of this. Even if the Head Office individual does feel that they accomplished something with this visit, it is nothing compared to what they could have accomplished.

A note about surprise visits: Before your next surprise visit, determine exactly why you are doing it. Do you want to know what the store looks like and how the staff are handling customers, etc.? Do you want to catch someone doing something wrong? Isn’t there a better way? Of course there is and you don’t need to fly around the country to do it. Try to find a good Mystery Shopper. More on that in another issue.

Think about this. You are a VP or Director. It is Monday at 1:45 p.m. Last weeks numbers are not great and you have been working feverishly all morning trying to analyze what is going on; you’re calling RM’s and DM’s, buyers and marketing staff; your assistant called in sick and you haven’t had a chance to have a bite to eat. You have to have the full explanation of what went wrong and your complete action plan ready in time for the 4:00 p.m. meeting with the boss. The CEO walks into your office and has you call in all of your subordinates for a meeting – right there and then – and during that meeting you must still carry on with your work (think customers in the store). You do not have the option of saying that this is not a good time; you just have to live with the situation. Impossible is it? Sounds a little bizarre? That’s a surprise visit. Just don’t do it.

You can have a tremendous impact on your business by handling store visits as proper professional business meetings. No doubt you have Store Managers at different stages of development with different levels of knowledge, skill and experience. Your visit can be used to build a foundation of management strength in the field. You can impart knowledge to raise the skill level of your newer and less experienced Managers. You can challenge your more experienced and more knowledgeable Managers. You have tremendous power to create very positive attitudes and a loyal following. In addition to the motivation you create in the field you are going to go back to the office much better off. You will have new insight and information and you got it from the people who are in direct and constant communication with your customer; you got it from the people who make the sales and satisfy your customers.

If you do it right, you can accomplish truly incredible things with your store visits.

Matt Parmaks is senior consultant and EVP of DMSRetail. You can reach him at mparmaks@dmsretail.com

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