Paul Cahn, founder and co-chairman at Elan Polo International, doesn’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about it either. But he says it would be a mistake to assume that any product, even one as common as a pair of shoes, is a lock to be needed forever and ever.
“The world we’re living in today, who knows what we’re going to need,” says Cahn, who founded the footwear company in 1976. “We might all be floating in another 25 years instead of walking.”
It’s this unwillingness to make assumptions that helps Cahn stay in touch with his customers’ wants and desires and push more than 45 million pairs of shoes out the door and into the hands of retailers around the world for sale each and every year.
Making a sale to every customer is not the priority for Cahn.
“We’re only interested in the prolonged relationships that we create with customers,” Cahn says. “We feel that customers are a lot smarter than we are. So we want to listen and see what they are really looking for and what they really want or what they really need. That’s where it starts. We try to service them. The idea is to have what they need or to be able to create what they need. As far as selling is concerned, listening is as important as selling.”
When you’re a good listener, you learn about what your customers are looking for and reduce the odds that you’ll be caught off-guard by a sudden change in customer demand. You just need to make sure that you’re listening to your customers and studying your industry to see how trends are changing.
“Today, I can pick up my iPod or cell phone and I can find out right there what the hell I’m looking for,” Cahn says. “It makes it a much more competitive market. It’s simpler today to keep up than it ever was because we have so much information available. But it’s a lot more competitive than it’s ever been because there is so much information available.”
Here are some of the ways Cahn helps his 500-employee company stay poised for change and positioned to endure it when the times turn tough.Be a problem solver
Aggressiveness is not the key to pleasing your customer. It may help you make a sale, but if it’s not something that a particular customer really wanted, he or she probably wouldn’t return to buy additional products from you.
“Knowing your product and knowing how it fits in with your customer is the name of the game,” Cahn says. “In the long run, the solicitor of your product, the more he knows about his product and the need of his customers, the better salesman he will be.”
Cahn recalls a business trip he made shortly after he got married that illustrates his philosophy about what constitutes a true win for a salesperson.
“My wife asked me, ‘Did you have a good trip?’” Cahn says. “I said, ‘I don’t know.’ She said, ‘Did you sell anything?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, I sold something.’ So she said, ‘Well, then you had a good trip.’ I said, ‘No. Did my customer sell it or get good use out of it?’ Selling again is just part of business. It’s part of life. Being able to sell doesn’t mean that the product will be successful with who you sold it to or whether you’ll have a happy camper. … Selling is an art and a skill. It’s not the act of tuning into your customer to get him to favor you. It’s whether the product you sell to your customer, it’s that he’s doing better with your product than with the next guy’s product.”
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care about making a sale.
“Of course we want to make a sale,” Cahn says. “But if you don’t have the product an informed customers needs, you can’t make it. That happens all the time. If it happens often enough, I’ll be out of business.”
So how do you avoid such a fate?
“If you find out that you don’t have that product, as soon as that customer walks out, you’re going to try to work it out somehow,” Cahn says. “If it’s a common thing this customer is asking for, try to create that product for the next customer because he’s not the only one who is going to walk in looking for that product.
You need to work with your people to teach them to be aware and to keep their eyes and ears open to clues that customers provide about what product they are looking for.
“Management stays in touch with management of the companies we serve,” Cahn says. “There is a free flow of information both ways. We, of course, measure it by the amount of business we get from one year to the next or from one season to the next. When we visit customers, we study what they are doing and are pretty much aware of what the needs are for us.”
Talk to your employees about your product. Involve them in the developmental stage to see if it matches what they are seeing on the front lines as far as the desires of the market or the retailers to which you’re distributing your product. It’s these kinds of discussions that you need to have to ensure that customers keep coming back to buy your product.
“We bring them together and listen to what their needs are and tell them what our feelings are and work it out together,” Cahn says of the partnership between management and employee or retailer to best serve the market’s needs.
“We show them where we feel the future lies and how they feel about it and we sort of put it together and see whether that’s the product that is needed.”Be a team player
The economic meltdown of 2008 posed a challenge to retail businesses, including shoe companies. People still needed shoes, of course, but perhaps they didn’t need as many pairs or tried to make the pairs they had last a little longer.
The priority suddenly became sustainability. So how do you keep employees focused on getting to know your customers when they’re worried about whether or not they’ll have a job tomorrow?
“You do create fear,” Cahn says. “You not only create fear, you wonder how many of your best people are going to leave you and what the morale is going to be. We handled it in such a way that we wanted to make sure everyone was going to get through this. Let’s do it together. It isn’t just that we gave cuts to employees. We took substantial cuts ourselves to make sure that we could survive this.”
It’s one thing to ask employees to buy in to your business and your plan when times are good, but if you appear to abandon them when times turn tough, you’re going to have a hard time maintaining their loyalty.
So you have to make it clear that you stand with your people, even when you’re faced with letting some of them go.
“We handled it in such a way that there was no safe haven anywhere,” Cahn says. “At least we had a track record of managing our affairs and people had confidence in our ability to do that. They were willing to go along with it.”
Cahn says you can go a long way in earning the support of your people just by the way you refer to the business.
“I have never looked at my business as my business,” Cahn says. “I’ve always looked at my business as our business. It’s one team. I march with them; they march with me. What can I do to make them more motivated?
“When we fly anywhere in the world, I don’t get myself upgraded and have my employees sit in coach. I don’t stay in better hotels or have a different food allowance. We march with the troops and they know that.”
You can also take visible steps to recognize employees who go above and beyond the challenges to provide great service to your customers or provide a needed boost or fresh idea to your business.
“Employees should be compensated for good work beyond average work,” Cahn says. “One works better and faster than the other does and they should be recognized for that. If not, you’re going to have communism and that didn’t seem to work too well. Recognition is important. Recognize the different jobs that different employees do. They don’t all do as good of a job.”
As for the employees you have to let go, don’t make any promises you can’t keep. But you can offer them hope if you believe there is a chance they could be brought back at some point.
“We said to the ones we let go, ‘As soon as we can, we’ll rehire and you’ll have first preference,’” Cahn says. “It was just a very obvious thing that needs to be done. We can promise that you’ll be the first ones we’ll look at. You can make promises that if we hire people in the next six months, they’ll be the first ones you’ll consider.”
The hope is that when the economic tide does turn, you’ll be able to put people in place who have already been trained about your culture and know what you expect.
“At that point, you’re going to go after people that you’re comfortable with instead of going after new people,” Cahn says. “It’s very open. We have nothing to hide. As soon as our business stabilized and we could see that our customers’ business was stabilizing, we gave them back more or less what we had taken away. They understood what happened. We certainly kept them informed and after that, we started advancing people again.”
When you’re going through a tough time, you can’t eliminate all of the fear that your employees have and you actually don’t want to.
“If they’re not going to worry about the future, they’re not going to be good employees,” Cahn says. “We’re all worried, even if things are good. We’re all worried about making sure we interpret the marketplace. That won’t change.”
When you have conscientious employees, you stand a much better chance of having employees who can help your company understand its customers and do what needs to be done to drive growth.
“They see it every day whether we get the order or don’t get the order,” Cahn says. “It’s not necessarily a matter of price, it’s not a matter of quality, it’s not a matter of delivery, it’s not a matter of information. It’s a combination of everything. Over a period of time, they all show up. Your abilities against your inabilities will show up in the long run.”
HOW TO REACH: Elan Polo International, (314) 655-3300 or www.elanpolo.com