From The Customer's Side Of The Table
By John M. Hotchner
Honestly, I have not come away from these experiences with a wholly favorable impression of my fellow collectors. Some of us are a joy to deal with; even those looking for a bargain. Others have a chip on their shoulders, a quarter of a mile high.
Since I am a collector much more than a dealer, I've been thinking it would be most useful to explain to other collectors what I know of what I'll call the dealer dynamic. That's what I have done in the past. And because it is not easy being a dealer, perhaps I have been too gentle. Well, that's about to change. This column is addressed to dealers, and it will be about what we collectors see that we don't like from our side of the table. It is offered in the spirit of constructive complaint, and recognizing that collectors and dealers have fundamentally different aims when we face each other at the bourse; or so it often seems.
In fact it is the dealer who makes the effort to bridge that gap that becomes a success. Remember the old saw about the customer always being right? It is not just a quaint saying, it is a law of commerce. And like most laws, it has its exceptions. But on the whole it is a law to live by in the short term, for even if the customer is sometimes wrong or on shaky ground, the dealer needs to think about the long term.
The failure rate among dealers is high, and I'm convinced that it is because a great many put on a dealer hat after many years of being a collector, but they never understand the need to think like a dealer; which is to be as concerned with long-term profit as with immediate gratification. Think about the dealers you have known who seemed to have a certain lack of people skills; no graciousness, no interest in anyone but themselves and the next sale, an overwhelming desire to show off their own knowledge at the expense of making the customer feel small, the gentility of a billy goat when it comes to talking about prices and negotiating.
They are unpleasant to deal with and they often turn off potential customers at a considerable distance, because what they say and how they say it can often be heard 20 feet away. That some survive is a tribute to their skills as a buyer and seller in a specialized field, where collectors may have few alternatives. But most of us have limited resources, and can find more than enough ways to dispose of our disposable income with dealers who make the effort to get along, to understand our wants without critiquing them, and who understand that I may spend $10 today, but I might spend $1000 tomorrow.
On that subject, too many dealers consider themselves to be human relations experts; men (and a few women) of vision who can "read" a customer like a book from 25 yards. That is of course a life skill: honed over a lifetime. And it isn't that dealers have less of it. It is that through hard experience, they have constructed mental models of who is going to be a good customer (which is to say one who is going to spend a lot of money). With my experience on the dealer's side of the table. I think it is fair to say that the model works in general, but not customer by customer. Which is to say that it may be accurate 60% of the time. but I have seen a street person, the most unlikely of characters, spend $2,500 in minutes, while a customer reeking of money has a stack of cheap covers $25 deep after two hours of fastidious searching through the stock.
Yet dealers will make a judgment based on looks and other less obvious visuals or audibles, and ignore people who they think are low-probability customers just because they can't be bothered. Lavishing attention on what they consider to be a high-probability customer may have a slightly higher payoff, but my experience is that I'm as likely to be wrong about one as the other, and my chances of being wrong in any given case is high.
Probably the most egregious behavior of this sort is what is regularly reported by women collectors, and children and their parents. Woe to the dealer who blows off women, children and minorities. Not only can they be good customers now and in the future, but they are also a Hope of the Hobby. If we are going to maintain our status as a popular hobby that supports a large and active dealer community, it will be because we draw increasing interest from those who have not been part of the traditional collector base in the past. Thus it is in the dealer's long-term interest to cultivate philately in every person regardless of race, age, sex, or any other non-germane element. Remember, stamp collecting (and cover collecting) is a degenerative disease. Most who really get to enjoy it become philatelists for life; we delve deeper into more expensive material as we get older, and we will be loyal to those in the trade who helped us get there.
There is a balance to be struck in customer handling; and it does require being able to read the customer but not their income level or willingness to spend it. Willingness to spend takes care of itself if the dealer is adept at assessing whether the customer is comfortable. There are some customers who enjoy and feel comfortable with a non-stop joking conversation; less and the customer feels ignored. For another customer just pointing him to the right sections of the boxes on the table is quite sufficient, thank you very much. Going into chatterbox mode with that customer will drive him straight into the arms of another dealer. So it isn't one-size-fits-all.
There is one absolute behavior that dealers need to keep in mind and do everything they can to avoid, and that is the temptation to sell repaired, faked or inferior goods at premium prices. If you think you can do this successfully, you are right. You can for a while. But you will eventually be found out, and your best advertising, word of mouth, will turn into your worst nightmare. And if you think you won't be found out, you are wrong. Customers grow up as they practice the hobby and they learn. They talk and compare notes and even exchange material with other collectors, and they often compare wares of other dealers, the totally honest ones who make up the bulk of the trade.
There are dealers who need to remember that they don't know everything about everything. The body of material has gotten way too large for that. We are all students. To pretend otherwise marks one as a fake. Likewise, those who put down what others collect as somehow inferior are building themselves up at the cost of offending potential customers. That may seem like low-risk behavior when you don't carry what that customer is looking for today. You don't know what they will be looking for tomorrow as they continue to grow and develop in their hobby. Or indeed what else they may collect now, if you took the trouble to ask!
In this regard dealers sometimes forget that they are really selling two things: philatelic material and service. What distinguishes most dealers who are successful is not the material they sell. There are lots of other dealers who sell the same material. It is the attitude of service with which they sell what they sell; how they work with the customer to make the customer feel listened to, respected, and comfortable.
The criticality of "Customer Service" is perhaps being a bit oversold in today's world, but ignore it at your peril. If I have a choice between paying a little more for a superior product from someone I enjoy dealing with, or paying less for something of equal quality from someone who is annoying, I'll spend the extra money every time and that is a characteristic of our service economy in present-day America. It is why brand names sell.
Publisher's Note: Should you wish to comment on this editorial, or have questions or ideas you would like to have explored in a future issue of USSN, please write to John Hotchner, USSN Editor, P.O. Box 1125, Falls Church, VA 22041-0125, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.Should you wish to comment on this editorial, or have questions or ideas you would like to have explored in a future column, please write to John Hotchner, VSC Contributor, P.O. Box 1125, Falls Church, VA 22041-0125, or email, putting "VSC" in the subject line, at email@example.com.