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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Jack Mitchell "Hugs" to Success

By Shel Horowitz

Those little extra touches that make customers gasp with delight—what some businesses call the "Wow Factor," Jack Mitchell calls them "Hugs."

"A hug is a metaphor for any tiny caring gesture, deed or act that touches the customer, and the customer says 'wow, these folks really care about me as a person. I think I’ll come back and shop here again,' he told the FBC's capacity-crowd October gathering. "We’re blessed to have the president of Pepsi; I wouldn’t offer her a Coke! We try to know their kids’ names, their grandchildren’s names, where they went to college; we want to get to know them as people in a way that makes them feel good."

And as it continues the transition to the third generation, his business is built on those "hugs."

It's an extremely personalized approach, but one made possible by strong technology. But the customer never sees the CRM (customer relationship management) database that keeps sales reps informed of not only purchase history, but a wide range of personal data, extracted gradually over time: names of pets, anniversaries, birthdays, and much more.

Instead, the customer sees the power of relationships built over time, with sales staff that seem more friends than servers.

Regular customers work with a particular sales associate, each of whom manages about 250 "clients." and the relationship goes much deeper than greeting the client by name. Sales associates will actually make appointments with their clients, so that the client is guaranteed to work with his or her associate. They call their clients when something new arrives that seems like a good fit.

Mitchell outlined a few keys:

Get All Employees Involved with Exceeding Expectations

"Everyone’s on the selling floor. We have 40 seamstresses and tailors. They’re right next to the selling floor, listening about what to buy. Our comptroller, our shipping and receiving, everybody focuses on the customers. We know their names, their nicknames, whether they like Pepsi or Coke. We walk them to their cars.

"I write longhand notes to our top 1400 customers, and I put the name of the sales associate that services the wife and the husband. This year we added 150 new clients. Would your comptroller want to invest $100 on top clients? Ours wants to because he’s on the selling floor."

"You have to exceed their expectations every time they come into the store. And you have to dig in and find out what kind of service, what kind of hug they like. We actually go to their homes and do closet cleanings. Do you know how intimate that is? Those little things are personalizing the relationships every time they come in."

Put the Customer Above Everything Else

"Most upper-end specialty stores that sell the best products in the world think product first. When I meet any of the big CEOs, they’re all about product. They grab my suit and start [asking tech questions]. Our mindset is first and foremost, the customers, and THEN we sell great product. We go throughout the world to find the finest products, but it’s about getting to know them. We’ve gone from a transactional to a relationship mentality. I still like it when someone buys seven pairs of shoes, but more important, what are they going to use them for? I want to know everything I can about them. What do they do for business, personal, and family?"

Hire Huggers

"Who gives great customer service? People give great service. So first, we look for great people. Not good, but great people. People ask how do you find great people? I have four criteria.

  • You have to find honest people. We actually test for integrity. Are they open and honest? Will they really share what they think of the products, of the business?
  • They have to be positive. If they‘re blaming the president or their spouse for everything, they can go to another store.
  • They have to be competent. And self-confident. Passionate about listening and learning and growing.
  • They have to be nice. You can tell nice people.

Here's just one among many examples of extraordinary service that Mitchell shared during his talk, and within the pages of his bestselling book, Hug Your Customers (already in its seventh printing after just two years): "Debra Gampel hangs out in the shirts and the ties. She told me about Jeff, who called from Danbury, panicked: 'I just got a call from my big boss, I have to go get on a plane to Zurich tonight to speak on customer service to bankers.' She said, 'come on down.' She went to our database and noticed he was a 42 regular, loved Hickey Freeman, his shoe size. She had everything laid out for him when he got there, and he bought every single thing. She had already alerted Domenic, our tailor. She’d noticed he liked cappuccino, so she had some waiting."

The next time Jeff saw Jack on the selling floor, he asked, "Did she tell you the end of the story? Picture this: I’m in Zurich with these stuffy Swiss bankers, and I’m telling the story about extraordinary service and using Debbie as an example. I went to brag on your label and there was a card inside. It said, 'Happy Birthday, love, Deborah.' These Swiss bankers all stood up and applauded!"

Hug Your Huggers

"Phyllis sells $3.4 million [annually] in Westport, and has only 240 clients. I see what she’s sold, I can come up and give her a huge hug. You have to hug the huggers, the people that work with you. If we don’t hug them, they don’t hug the customers as well.

"How many of you send birthday cards to your associates? Anniversary cards, they’ve worked for you for one year, five years? We do. I take the time to handwrite little notes in the card. People save these! And if you do it to your huggers, they understand how important it is that they do it to their customers."

Use the Full Power of Your Database

"In 1988, a speaker said, 'do you know as much about your customers as you do about your inventory?' We did not. So we decided right then to SKU our customers. Since 1989, we know every sale, whether they bought by cash, plastic or in-store credit. And we know what they hadn’t bought. We can print the complete purchases, by SKU, every morning of those people who spent more than $2000 in one sale.

"We have 150,000 people in our database, we organize them by households. Each record is organized: business, personal, and family. They all have birthdays, anniversary dates. You start filling in over a period of time; you don’t interrogate someone. But you start putting that information in, and all of a sudden, they become friends. And if you forget, you go to the back room, punch up the screen and look at it."

These methods have grown the store from very humble beginnings—three suits in an 800 square-foot former plumbing shop when his dad first opened Mitchells in 1958—to three large retail stores in Westport and Greenwich, Connecticut, and just recently Huntington, New York.

Both expansions were by acquisition, and then integrating the Mitchells culture. In the case of Richards, the Greenwich store, the company already had a very customer-focused attitude, but no infrastructure to bring it up a notch. "They had no computer but they knew everybody by name. It was a fun place to shop but they couldn’t call you back. We doubled the business in five years. We started selling to the wives of the people we were already selling to."

The New York location, across Long Island Sound, is much more of a distance from Westport, but Mitchell is confident. "We’re doing it much faster with Marshs on Long Island than we had with Richards. I believe we can export the model. You get into the habit, you know the name of Paula Zahn’s pet fish. It’s like brushing your teeth."

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