In 2017 my wife will be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Its an adventure that will require dedication, training, discipline, stamina, no small amount of courage and… lots of specialist equipment. Much of the kit you can hire (not much call for 5-season sleeping bags in the UK!) but is some stuff she has to purchase herself. And a proper pair of walking boots is an essential purchase.

So, off we went into Solihull to do some research and (we hoped) make a purchase. We had no idea what type of boots we needed nor did we have a clue about the cost, so we needed to go into some stores, ask some questions and make an informed decision. Little did we realise the trip would result in one of the most incredible shopping experiences we’ve ever had.

There are several outdoor shops in Solihull that stock a variety of walking boots but there are only two that we found that stocked the more serious footwear that would withstand the rigours of climbing the worlds highest freestanding mountain – and one of them is Millets.

Just as we were walking towards the store, Vicky turned to me and said “What’s the betting we get some student who knows nothing about what we need and they probably won’t stock the type of boot we need anyway?” Well… we could not be more wrong!

We were greeted by the fabulous Ricky who, when we explained our quest, was helpful, funny, very knowledgable, and seemed to genuinely care we got all the info we needed to make the right choice. He showed a range of potential footwear and took time and care to explain the varying pros and cons of leather vs GoreTex, the difference between one make and another and the subtle variations that made one boot a better candidate than another.

We thanked him for his advice and mentioned that we were still at the investigating stage and we might be back later. We walked out of the shop and commented on the unexpected and positive experience we had had. Then we walked into the direct competition and could not have a had a more opposite experience. We were met by a young man who, when we explained our situation, looked genuinely terrified, pointed at a range of the most expensive boots they had and said “Well…. you’ll need something with really good ankle support.” Really?

When we pressed him, he didn’t appear to know the products or have any confidence in the information he was giving. He looked lost and stumbled his way through the worst sales pitch I’ve experienced in a long time. So we thanked him for his time and popped back to Millets where we spent a highly entertaining and informative hour with Ricky choosing not just boots, but learning the difference between one type of walking sock and another and looking at the type of clothing we’d need for the trip.

His up-sell skills were so good that, while we knew were were being sold to, it never felt like it. In fact, he was so good that we’d have willingly spent more there if we’d had the budget. He understood our limitations and gave us some cracking advice and food for thought. As we sat down for lunch all we could talk about was how good Ricky was and the unexpectedly positive experience we’d just had. So, when Vicky needs more kit (and she will) guess where we’ll be going?

So why am I sharing this with you? I was reminded of some very valuable lessons and I thought I’d share them with you…

One: Listen to your customers.
When we walked into Millets, Ricky took time to understand our needs, listen to our concerns, work within our limitations and answer our questions with real and helpful information that informed our decisions. How much of our sales process involves us selling to our potential clients rather than listening to them?

Two: It’s OK to not know the answer.
Had we walked into the other shop and the young man had said “I’m afraid this isn’t my area of expertise, let me just get one of my colleagues to help you…” I’d have been really impressed. It’s rare to find that level of honesty and we would have both willingly spent more time (and possibly money) there. We all have limitations to our knowledge and experience and, while our potential clients have come to us for specialist advice, it’s definitely OK to say “I’m not sure on that one… can I get back to you with an answer?”

Three: Never underestimate the power of surprise.
When we walked into Millets our expectations were not high. But what we got was a shopping experience beyond anything we could have hoped for – and that definitely made our purchasing decisions easy. As business owners our job is not to meet expectation, but to beat it. If you can do that, your business will grow and grow.

Four: Inspire and Inform.
Vicky and I had to make two purchasing decisions that day: what to buy and where to buy it from. Our time with Ricky was not just informative – it was a genuine pleasure. We were inspired by his attitude, his humour and his knowledge and that informed our purchasing decision. We market out businesses not just so we can sell a product or service. We market out businesses in order to inspire our potential clients and then to let them make informed choices. If we’ve done a good job, we’ll win the work.

I hope 2015 has been a great year for you. It certainly has for us! But I hope that 2016 is even better and you can grow your business beyond your wildest expectations. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.