Top 10 Tips to Become a Customer Focused Merchandiser

Apparel merchandising

This article is written by Anjuli Gopalakrishna.

In today’s extremely competitive apparel industry, CFM – customer-focused merchandising is the single most important factor that can differentiate you from others in the field, whichever side you may be on, be it retailing or sourcing as in buying offices or in manufacturing. We cannot afford to be satisfied with just being ‘nice’ to customers anymore. 

We must aim to offer them an unforgettable experience. This requires not just training, skills, and knowledge, but creating an environment where people take pride in serving others. Buyers/Customers are not just buying the product or service from you, they purchase ‘how they feel doing business with you’. It’s the memory they retain of how it was to work with you...and that’s what keeps them coming back to you again.

1. Be the Expert

You must know your job thoroughly so that your customer can trust you. An understanding of fabrics, fit/pattern issues, costing, lead times, etc is a must-have for a CFM merchant. For example, if you get a request from the buyer for making a certain complex garment at a very sharp price, you as a CFM merchant should be able to act as a consultant to the buyer by giving them options of what modifications can be made to make the garment fit in the target price, as well as warn them of any potential lead time or production feasibility issues to allow the customer to make an informed decision right at the outset of the development stage.

2. Professionalism counts

Professionalism in every job that they do is what makes a CFM merchant shine above the rest. It’s a reflection of who you are as a person and as a professional. Whether it’s a swatch card you make or whether it’s a lab dip submission you prepare or whether it’s a cost sheet you send to the buyer, in every job that you do, you can make a tremendous difference to the experience the customer will go through, just by being a thorough professional. 

I have witnessed a million frustrating moments which buyers face when a job is not professionally done. Trying to figure out a bad handwritten tag, scratched /rewritten information on swatch cards, incomplete information on submit cards etc. are just a few examples. A professionally done job is what makes the customer go ‘wow’!

3. Make it easy for the customer

CFM merchants will ensure to make life easy for customers. Simple. Let me give you some examples. If you are offering different fabric options to the customer, as a CFM, you will make sure to include complete fabric details in terms of count, construction, weight, width, lead time, price, etc.

And you will even go a step further to give an estimated garment fob for each fabric option being offered. There! , you made life easy for buyer, by anticipating and proactively addressing all their needs, without being asked to! Wow! I am reminded of a situation I came across in my life as a merchant. A particular submission was rejected for quality by the buyer with almost panic-sounding remarks when it was intended for colour approval! Now if you were a CFM merchant, the situation would never have arisen, because you would have simply made sure to write complete details on the submit including the purpose – ONLY FOR COLOR APPROVAL, NOT FOR QUALITY.

4. Speed to customer

CFM merchants realise the importance of the need to respond quickly to the needs of the customers, especially critical in the fast-paced dynamic world of fashion and apparel. You have to be able to get back with your price quotes, sample turnarounds, approval submits and the like within the limited time available. In fact, the best is to be chasing the buyers instead of being chased by them.

5. Manage their deadlines

A CFM merchant will go one step further in not only keeping track of deadlines for various activities that they need to do but also acting as a consultant and advising the buyer of the deadlines that the buyers need to keep for activities owned by them to ensure on-time delivery of goods. For example, if your order involves an accessory which the buyer is going to develop directly with the trim supplier, as a CFM merchant, you will remind the buyer of the timelines they have for developing this trim and the latest by which they should approve the accessory with the trim supplier, so you get it in time for the order.

6. Communication! Communication! Communication!

One cannot stress enough about the essential communication skills which are a must-have for CFM merchandisers. You have to be comprehensive, precise and crystal clear in your communication with the customer. Since the majority of business communication happens via email today, some of the crucial things to remember while composing emails are –
  • Write a self-explanatory subject line
  • Use simple active sentences, instead of ‘jalebi’ paragraphs
  • Write in points
  • Answer all questions and then anticipate any further questions that might come up and answer those as well in one go.
  • Make specific date commitments, instead of ‘asap’, ‘next week’ kind of open ended commitments, and of course you keep them as well.
  • Consolidate all issues in one email instead of doing back and forth via several emails
  • Avoid using ‘urgent’ and ‘important’ for every email you write and use it sparingly for it to have any meaning.
  • Be careful whom you put in ‘to’ box and who in ‘cc’ box instead of doing a blind ‘reply all’
  • When angry with a customer, by all means express it in email with all your might to get it out of your system, BUT DO NOT SEND IT, instead keep it in your drafts folder. Redraft it an hour later with a cool and rational mind.
  • Do not write in bold fonts. It’s simply rude and loud.
  • Do not go overboard with inserts in your email with multiple colours! Stick to the two insert rule and then draft a new email to avoid confusion.
  • Think before you press the send button! Because once that’s done, you have no control over where your written email might land up. So be careful.

Other than written communication skills, oral and non-verbal communication is another important skill to develop. You cannot go wrong with a ‘thank you’ and an ‘apology’ so use these magic words as often as you can. Understand the subtle nuances of body language and the tone of voice while communicating. Sometimes, it’s not what you say, but how you say it that matters.

A good thing to know with customers is you cannot win an argument with them. Do not even attempt it. Instead, approach the issues with an agreement frame of mind and look for win-win resolutions. Put your point across, but before that make the customer know that you have understood their point of view. A simple trick like, replacing the use of ‘but’ with an ‘and’ in your sentences can do the magic in terms of how you can resolve conflicts faster. Try it.

7. Do not forget the internal customers

My dad taught me this early in life- ‘clever is one who gets his work done’. A CFM merchant will apply all the skills that he uses with the external customer on the ‘all important’ internal customers as well. These are the people within your own organization across the departments, your own vendors etc. Building rapport and good relationship with people around you, helps in getting your work done faster. In a cross-functional environment, you cannot survive without this skill. Appreciate good work done by others in public, and criticise in private. Be clear in communicating your expectations and above all be transparent and honest in your dealings.

8. Cosmic force of habit

Habit is a powerful force to break. A CFM merchant knows to use this force. By the sheer delight that they are to work with, they soon get their customers habituated to working with them. Once the customer is spoilt by your high level of service, it will be difficult for them to break that habit and switch to another supplier.

9. Build trust based relationships.

Anybody wants to do business with a person or organisation they can trust. You must develop trust based relationships and win your buyer’s confidence. Reliability in keeping your commitments goes a long way in building your credibility. Sharing information in a transparent manner builds trust. Once you create a reputation for yourself, it goes along with you wherever you might be. People might change organisations and move on in life, but they will remember the credibility and trust you built with them in your past dealings.

10. Take pride in making a difference.

Nothing is more satisfying to a CFM merchant than a happy customer. They take pride in making a difference to other people’s lives. Go ahead and make the day of your customers by doing that ‘extra’ bit in everything you do. They will love you more and you will love yourself more too!

More Article by Anjuli Gopalakrishna Costing and Negotiation Skills for Merchandisers

About the Author: Anjuli Gopalakrishna has spent more than a decade in the apparel industry, having worked with leading companies including J C Penney Purchasing Corporation, Tommy Hilfiger India Limited and Li & Fung. Her experience includes apparel marketing and merchandising, sourcing of home products, apparel, accessories, and leather goods. She has extensive experience sourcing for US and Europe from sourcing destinations including India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Madagascar, Pakistan, Taiwan, and China.
She is a Post Graduate in Fashion Management Studies from the National Institute of Fashion Technology Delhi (NIFT). Presently she is working as an independent consultant and trainer in supply chain merchandising to buying offices and garment exporters and also a guest lecturer at NIFT Bangalore.

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