There has never been a better time to sell products as a small business, but showing authenticity and great customer service will give you a distinction over your larger rivals.
I had given it my best shot, changed the needle, even taken it back to where I had bought it, who, bearing in mind it was two years out of warranty, still checked it for me, but to no avail. It was now making a strange noise, particularly on the quiet tracks. It was time for a new record turntable.
In these days of MP3s, IPods and Spotify it seems strange to talk about a technology that has been around in some similar form since the late 1870s, but I have always loved the tactile nature of vinyl. It is like you are holding history in your hand and when I think that some of my records are over 50 years old, like books, they have aged well. Somehow CDs don’t have the same appeal, perhaps because the oldest ones are not yet 30. Being a digital immigrant when it comes to music, I have gone through my MP3 stage (useful to run to) and come out the other side.
So my search for a new turntable began, and the process of finding one took me on a customer journey that was a cross-section of past and present, old and new, analogue and digital. I feel that anyone running a small business can learn from this customer journey.
So where do you search when you want something new? Well of course Google is the obvious start, but you need to be careful where you get your advice from. Reputation is everything and there is a lot of misinformation out there. I ended up viewing What Hi-Fi’s best turntables page. Twenty years ago, I would have needed to go to my local newsagent or even a trip to a WHSmiths to buy the magazine, but now it is there, at a touch away on the tablet.
I decided on a Rega RP1. I could easily see professional reviews and those of purchasers and with What Hi-Fi being an established information brand in this area, I had the confidence that it was a reliable source. I am not a Hi-Fi-head, I know little about the technology and had not heard of Rega before I viewed What Hi-Fi. Which reminded me of the power of finding and using influencers. It is no good having a great product or service if no one can find it. For the influencers to review you, you need to have a good product and service and a good package to offer either you as seller or buyer. They have to believe in what you offer.
Returning to Google to purchase this turntable, I came up with two sellers: Amazon and Harrow Audio. Now nearly everyone knows Amazon, but I suspect few of you have heard of Harrow Audio. Twenty years ago, still living in my home town, it was through their shopfront in Springfield Road that I gazed at extraordinarily beautiful but very expensive Hi-Fi equipment. Never in my dreams did I ever think that I would purchase from there, then or even this year. But the power of internet brought that little shop in central Harrow to me.
What brought me there was of course the quality of the turntable against my budget, but the fact that a smaller specialist supplier could compete shows good business sense by Rega - they seem to sell only though small specialist dealers across the UK. And it got me thinking about the power that the internet now has for small businesses like Harrow Audio. Twenty years ago, I imagine their clientele was all north west London, maybe Hertfordshire. Today, with some careful use of keywords, the world is open to them.
Google has made it in some ways a level playing-field. If you are selling goods now, it doesn’t matter where you sell them from, the world will come to you, but that is not enough.
When I rang up to run through the specs of my potential purchase, I had all my questions answered confidently, concisely and without any pushy sales talk. The advantages and disadvantages were laid straight, and I was left to make my choice. I pondered a little while, as I do, and a short-time later was prepared to order online, but then decided to call, book over the phone, which actually was much swifter than online booking and had the benefit of conversation as well. Which led to another thought: it is not enough to have a good internet presence if you don’t follow through with excellent customer experience.
The conversation went beyond the purchase and into the business. Ten years ago Harrow Audio’s focus was on home cinema, but in the last five years there has been a steady return to vinyl with them selling more and more of these turntables. What could have caused this trend?
Well undoubtedly, vinyl has a different quality to CDs and MP3s. I am not saying better, but I do prefer it. CDs and MP3s have all the remastered smoothness delivered through a series of 0s and 1s, but lack the crackle that only diamond and carbon on plastic can give. Now today in our digital world there is even an app that will put the crackle back into your MP3s, which tells you about demand for authenticity, though through the most inauthentic way possible. Which got me thinking about how important authenticity is. Why buy an app to put fake crackle in when you can have the original?
While MP3s have transformed the way we buy and listen to music, never before has so much music been so easily available, yet something has been lost. The concept of an album has been replaced with individual tracks, and yet the great sets of the truly classic music (that which is still played 20, 30, 50 years later) are presented in the form of an album.
In the summer, large crowds in Hyde Park, saw two famous albums performed live with Carole King singing Tapestry and Stevie Wonder playing Songs in the Key of Life. Down in Brighton in September, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys played the whole of Pet Sounds. Clearly, there is still a demand for complete albums of music.
Why is this? I believe they tell a story. I think small businesses and organisations can learn from the revival of vinyl and of turntables. People still want tactile items they can show hold and store, they want items that have authenticity, they want reality, and they love a story.
In my case the purchase has been as good as the customer experience - I am listening to music from it as I finish writing this piece. I am happy to say that it was a great decision. I once met a very successful salesman who said that he did not sell things, he just helped the customer make the right decision. Well that is what happened to me, and I am more appreciative of the service I received and so mention it here, which now adds to the supplier's customer service story.
And it is this reality, the story that no one else can tell about your business or organisation, that brings distinctiveness and authenticity, and as the return of vinyl has shown, that means a lot to people.
By telling the story of your business, or of your customers experience, through text, photography and video, you show your distinctiveness, and that may lead to better sales. Digital is important in getting you there, but don’t forget the attraction of analogue - the reality of needle on groove and finding a new and creative way of being distinctive. As the legendary Billy Preston said “Will it go round in circles... or will it fly high like a bird in the sky?”