8 Questions with Jack Mitchell

I always like the people that change the game and have an effect on how it’s played. Lawrence Taylor changed the linebacker position. Hank Aaron changed the way we view the home run. Joe Montana changed the quarterback position…

Jack Mitchell changed customer service with the Mitchell's family stores. He revolutionized the way we buy clothes. He was the one that helped business understand the power and importance of personalizing every interaction with every customer.

His people knew your size, would drive into New York City with a suit tailored just for you when you’re in a bind. They knew what looked good on you because they knew you.

Jack is the guy that executed the true meaning of customer service by serving the customer.

So, if you’re looking for a way to take your business to the next level (I hope you already know that’s going to be through customer service), I highly suggest your read my interview with Jack below (and pick up a copy of his book) to get a sense of how to get it done.



Brandon Steiner: Why did you write the book and who is it for?

Jack Mitchell: First, the genesis came from a six-minute speech I made back in 2001…I have told the story…indeed it is the prologue on pages 1-4 of my Hug Your Customers book. I was asked to be a keynote speaker at the next big event and I used, thanks to a suggestion made by my son Russell, “Hug Your Customers” as the major theme of the speech, as I was using that phrase more and more. Everyone loved the phrase.

Then I began to say to myself, “WOW…maybe I could be a speaker when I move into a Chairman’s role rather than a CEO’s role ten or fifteen years in the future. Motivational speaking would give me something to do when the third generation, my sons and Bill’s sons, are operationally running the family business.”

So I contacted Tony D’amelio, who was the head of the Washington Speakers Bureau and he said, “Great idea Jack, but you can’t be a paid motivational speaker unless you have a book!” So you have to write a book!”

Would you believe several weeks later in waltzes Jack Romanos, a neighbor, friend and customer, and also the President of Simon and Schuster, and I jumped up and down and shared the idea of me writing a book. He asked the title and I said “Hug Your Customers.”  “I love it, sexy title…call my assistant and I will give you an hour and see if we can make it work.”

So I scribbled my notes down, got my courage up to make the call and I met with Jack and his editor-in-chief Fred Hills. They loved the idea. Fred introduced me to Sonny Kleinfield, my collaborator, and we wrote the book. Matt Lauer, a friend and customer, who also worked at Richards as a kid, got us on Today. And, many other friends and customers bought it!

The book became a best seller and has exceeded my wildest dreams. So many wonderful people – over 200,000 throughout this great country and world – have read it and many have shared with me stories of how they picked one or two ideas up regarding customer service “hugs” which has helped them be better businessmen or women and better in many facets of their life by living the hugging culture.

Who is it for? It is for anyone who wants to learn. It really helps if they are passionate to learn how to interact and connect in a more meaningful way with others, focusing on their business life and obtain a more fulfilling life.

BS: Mitchell's is one of the first retail stores to take customer service to an INSANE level. With all the little things that Mitchell's does, what gave you the idea way back when, at a time when no one else was doing it?

JM: I love your phrase “to take customer service to an INSANE level.”  The little things do make a difference and of course it began with our mom and dad. It was natural for them to deliver these “hugs.” They always liked to say what’s the “right thing to do and just do it!” And Bill and I grew up with these parents that did it, not only in the store, but also in the community with their friends. Most of these friends became customers for life.

For example, when my brother Bill invited me to join our family business in 1969 and we decided to throw out the boys wear and put in women’s wear, one of the first questions we answered quickly was that we agreed we would never charge women for alterations. Why? Because we didn’t charge their husbands for alterations! Most all of our competitors do. Can you imagine in this day and age and even back in 1969 telling Gertrude Godrocks that she had to pay $100 for her alteration while her husband George received them free?  We all agreed that wasn’t the right thing to do. And we always made free deliveries and free coffee, etc., etc.

BS: What is the key to dealing with really busy A-personality types that have a lot of money?

JM: The most important thing is to treat them just like everyone else. Give them a friendly smile, offer a cup of coffee, remember their names and since they are very busy, simple things like laying out ahead of an appointment specific recommendations based on what their lifestyle is all about in their office and personal life - clothes that fit their lifestyle.  And, get their alterations done quickly and correctly.  Write a personal thank you note with a real ink pen.  Call after a while to make sure it was a satisfactory visit…like you would a friend. (From the very early days we used the phrase “once a customer, always a friend.”)

BS: What's your favorite "Hug Your Customer" story that sets the tone for what people need to do to take their customer service to another level?

JM: I would suggest that you re-read quickly the Piling on Hugs in Chapter 8…about how Debra Gampel outfitted a customer who had an emergency trip to Zurich. It has many simple hugs in the story. It was in the original book and remains in this version as well.  I added a story about Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM about the “button hug” in Chapter 11 The Return Hug.

We have so many wonderful stories that occur everyday in our stores now that I try to find the best, most unusual, INSANE story and I share it with all 300+ wonderful associates that work with us. I call it the Hug of the Week.

It is not a hidden agenda. I hope it will inspire others to find new and exciting ways to enhance the hugging culture.

BS: What is your advice to someone that is just starting out in sales?

JM: Dad always said to Bill and me and those grandchildren in the business during his long life that the first rule of selling the Mitchell way is "You have to be there."  Always be on the selling floor. Now this sounds simple and obvious, and it is, yet so many times busy store owners or CEOs are in their offices or traveling somewhere to look at a new collection. Our focus, especially during busy times, Saturday and holidays, is Mitchell's on the selling floor.

The second, and it ranks with the first, is a phrase that Dad always used. "I need your help." He said it as we still do today, a third generation family store, with humility, because we don't know how to resolve every issue.  We need to listen and learn in order for us to grow and raise the bar to be better and better in our quest to be the best.

For someone starting out in sales, I have seven attributers in a selling book that I am currently writing.  The owners and sellers have these traits or learn them:

  • Caring
  • Trustworthy
  • Discoverer
  • Hustles
  • Executes
  • Passionate
  • Anticipate

BS: I see in the second book you adjusted from hugging your customers to hugging your people. What's the focus now in sales: the customer, your staff or both? And, why?

JM: Clearly both. You need to hug your people (employees) and when you do hug your team then they hug their customers. Why? Because this is the essence of the hugging culture. It is all about the people...your associates, employees, vendors, bankers, etc., getting to know each of them…what is their sweet spot? What are their strengths? And, if you recognize them with hugs of appreciation that are genuine, then they wake up in the morning wanting to come to work.

Like Iren Vass in accounts receivable has in her office a sign that says, “I love my job.” And they begin to hug their/our customers and enjoy finding out something special about them on a personal level as well as what clothes they need and like. Then the customers come back because they enjoy not only the clothes but also the interaction with our people.

BS: If I were telling somebody who had never bought nice clothing before why they should go to Mitchell's as opposed to somewhere else, what would be the best explanation for me to tell that person?

JM: Because our stores are not simply about the fabulous selection we have from most of the world’s finest designer brands. The extra special reason is all about the personal and passionate relationships our associates have with our customers who literally become friends and they enjoy the shopping experience. They bring in their kids or grandchildren. In our store, they can watch TV or the ballgame, hang out and visit and get a free cup of coffee and on Saturdays a bagel or a chocolate chip cookie. It is like coming into a home where you know the family.   Especially on Game Day, Saturdays, in our Connecticut stores, we are very busy and it is like being in a hopping restaurant with the owners and maître d around and servers and chefs and you get to know all of them and their names.  And they have old-fashioned family values like integrity and respect … and they hustle.  And at Mitchells, Richards, Marshs, Wilkes Bashford they will open early for you or stay late even on Sunday. And you will probably bump into a business colleague or someone you’ve wanted to meet.  Then you will be invited to learn about community charitable events that go on in the stores all the time.  It’s just a fun place to shop.

BS: You've managed to create an incredible base of loyal customers that don't just love your store, but they RAVE about it. How do you turn your customers into your best salespeople?

JM: I always kid and say you should read my books. It’s all there. We have lots of fun! If you treat people the way you would like to be treated if you were the customer and then learn and you “hug” them and have a passion to raise the bar, your customers will hug your back. They will come back in and buy your products. Truly a bond, a friendship develops. A relationship that has meaning and becomes personal and professional and then these customers say nice things to their friends and associates and they come in and then we convert them into loyal customers…loyal for life.

BS: Thank you, Jack.


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