Jack Mitchell Wants You to Hug Your Customers

At Mitchells Family of Stores, a three-generation family clothing business, knowing the customer is the modus operandi

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Executive-in-Residence Jack Mitchell

When was the last time you were shopping for new clothes and the salesperson knew your name? Offered you a cup of coffee? Asked about your dog? Reminded you of your upcoming wedding anniversary?

At Mitchells Family of Stores, a three-generation family clothing business with retail shops in Connecticut, New York, and California, knowing the customer is the modus operandi. In fact, the company was built on these little personal touches, says Chairman Jack Mitchell, whose parents started the business in 1958 with one 800-square-foot store in Westport, CT — the family’s hometown.

“The coffee pot that mom brought from home was used to make the coffee. It was served as a welcoming sign of hospitality,” Mitchell says. “Our marketing was our Christmas list and the telephone book. Our grandmother was our first seamstress tailor. My parents would send [customers] a nice thank-you note with a real ink pen. We were part of the community.”

Mitchell grew up witnessing the positive effects of these friendly gestures — which he calls “hugs” — on attracting and retaining customers. The original Mitchells store in Westport grew to its present 33,000 square feet, and the family gradually acquired and now run Richards in Greenwich, CT, Marshs in Huntington, NY, and two Wilkes Bashford locations in Northern California: one in San Francisco and the other in Palo Alto.

Opportunities for “hugs” abound, says Mitchell, who cites examples like knowing the customer’s golf handicap, letting her use an office to make a personal phone call, following up to make sure she is satisfied with a purchase, or introducing her to business contacts. “These hugs are free,” he points out. “It is a mindset. That’s what our culture is all about.”

In 2003, to share his family’s successful customer-service philosophy, Mitchell published the Wall Street Journal bestseller Hug Your Customers: The Proven Way to Personalize Sales and Achieve Astounding Results (Hachette, June 2003). In our increasingly digital world, where more eyes are directed at smartphone screens than at each other, these hugs are “even more relevant,” Mitchell says. That’s why, yesterday, he re-released a revised and updated version of Hug Your Customers (April 2014).

Hug Your Customers

“More than ever, people appreciate the personalization,” he says. “People appreciate a simple, handwritten note. They appreciate a phone call saying, ‘Thank you for coming in,’ or ‘How did your son or daughter do in that suit that you bought them for the interview?’”

This customer-service mindset is applicable not just to any company with customers, Mitchell says, but also to organizations looking to attract and retain the best and brightest employees.

“First, you have to hug your people,” Mitchell says. To that end, he published Hug Your People in 2008.

The Mitchells’ “hugging” philosophy has been praised by the likes of Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren, who said: “[The Mitchells’] passion for the intimate relationship with the customer, and the loyalty that is created, has rarely been duplicated.”

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