Improving a business’s bottom line sometimes can be as simple as offering customers a spot to plop their bottoms.

“A chair says we care,” said Jana Craft, an assistant professor of business administration and human resource management at Winona State University. “Chairs are essential in places we wait. We need a lot more seating areas.”

Chairs not only invite shoppers to tarry a while longer in a store but also serve as a respite for someone tagging along, she said.

Stores that provide seating for companions, especially outside of fitting rooms, improve their chances of selling more goods, Craft said. Flat-screen TVs can prompt them to linger longer, she said.

Another kind of landing zone is important — and not just at airports.

“When customers walk into a store, the first 10 to 30 feet are the landing strip, where they can decompress,” she said.

Retailers need to pay attention to factors as simple as seasons to cater to patrons’ needs, she said. For example, if it’s January, Craft said parents might be taking winter coats off of their children in the landing strip.

Retailers should leave the strip clear of products, brochures and signs they want customers to see because the patrons will be past the zone before they are settled and shifted into the buying mode. Craft gleaned these and other customer-service tips from information her students gathered, based in-part on consumer expert Paco Underhill’s book “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping.”

Craft had 106 undergraduate business students make 90 visits to 15 local businesses, including retailers, restaurants, churches, nonprofits and libraries. After a total of 270 observation hours, they compiled more than 60 personalized business improvement recommendations, Craft said.

Craft also has a blog, titled simply Jana Craft, where she has chronicled the study’s findings. She recently did a presentation on the issue for the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce.

Customer friendliness pivots largely on how people actually operate, Craft said. Businesses don’t need to do anything complicated to better respond to customer needs.

She advises putting shopping carts and baskets at several places in a store for customers who don’t take one at the front, thinking they are going to buy just a few things. If other items strike their fancy in the back of the store, they will pass them up because their arms are full — unless there’s a cart or basket there.

Another vital aspect of customer service is to head off potential complaints.

Anne Hlavacka, director of the Small Business Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, advises businesses to give power to customers to help defuse disputes.

Hlavacka cited the slogan, “If you had a great experience, tell your friends; if you didn’t, tell us.”

“You can learn a lot from negative experiences and minimize the dispute right up front,” she said. “Companies should be proactive to handle these types of issues quickly. Think about what could go wrong, and interact with customers.

“Businesses can’t afford to have bad customer service to be profitable,” Hlavacka added.

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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