PW: Do you read business books?

Jack Mitchell: You bet I do. The one I think that influenced me the most was Raving Fans: A Revolutionary Approach to Customer Service by Ken Blanchard. It's somewhat related to what I say in my book [Hug Your Customers]. I was also influenced by Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Don Peppers and Martha Rogers's Enterprise One to One. I loved Larry Bossidy's book [Execution], Jack Welch's Straight from the Gut and Lou Gerstner's Who Says Elephants Can't Dance. Bossidy, Welch and Gerstner are all customers of our stores.

PW: How does Mitchells/Richards differ from stores like Neiman Marcus?

JM: I have great respect for Neiman's. But their mindset, and I respect it, is more about product, and ours is more about associates and customers. I think when their managers wake up in the morning, they think about the features and benefits they're trying to sell to their customers, while our focus is on the customers.

PW: Historically, it's always been mom-and-pop shops that offered the best, most personal service. Do you think that's changing? Are large chains starting to see the value of customer service?

JM: I think they understand the idea of hugging, conceptually, but they sometimes find it hard to execute. It's very difficult to have a mom-and-pop store in the city. But in smalltown America, it's easier to know all the people. They're the people you're going to football games with or going to the theater with. Still, I think some big stores, like WalMart, try to instill the hometown philosophy. They focus on the customer and the community. They're also talking about prices and value, but they try to instill into their managers this rah-rah-relationship with each customer that comes in.

PW: Is there a place for hugging in the world of e-commerce?

JM: Yes. Occasionally, I'll order a book from Amazon, and then they'll recommend books. To me that's a hug. I don't think you can offer the same level of service, though. People yearn for personalization, which you only find in bricks-and-mortar stores.

PW: Isn't there a fine line between hugging a customer and hounding a customer?

JM: Of course. Sometimes you try so hard, you overstep boundaries, by not listening to a customer, or by prying instead of probing. You have to back away and say, "I'm sorry."

PW: What can booksellers do to hug their customers?

JM: It's about getting to know their customers. Do they have lists of their customers? Do they know, for example, that I'm always in the market for business books? Do they call me when they see a business book I'd like? They need to have small, simple databases, get to know their customers and call them up or write them a note. If somebody comes into a bookstore, you know they like books and like to read. You should probe them, asking, "What do you like to read?" There's a salesman in the Denver airport's bookstore that I have a relationship with. He sends me notes and keeps me abreast of the business books market. Booksellers need to engage their customers in a positive, open way. Listen to what they have to say. Ask for their permission to drop them a note when you see a book they'd like. I think the hugging idea works with anyone who has customers. One or two little things can make a difference.