Why everyone should hug at work

Jack Mitchell, chair of Mitchell Stores, shares his secrets on enhancing customer service at Virginia Family & Private Business Forum.

Jack Mitchell.
Jack Mitchell.

Mitchell Stores began in 1958 with three suits and a dream. Today, the Northeast-based clothier has eight locations across four brands and carries designers such as Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren and Ermenegildo Zegna.

Jack Mitchell, chairman of the family-owned business, attributes its success to one thing: hugging.

“What’s a hug? It’s a metaphor,” he said at the Virginia Family & Private Business Forum at Virginia Commonwealth University on Wednesday. “It’s a metaphor for any tiny act or deed — or large one — that says, ‘Wow, these folks … care for me as a real person.’ … That’s what hugs are all about.”

What’s a hug? It’s a metaphor.

The forum, sponsored by the VCU School of Business Foundation, features leading experts and family business owners who address current issues of importance to family-owned firms. Mitchell’s first book, “Hug Your Customers: The Proven Way to Personalize Sales and Achieve Astounding Results,” was a Wall Street Journal best-seller and received a rave review in The New York Times. He also authored “Hug Your People: The Proven Way to Hire, Inspire, and Recognize Your Employees to Achieve Remarkable Results.”

His father, Ed, was a natural seller, who believed “once a customer, always a friend,” Mitchell said. His mother, Norma, thought that when customers walked into the store, it should feel as if they were walking into a home. 

Their children and grandchildren inherited their passion.

“Customers for us are the absolute center of the universe,” Mitchell said. “How the heck do you know what to buy unless you interface with the customers? Sure we use data, we look at computer reports. But you have to be on the selling floor and see what your customers are wearing, what they like.”

Employees must be huggers as well. Hiring is the most important part of human resources, Mitchell said. Employees have to be honest and are tested on integrity before they are hired. Will they be open? Will they tell you how they feel?

“We want confident, competent associates,” he said. “They have to be positive. I want people to want to come to work. They have to have a passion to listen, learn and grow. They have to be nice.”

The Mitchells expect no less from themselves and try to treat everybody — from customers and employees to the famous designers they work with — like family, Mitchell said.

How does Mitchell handle tough customers? He just hugs them more. Generally, he said, when a customer has a complaint, there’s an element of truth there. So he tries to listen and handle it accordingly.

Does all this hugging work? Does it go to the bottom line?

“It does,” Mitchell said. “If you have loyal, trusting customers, they buy everything at price. Sixty percent of them. Sixty percent of our business — 65, depending on the collection — is going at regular price. You don’t have to come here to learn that margins are better at regular price.”

Mitchell had two requests of the audience. Long term, he asked them to commit to learning more about 50 to 100 of their customers within a year. And he challenged them to hug somebody by Saturday.

“Guess what happens if you do that,” he said. “They’re going to hug you back.”