Saje Natural Wellness CEO Kate Ross LeBlanc in one of the PROFIT 500 company's Vancouver stores

Saje Natural Wellness CEO Kate Ross LeBlanc in one of the PROFIT 500 company’s Vancouver stores. Photo: Grady Mitchell

I’m just going to put a little of this on the back of your neck—is that all right?” It’s only been a few minutes since I entered the delicately scented sales floor of a Saje Natural Wellness store on Toronto’s Queen Street West, and I’m already getting a mini neck rub from Laura, an eager, yet unerringly polite, salesperson. Laura seems bent on eliminating any stress I might be feeling and replacing it with one of the aromatherapy oils or healing potions sold by Saje, one of Canada’s most successful purveyors of holistic health products.

Laura’s first move when I stepped into the serene shop (it boasts, among other things, a living wall of plants) was to hand me a wee paper cup of peppermint-lemon tea with a smile. When she found out it was my first time at Saje, she showed me the popular Peppermint Halo roll-on remedy oil, known as the “four-minute miracle” to headache sufferers. After I agreed to try it, she went in for the rub. Coolness tingled through my muscles and the air around me seemed to turn frosty. Laura followed it up with a refreshing face spritz of something or other with mint and basil (Saje is really big on mint).

At this point, I was so relaxed I would have gladly forked over money for anything Laura handed me. It’s not hard to see why Saje credits its “outrageous” customer service for its success. Founded in 1991 by CEO Kate Ross LeBlanc and her husband, Jean-Pierre (who was driven by health issues to develop his own natural remedies), Saje has dramatically expanded its retail presence in the past five years. And it has, in turn, posted remarkable growth: Revenue rose 1,012% between 2010 and 2015, earning the company the No. 74 spot on the 2016 PROFIT 500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies. The natural wellness chain now has 40 (and counting) retail locations across the country, and also sells online. Total sales topped $50 million last year, thanks in large part to experiences like the one provided to me by Laura.

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Most companies start off with great customer service and see it slide as they expand. Ross LeBlanc—who grew up watching her mother stay up late to bake cake for patrons of her small-town Ontario fabric store—knows when a customer feels taken care of, that customer comes back, and no expansion of the brand would be successful without setting exceptional service standards.

“We make it our first mission to find out how people are doing when they enter our stores. Are they tired? Do they have a cold?” explains Ross LeBlanc, speaking en route to Wanderlust, a yoga festival in Whistler, B.C., for which Saje was a sponsor. “Then we connect them with the product that will make them feel better. It takes the focus away from us being a sales organization and turns it toward creating a better experience for that person.”

How does Saje encourage staff to be so in tune with customers’ needs across dozens of stores? It starts with diligent recruiting: The company tends to hire people who are already fans of the products or consider wellness to be a personal value. (Laura, for example, is studying to be a nurse.) Then comes training—delivered via e-learning modules, regional team-led sessions and an annual retreat called Camp Saje. It’s all designed to foster something rare in retail circles: empathetic selling. “In our training, team members are taught to listen, not diagnose,” explains Ross LeBlanc.

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They’re also taught to take charge. Saje offers an extremely generous return policy, which allows customers to return products any time, for the rest of eternity, even if it’s half-used and they lost the receipt. Staff members are trained to use their own discretion to satisfy clients. For instance, when one customer came into the West Edmonton Mall with a shattered Saje container in her purse, the salesperson gave her a brand new one, no questions asked. “[S]he said, ‘I got you!’ and handed me a replacement,” the happy shopper gushed on Facebook. “I seriously almost cried. I was so flustered… She turned my day right around.”

While this may sound like a good way to get ripped off—Ross LeBlanc once had to reassure a team of Saje managers that such policies wouldn’t bankrupt the company—it’s actually a smart loyalty strategy. A dissatisfied customer at an average store with a stingy return policy might keep their purchase but never again return. Ross LeBlanc would rather have another chance to interact. “If people buy something that doesn’t work, they don’t come back. It’s a jam in the system,” she reasons. “If you keep that relationship flowing, they come back. Maybe we can clarify how to use the product or better explain some things. We might lose a little on a return, but we make up for it in earning customers for life.” Indeed, the company has garnered its share of superfans, many of whom congregate on social media to rave about products they love and ask questions of staff (Saje has an active team dedicated to answering online inquiries quickly). Further, Ross LeBlanc reports that customers who are members of the company’s loyalty program, Healthy Rewards, contribute “significantly” to sales.

This strategy is also a way of encouraging consumers who are new to natural products to experiment, because they know they can always bring their purchase back if it doesn’t work for them. The company further eases the concerns of skittish shoppers by hosting regular workshops and in-store seminars on such topics as how to improve sleep or use aromatherapy to heal.

It all works to attract both new customers and the staff who attract more new customers: people like Laura, who first visited a Saje store when she was in a “funk.” “Someone showed me the Peppermint Halo,” she says. “The next time I came back to the store, I had a resumé.”

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