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Start with Hello

How you greet customers is just as important as how your store looks

I recently walked into a RV store to take photos for an upcoming seminar. I had permission to take the photos, but wanted to say hello and introduce myself to the staff. I was well dressed and looked like a potential customer. As I walked up to the desk in the back of the store, there were two men on phone calls. Neither looked up. I waited. And waited … and waited.

At five minutes, my patience had run out. I just needed one glance, one (appropriate) finger up to indicate they would get to me as soon as they could. Nada, zip, nothing. I cleared my throat. One of the men seemed amazed that I was there. I explained my purpose and went off to take the photos, flabbergasted by the experience.

After taking the photos, I walked into another room where there were four salesmen hanging out. They glanced in my direction and kept talking among themselves. They had no idea why I was there and didn’t seem to care.

I spoke to the owner of the company, first to rave about how great his store looked and then to talk about my experience. He was stunned and appreciative. He said it was time for employee training again.

I’ve been in visual merchandising and store design for my entire career, and while I know how vital a good-looking store is to the customer experience and for encouraging sales and repeat business, nothing is more important than good customer service. Nothing. As fabulous as this RV store looked, if I was actually looking for an RV or parts, I would have gone to a competitor, and there were several within two miles.

Sometimes it pays to hire a secret shopper (or three) to get an idea of how your employees are treating the customers. The secret shopper can be a friend or relative unknown to your staff, and his or her pay may be a great dinner. It makes sense to hire one man, one woman and one older person. If one of those secret shoppers is a person of color, even better. Prejudices and preconceived ideas can play a large part in how people are treated as they come into a showroom. “Can I help you find something?” is not necessary, but a “hi” is mandatory. Acknowledging someone’s existence goes a long way to making him or her feel welcome, and it doesn’t have to interfere with helping someone else. Most people understand that if a salesperson is with someone else, they’ll have to wait. But if they’re not acknowledged, waiting can feel interminable.

Some companies make acknowledging customers mandatory. You’ve all experienced the super friendly, sometimes phony-feeling big hellos, smiles and questions about “What are your plans for the day?” That question makes me cringe. There’s no need for forced intimacy, but a smile, a “hi” or a “good morning/afternoon” are appreciated. “Can I help you find something?” is not ideal, as customers know your staff is there to help them.

According to Harry Friedman, author of No Thanks, I’m Just Looking, an opening line shouldn’t be about business. Consider a comment about the weather or the drive to your place: “Did you hit the traffic where they’re doing construction on I-26?” A conversation opener works best when it’s semi-personal but not probing. We all have feelings about traffic and the weather: The point is to get someone interacting with their opinions to establish contact. Compliments can work well as long as they are sincere. I was in Seattle on business and went into a Pendleton store. The woman behind the desk looked up from whatever she was doing and said, “What a lovely scarf!” My first thought was, “Oh, she likes my scarf — how nice.” My second thought was, “Oh, now she knows I’m in the store, I really have to look around, I’m not invisible anymore.” That compliment cost me $200 as I found a great coat. She seemed sincere and became a real person to me. If someone else had come in right after me and she complimented them on something else, I would have been turned off and felt comfortable walking out, as it would have felt like a sales technique. If a store is busy, a salesperson can’t use the same questions or comments over and over. The sincerity and timeliness of the opening lines matters.

For improved customer service, know that attitude comes from the top. In her book Capture Your Competitors’ Customers and KEEP Them, Christine Corelli says, “Adopt a ‘Zero-Tolerance for Bad Bosses’ policy in your company…talk to your employees, coach them, appreciate them and treat them as well as you treat your best customer…. Make sure employees feel they can speak with you at any time and they don’t need an appointment.”

Secret shoppers are helpful and can give a good idea of what is working and what isn’t. But perhaps owners and top management could also consider working one day a month on the selling floor to show how he or she would want to be acknowledged upon entry and give examples of appropriate greetings. Training by example can be positive and productive when done in the spirit of giving, as opposed to demanding or condescending. Most people want to do a great job, and it’s up to the owner and management to help them achieve that goal. Once achieved, sales can soar as employees and customers feel more appreciated.

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