by Melissa Piper Nelson
Some businesses direct sales people to meet and greet a customer almost immediately when she enters the store. Others direct employees to hang back and either observe and offer help after a customer has shopped a bit, or don’t ask at all and meet her only when she comes to the check-out counter.
I experienced a bit of all recently while shopping in a national chain clothing store and the effect left me questioning how the store actually captured any sales.
I was greeted by a sales person, but not until I had made it through the entire store and was at the back of the facility checking out the sales racks. After a short “How are you doing?” and my reply, the sales person returned to the check out area and stayed there throughout my shopping experience.
Just to see what happened, I shopped a bit more and retraced my steps to the front of the store, went around the front entrance area and over to another half of the store where I shopped for several more minutes. Without seeing another sales person the entire time, I left the store without making a purchase. I wondered how many other potential buyers had the same experience that day. Oh, and did I mention that the sales team of four people were chatting with each other at the sales counter and not engaging with the customers?
So what is so important about customer service? My premise is: What you don’t know can hurt you!
While you cannot depend on customer engagement alone to produce sales, how will you determine what the customer has come to your business to buy if you don’t ask?
Big box stores and large businesses that carry full inventory supplies understand that customers will come to buy what they know the store carries. Smaller operations and those with changing inventory must not only inform customers what is available today, but what will be offered over a period of time and when. This is especially true for market vendors, on-farm sales, tasting rooms and agri-business retail sites.
A customer may be checking the business out on a first visit, while a returning buyer knows what he wants and is stopping in on a short, but directed call. By determining what a customer is seeking and what experience he is hoping for, you gain the feedback to create a local and repeat client.
I went to the clothing store thinking I might buy a new sweater, but without asking, none of the sales people that day even knew what I had come to the store for. Had they inquired, I probably would have shared what I intended to look for and may have been directed to look at some new merchandise arrivals or directed where I could find something in my size and preference.
Engaging a customer is not just an exercise in getting information though, it is a personalizing experience that tells a customer you appreciate them coming to your particular store or market stand and that you care about his or her shopping experience. Even online stores direct potential buyers to assistants who can answer questions about the products they offer and make suggestions regarding preferences and prices.
Information about what we want to buy is presented in a much different way today than ever before. We use our electronics to give us basic information, compare prices, and tell us where an item is located and where we can pick it up after purchasing online.
At farmers markets and direct selling outlets, we still have the opportunity to talk with customers and tell them how and where the products they are seeking were produced and why. That is the secret behind the popularity of local food initiatives and craft brewing and distilling today. You can actually connect with the person who made or grew or gathered the items you want to try.
There is still something significant about person to person information sharing and connecting. As buyers we have deep roots in interacting with those sellers who value our opinion and want to engage with us. Training employees how to effectively talk with and assist customers should be an important part of your business strategy. Each business approaches this in a unique way that measures what a customer needs in response to the product and services it offers. Some very direct marketing situations call for more engagement, while others rely on pre-information to direct customers in a purchase. It is something you will need to explore and deploy as you learn about your customers and research the target audiences you wish to reach.
I walked out of the clothing store without making a purchase. I might have purchased something if a sales person had been interested in finding out why I had come in that day. That is not to say I would have found what I wanted, but I might have been persuaded to come back and try again.
At a time when indirect sales are simply a regular part of our lives, as direct marketers, you have the opportunity, and privilege, to refine your sales strategy by engaging customers and discovering what brought them to your store and how you can provide the product or service best suited for their interest. In other words, customers should not be walking out of your place of business empty-handed.
The above information is provided for educational purposes and should not be substituted for professional business and legal counseling.