Six Lessons from the Retail Sales Floor for Delivering Superior Customer Service

customer-service-article Take a moment to reflect on the last time you visited one of your favorite retailers. Did you encounter a friendly, outgoing salesperson? Did he or she help you find exactly what you were looking for by taking the time to get to know you and really understand your needs? If you answered yes to those questions, then you were on the receiving end of excellent customer service. Notice that I didn't ask if you found a good bargain or if you had the chance to negotiate a more favorable price. Providing good customer service means making an authentic connection; it doesn't mean simply reaching an agreeable price, closing the sale and saying goodbye. As one charged with growing and marketing your business, it's your job to ensure that you and every single person you put on the front lines bring authenticity and enthusiasm to every interaction with a customer or prospect. Whether you have a staff of five or 500, the last thing you want is a customer who feels like they and their hard-earned dollars are under-appreciated. I can’t even count the number of times I've come across a customer service rep who sounds bored and apathetic. This not only makes me want to conclude my frustrating encounter with this person as quickly as possible, but it also leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth about the company as a whole, making me highly disinclined to do business with them again in the future. And if I walk away feeling this way as a result of this rep’s apathy, inevitably there will be hundreds or even thousands of others who share my sentiment. Leave enough customers feeling alienated, and eventually you will have the undoing of even the largest, seemingly most untouchable corporation. Through their actions and their attitudes, your customer service representatives and salespeople can make or break the reputation of your brand and, by extension, the health of your bottom line. From my experience as the operations manager for a large retailer, I know first-hand what it takes to deliver world-class customer service. Here are six best practices from the retail sales floor that you can apply in your organization to ensure that every encounter between your company and your customers and clients gets five stars for satisfaction.

1. Set the tone right from the start.

Rule number one of working the sales floor is to greet your customer as soon as they walk in the door to make them feel acknowledged and to let them know that you are at the ready to serve their needs. Whether you’re meeting with your client in person or by phone or even via web conference, set a positive tone right from the start by warmly welcoming them and breaking the ice. And don’t feel compelled to get straight down to business. Beginning the conversation with a bit of casual, non-work-related talk will establish an emotional connection and let them know that you see them as a person first and customer second.

2. Establish the need.

In the store, the first question out of my mouth after greeting the customer is, "What's the occasion that brings you in?" This gives him the opportunity to tell me a little bit about himself and what he’s looking to accomplish from his visit. The same applies to your initial encounter with a new prospect. As soon as you’ve established a comfortable rapport, it’s time to start asking questions that will help you gain a better understanding of their needs and goals. And, remember, while they may have come to you seeking help with a specific problem, if you’re a savvy conversationalist, you may be able to uncover a broader concern or objective that you can partner with them to solve. That’s why it’s important to make sure you pose insightful questions that will paint the full picture of who this person is, what their experience has been to date and how you can play a role in helping them advance their goals.

3. Listen. No – really listen.

In the retail setting, one of the best things you can hope for as a salesperson is a chatty customer. The more information they volunteer, the easier it is for us to provide helpful recommendations. For example, a woman in her 20s walks through the door and mentions that she’s looking for a cocktail dress, so you offer a few nice selections that fit the bill. But after a few minutes pass and some pleasant conversation ensues, she reveals that the dress is actually for her cousin’s wedding. A mediocre salesperson says, “Oh, that’s nice!” and returns to folding shirts. But for the savvy salesperson who really hears what that customer is saying, the wheels of good service are set in motion. Because, of course, a wedding is never just a wedding. It’s merely the highlight of a full weekend of events that include at minimum a bachelorette party and a rehearsal dinner as well as perhaps a girls’ spa day and a day-after brunch. All of those occasions require a specific type of attire, which opens the door to an array of additional wardrobe needs that you might be able to help her with. And, hey – we get it. Between asking the right questions, keeping the conversation flowing and formulating your recommendations, it’s all too easy not to fully absorb everything your client is saying. But the worst possible mistake we can make as business owners, managers, marketers and salespeople is not really listening to our customers. Every word out of their mouth is a little clue – a piece of the puzzle that comes together to reveal what it is they really want. Don’t be too quick to dismiss what may seem on the surface like irrelevant details. Even if they're telling you about their children, their cat Whiskers or even their favorite Madonna song, listen and retain as much as you can. Bring along an associate, if needed. Make it their job to record everything that’s happening as it’s happening. Assimilating all of these finer points into a cohesive whole is what's going to help you establish a deeper connection with that client that will improve your chances not only of securing the sale at hand but also of cultivating a fruitful long-term, mutually beneficial partnership.

4. Be proactive but not pushy.

In a retail store, any salesperson worth their salt would never just point a customer vaguely in the direction of what they’re looking for and then leave them to their own devices to find it. Rather, they’d walk them over to the appropriate section of the store, help them pull the correct size, advise on proper fit, suggest alternative options or complementary accessories, etc. In the corporate setting, this translates to staying sharp, thinking on your feet and being a problem-solver. If you’ve covered the bases in eliciting good insights from your client – both in terms of their explicit needs and those they may not even be fully aware of themselves – now is the time for you to step up to the plate and swing for the fences. Let your expertise and your passion for what you do shine through as you offer intelligent and thoughtful recommendations, making sure always to frame your presentation directly in terms of how what you’re offering benefits your client. Put yourself on their side of the table, and let them know that you’re here as a partner in their success, not just someone looking to seal the deal. And on that note, every good salesperson knows how to read the room. If your client shows signs of being uncomfortable or overwhelmed, slow down and back up. You never want them to feel as though you are forcing something on them that they don’t want or need. The cliché of the pushy salesperson is a cliché for a reason.

5. Make the sale that makes sense.

Is there anything worse than walking down a mall corridor and being assaulted from every angle by the employees of those stand-alone kiosks who are trying to lure you over to see their wares? If you were interested in their products, you’d make a point to visit them of your own volition, right? Also, what’s with the aggressive heckling? Has that ever really worked? By contrast, when a customer comes into our store, we make recommendations based on what makes sense for their lifestyle and their needs, not what will fulfill our sales quota for the day. Many of them actually thank us for taking the time to show them products that are genuinely a good fit. When you present your client with a service or product that clearly clicks with them, they'll give you as much time as you need to explain the benefits. Better yet, if you can catch them by surprise with an unexpectedly innovative solution to their needs, they’ll be grateful for your insight and excited to move forward. Worst-case scenario? They’ll say no in the moment, but even then, if you’ve done the job well, given time to reflect and reconsider, they might ring you up again in the future. A word of caution, while you want to hear the cash register ring as much and as often as possible (or to see the signature on the dotted line, as it were), selling your products or services to a customer when you know they’re not actually a good fit for their specific needs is like playing Russian roulette. If the product isn’t really the right solution, your customer is going to be unhappy, and they’re going to point the finger at you. They’ll either assume that your product is subpar or, far worse, that your company is dishonest in its claims. That is one sale that will end up costing your company and your brand’s reputation dearly, as they complain vociferously to anyone who will listen.

6. Commit beyond the sale.

I'm not asking that you wine and dine your client every Friday night, unless you actually want to – in which case, I’m not hating. What I am asking, however, is that you dedicate yourself to ensuring their satisfaction. A smart salesperson recognizes that there’s no such thing as “closing.” After all, when a customer makes the choice to do business with you, you’re not closing anything. You’re only beginning the process of cultivating a relationship with someone whom you hope will be a lifelong client. For example, in my line of business I frequently work with clients who spend upwards of $1,000 or more with the company, and they sign contracts that span six months or longer. When someone is spending that kind of money and time with me, I want to make sure they feel comfortable and informed at every step along the way until our obligation has been fulfilled to their greatest satisfaction. Think of every interaction you have as an opportunity to cement your customer’s continued loyalty. Pay attention, nurture the relationship and earn the right to continue serving that customer’s needs. Don’t simply meet their expectations; exceed them at every turn.

Are you sold yet?

So as you can see, whether it’s on the retail sales floor or in a corporate boardroom, the basic principles of superior customer service are universal. By translating these six best practices to the specific products or services that your company offers, you’ll inevitably reap the benefits of customer relationships that are defined by authenticity, enthusiasm and a deep level of engagement. After all, traditional word-of-mouth isn't dead; today’s savvy customers just demand that you work a lot harder to earn it.