How to Start Conversations with Customers in Retail

By Bob Morrell on August 17, 2016

If you look at the list of reviews from Mary's army of secret shoppers, Waterstones is enjoying top spot. If you are reading this Blog there's a good chance you are a reader, and have experienced Waterstones.

The staff are good when you engage them, and the reason for that is quite simple but worth pointing out. You and the Watersone's staff have something in common, you like books and you enjoy reading. You are also rather intelligent and interested in raising your level of intelligence and know that engaging with knowledgeable staff should help you.

If you don't enjoy reading and have to get a book for someone, then they still win in service terms as you take your issue to them and they direct you to the right type of books.

At the weekend I went to get Harry, my godson and Bob's eldest lad some books on football, I couldn't find any. So I approach the smiling black clothed young girl, (they do all look like theatre stage managers don't they?), and asked, "Excuse me I can't find any books on football that would suit an eight year old boy."

And there you have a perfect single sentence brief for Lizzy to work from. She has the age and the subject. Lizzy directs me to the range and falls over the comfy cushioned masses, stage managers remember not dancers, and having not even mentioned her fall to a soft landing, she increases her volume to overpower any embarrasement, "Not many but here they are!"

I have never been approached by a Waterstones member of staff. And that is because they are almost librarians, nothing wrong with librarians or libraries, I visit my two local libraries weekly, but it is not a library it is a bookshop and conversations sell books.

I asked the staff what they say when they approach customers, and their training is, as it is with so many retailers, about being there for the customer if they need you and not annoying them. This is where they are losing sales and losing the chance to interact with hundreds of thousands of customers every year.

Let me explain. As you read this you will fall into three camps:
1. You hate being approached and asked what you want.
2. You like to spend time looking and will approach staff as and when you think you need to.
3. You love talking to people in shops and readily engage with people to get advice and help.

If you are a 1 and 2 you are likely to be less confident than a 3 or you are someone who just doesn't ask for help, let alone directions when you are lost.
And if you are a 1 and 2 you have something in common with a good proportion of Waterstone's staff.
Do you think Watersone's staff come from the same employment pool as say Build a Bear Workshop Staff or Schuh, Hamleys or for that matter people working as waiters? Some do yes, but a lot of staff are interested in language but not always of the spoken and conversations with strangers kind.

So Waterstone's are top of the class as their reactive service is great. Who would you rate top of the class in proactive service?

With Reality's 5 Principles Programme we help people discover what to say to engage customer's in meaningful conversations.
The top three conversation killers are:

1. Can I help you?
2. Are you looking for something in particular?
3. Are you alright/doing alright/there?!!!!

If you want some details on a programme that will make colleagues far more creative in how to approach and engage with customers so you can really help them, then ask Carolyn for an overview of The 5 Principles. Let Carolyn know about the environment you work in too.

Here's a few tips on how to be Proactive.
1. Develop a rapport building question that is about your business.
2. Look at your customers and look at their bodies and how they move. How would you like to be approached if you were in your store, looking and moving like that?
3. Work on small talk. Make a comment on what your customer is buying, especially if they might have missed a complimentary product or more economic way to purchase the items.
4. Ask permission before you give advice. What do you do when people give you advice you haven't asked for?
5. Challenge yourself to approach approachable people, don't start with people with a Get Lost written on their foreheads, start with those with a Get Me on their faces.

Every time a customer says "Excuse me?" You have had to be approached by them, which means you haven't read them and you have missed the chance to be proactive.

P.S As I was leaving the shop I picked up the latest from Mr Faulks. Competition on Reality Training Facebook Page. What could you have asked me? 3 Prizes. Funniest. Most useable by anyone. Most extreme, but it could work!