I went to the uniform shop today to look for a specific pair of compression socks. I am doing a research project for a manufacturer, so I was on the hunt for a specific brand. If you don’t know about compression socks, here’s a quick lesson: they are specially designed for certain occupations, especially health care workers, and because they are technically designed, they are expensive. This wasn’t a trip I anticipated being akin to popping into K-Mart for a few pairs of two-dollar tube socks; I was planning to spend more than $100, and expected to be treated like a customer who was doing such.
When I walked into the store, no one greeted me. As I hesitantly stepped forward, I heard, “Hi, welcome,” but when I glanced around to return the greeting, there was no one in sight. What is usually a simple act of kindness is simply creepy when the words come without even a ghostly apparition.
Not only was there no verbal direction, there was no written direction, either; the signage was nonexistent. I didn’t really know where I was or where I was supposed to go. Luckily, I found the shoe wall, and shoes generally go with socks, so I made an educated guess and treaded toward the shoe wall. On my way, I walked past the cash wrap. Then I heard, “Can I help you find something?” My internal, sarcastic self said, ”I don’t know can you?” But my polite self said, “Yes, you can. I need this brand.” As soon as I said what I needed, I saw the brand sign, and took myself in that direction.
So I found the socks with no help, and headed back to the cash wrap to check out. I stood there for a while as I watched three people behind the cash wrap help one person check out. One gentleman was simply eyeing the actions of the sales associate facilitating the check out, then finally caught sight of me and shuffled in my direction. Based on his body language, it was clear he didn’t realize the purpose of my standing in line near the cash wrap was, in fact, to check out. Suddenly he exclaimed, “Oh, are you ready to check out?” I responded with a quick nod. He pointed to the other side of the cash wrap and said, “OK I’ll take you around here.”
Once I’d trudged around to the other register, there was no greeting or query or comment; in fact, there was no conversation at all as he was checking me out. He didn’t even acknowledge the socks that I was buying, ask why I’d chosen the beautiful pattern or the brand, didn’t wonder why I was buying these particular socks—simply put, he didn’t notice me as an individual. I am not his typical customer; I don’t actually look like a person who works in the healthcare industry. He was absolutely not curious.
After an awkward silence that he sustained through the duration of our sale, he asked his first question, “Is this debit or credit?” then instructed me to enter my pin. He put my product in the bag, handed it across the wrap between us, and that was it. It was the kind of transaction that you would expect at a grocery store, not at a specialty retailer.
As I walked out, I felt cheated. I had just spent $127 on four pairs of socks—with essentially no interaction at all. Now, I know if the owners were in the room, things would be different. But they weren’t, just as you can’t be in your store, watching your employees, every hour you’re open for operation. So how do we train our employees to interact with customers in a genuine way, whether we’re there to watch them or not? How do we begin to teach our staff how to see me, understand me and treat me the way we all want to be treated—like people?
I think the answer lies in curiosity. This killer of cats is the maker of businesses. Making an effort to understand your customers is the integral element of all successful retailers. Whether or not you walk away with a clear picture isn’t even the point; the objective is to make them feel heard, and hopefully, help them find what they’re looking for along the way.
Curiosity’s main implementation comes in the form of questions. I only heard two questions the entire time I was in this store, one which was the most basic of all greetings (“Can I help you?”), and one that was as cold and technical as they come (“Is that debit or credit?”). The opportunities to ask questions, to engage with me on a personal level, were endless, but no one spoke up. No one showed their curiosity in me, and because of that, I left feeling abused.
The first, and perhaps most important, moment to implement that curiosity is the moment a customer walks in the door. Train your employees to ditch the traditional, and useless, “Can I help you?” and replace it with real questions that necessitate more than yes or no answers. Even a small adjustment, “What can I help you find today?” has the ability to completely change the course of the interaction.
Your employees should be asking questions the entire time the customer is in the store, or at least looking for opportunities to ask questions. Rather than letting me take myself to the socks, the first employee should have escorted me there, asking about the technical benefits I was looking for in my socks, and pointing out some good options. Instead, I was left alone to puzzle out my questions myself.
The cash wrap is another place where major connection could be made. Generally, you hand your items to the person across from you and they check you out with no eye contact, no conversation, no curiousness about the product that you’re buying. Why is the most asked question, “Is this debit or credit?” If I’m spending five dollars or if I’m spending $128, wouldn’t the employee want to know why? By knowing why I’m there, you gain free consumer insight and can adjust your inventory accordingly. But more importantly, by engaging with me at the cash wrap, I understand that my sale matters, that I matter. And when your customers feel that, they’ll come back again and again.
So the answer is simple: ask more questions. Remind your employees of the kinds of questions they should be asking, and the frequency with which they should be asking them. Inspire curiosity in your staff.