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Approaching The Customer - A Difficult Subject To Approach (September 2014)

Some people say that asking for the money is the hardest part of any sales process.

I disagree, I think approaching a customer for the first time is far more difficult.

By the time it comes to closing a deal, you have already built up a relationship with your customer. You have identified their needs and their wants and you have travelled along the journey with them and now they feel comfortable enough to trust you with their hard earned money.

But approaching a potential customer for the first time takes as much, if not more skill. You know nothing about the person you are about to walk up to. You have no rapport with them and you have no idea who they are, or more importantly, what their reaction will be to you walking up to them and interrupting their day.

If you own or manage a retail business, you have more than likely sweat blood and tears to get the shop looking the best that it can be. You have invested time, money or both to make sure that you have the perfect outlet to sell your wares and give the customer the ultimate buying experience.

You proudly open your doors on the first day of trading and you excitedly await your first customers.

This is where the fun starts.

Many customers are very friendly and happy and wish you all the best with your venture and say what lovely items you are selling. The warm butterfly feeling in your stomach puts a big smile on your face. And all you have said is "good morning."

But then they walk in. The cold customer. The customer who, when you ask if you may be of assistance, replies in a harsh cold tone with

" we're OK thanks "

"we're just looking "

or worse, totally ignores you !

So how are you supposed to deal with this customer ? After all, they are on your premises, how dare they be rude ?

What do you do ? Do you leave them alone ? Are you as rude back ?

A large percentage of the general public don't like being approached in shops, and I am one of those people. I am much more comfortable walking around at my own pace and then seeking help when I need it. But what gives me the right to do that ? I am in somebody's shop who has spent a lot of effort getting me into the shop in the first place.

Over my twenty year career, I have heard many arguments for and against the topic of approaching and not approaching the customer.

Many people say that they don't like going into high street shops because assistants are always pushy and don't leave you alone. But this is what they are trained to do. And why ? Because it gets results.

Any retailer whose company uses a mystery shopper will tell you, they are scored on five pages of criteria that they normally have to hit a score of at least 80%.

"Was the customer acknowledged within 30 seconds"

" Was the assistant wearing a name badge"

" Did the assistant find out what brought the customer to the store today"

" Did the customer feel the assistant listened to and understood their needs"

"What did the customer have for breakfast"

OK, the last one is a bit farfetched, but there are sometimes thirty or forty points on a score sheet that the assistant is supposed to go through.

Now, a small independent shop will tell you that they are different from the major high street players and that you can shop at you leisure with them. But who is doing it right ? The high street stores have spent thousands of pounds finding out exactly what the customer wants when they walk into a store. They know what questions will give them the maximum information about a customer and will give them maximum sales.

As an independent, by leaving the customer alone, you are perhaps denying yourself the opportunity for promoting both your business and your products. You could have the best handmade product from the finest materials, made in the most interesting of ways, but unless the customer gets to hear about it, then there is no point.

It doesn't matter whether you have a large out of town retail unit or a small boutique shop on the high street, people need to know about you, your product, and what they could get for their money. You could be selling a top of the range car where you need to tell people what type of leather is in the interior or what make and model the sound system is. Or alternatively, you could be selling coffee beans where you need to telling the customer the story of where the beans have come from and the journey they have taken before arriving at your shop.

I walked into a book shop recently. Now I fully expected the shop owner to perhaps ask what type of book I was looking for and perhaps give me an explanation of a layout of the book shop. Not only did he do this, but he also explained that he can order books in, that he buys used books back, that he has a recommendation scorecard from previous readers and also that he runs a loyalty card scheme.

Now unless he had told me these facts, there was no way of me knowing that information. My first thought when I entered the shop wasn't "I wonder if they have a loyalty card scheme ?" But I was impressed when I realised he did.

Every business has its story, and every potential customer needs to be engaged and to be made part of the future story.

The customer approach is your opportunity to get the first impressions right for the customer. In those first few seconds, the customer will decide what they think about you, your product and your business.

The reason many people don't like approaching is that they have no idea what to say.

" Can I help you ?"

" Are you OK there ?"

" Did you need any help ?"

Now I am not going to get into the whole open / closed question thing. We know these aren't what we should be saying yet they always seem to come out. And out of all of the available approaches, they will always be the least effective, but they are always the ones we go running back to.

So what should you do ? Here are my tips on a successful approach ....

1 - Never Judge A Book By Its Cover

No matter who you have in front of you, always give the same energy and service. Although they could be dressing casual today, or on a day off, you never know who you might be serving. It could be a competitor, a potential large customer, a buyer for a larger company or a journalist mystery shopping for their next piece.

Many years ago, when I was selling in London, I had a gentleman walk into the showroom. He was wearing a work shirt, shorts, socks with sandals and was carrying two wicker shopping baskets, one in each hand.

When I approached him, he told me that he wanted to buy two kitchens, one for him and one for his mum and he wanted them on finance.

My confidence wasn't high for this customer, but as I was working for a national retailer, I knew I would have to sit down with him.

Going through the sale, he went along with everything I said and didn't disagree once. If I suggested a range cooker, that's what he wanted. If I suggested granite worktops, that's what he would have.

We finalised the quotes and without any consideration or haggling on price, he said he would like them.

As I got the finance forms out of the drawer, all the will had left my body and I just wanted to get the declined application and customer out of my way as fast as I could.

I got to the first box.

"Title please, Mr is it ?" I said with a resigned voice.

"No actually, it's Sir"

This suddenly woke me up, and he knew I had badly misjudged him. I completed the rest of the application and rang up the finance company for a decision. It was one of the quickest acceptance decisions I have every received.

I learned a valuable lesson that day and it has stayed with me ever since.

2 - Have Something To Say

Write down on a piece of paper exactly the information you want to tell each customer that walks through the door. They only need to be bullet points and there only need to be four or five points on there.

Eventually, you will develop your script for every time somebody walks into the shop, and you won't even need the piece of paper. Make sure they are factual, interesting points that you can talk passionately about.

No matter what type of person walks in the door, give them the same information and the same service. They may seem grumpy and fed up, but that may not have anything to do with you, you might be the one to cheer them up !

You work hard to get everything right. Make sure you are singing it out to everybody who walks into the shop.

3 - Give People Something

People love to receive something for free. Whether it's a sample of your product, a tea or coffee to drink while they are browsing, or simply a bowl of mints by the till, people love something for nothing.

If you are selling food, make sure there is a small sample for people to try. Beauty products, perfumes, drinks and many other products can all have samples to offer.

If you have a product where a sample isn't possible, then offer a tea, coffee or cold drink. If you walk into a car showroom and they make you a tea or a coffee, it will be as hot as they can possibly get it. That's because they know that people are polite and they won't leave having not finished their drink. That means that you probably have them for an extra five minutes while they are waiting for the drink to cool down.

When people give you something for free, they are a lot more likely to give you something back, whether it be a sale or a lead for the future. It's easier to ask people for their contact details if you have just put a nice cup of coffee in their hands.

4 - Work out what you need to know

To make sure your advertising and marketing are effective, you need to find out as much as you can from your customer and make notes.

  • What time and day did they come in ? When are your busy times and do you need to look at your opening hours ?

  • What made them come in ? Were they passing, was it social media, was it word of mouth ?

  • Are they on social media ? Could you follow them on Twitter and Facebook ?

  • Where do they live ? Are you distributing leaflets in one particular area ? You need to know if it's working.

Once you know the information you need from a customer, the approach becomes a whole lot easier. You aren't just approaching them cold now, you have a set of questions that you need the answer to.

Make sure every comment is recorded. It can be after the customer has left, but patterns may be emerging that are a lot easier to notice if they are displayed correctly.

5 - Do Something Different

People are pre-programmed to respond to questions they think they are doing to get. An example that happens a lot is:

SHOP ASSISTANT: Good morning

CUSTOMER: We're OK thank you, we're just looking.

Now the assistant hasn't actually asked anything, but the customer assumes that is what the assistant is going to say so they respond accordingly.

But what else could you say ?

" Good morning, thank you for choosing us today. "

"Good morning, we're quite a new business, so would you mind giving me some feedback before you leave on my shop and what could perhaps be changed."

"Good morning, your husband looks miserable "

Now I am joking about the last one, but before you launch into your script about your business and what you have to offer, you need to get the customers attention. And I'm afraid "Can I help you ?" won't do that.

Again, try different lines and comments, some will work, some won't, but make sure you are constantly adapting what you say until you get it spot on.


Every customer needs to be approached. It is not a natural, comfortable thing to do, but if you don't do it and your customer walks into a competitor next door, you can guarantee they are getting approached in there.

Make sure you have a structure to your approach and that you know the information you want before you speak to your customer.

A good approach sets the tone for the whole sale. It shows the customer that you are confident in yourself and your product and you have the skills and the knowledge to satisfy their needs.

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