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Sounds of Silence

What We Hear in Stores

Today, we are going to go shopping and experience businesses within your community. It does not matter if the stores we visit sell the same products or services as you do. What we are concerned with is how the sales staff communicates with customers.

Whether we are visiting a stand alone store, a business in a strip shopping center, or a store within a mall, we are going to watch other people shopping as well as attempt to make several purchases ourselves.

As we plan our trip, we will spend the entire day listening; especially noting the things said to customers which not only do little to make the sale, but cause the customer to reconsider doing business with the store. Unfortunately, as we take our shopping excursion and track the amount of time spent shopping and listening to conversations, we found it takes less than 90 minutes to gather the information for this report. While we invite you to try this experiment for yourself, we share with you our experiences.

Too frequently, as we shop we get the first response, which is also the title of this article: the sound of silence. The employee says absolutely nothing. Sometimes they simply pass you in the aisle as if you were a stranger on the street, or perhaps as you travel the entire length and width of the store, you find absolutely no one to speak with you. With this type of experience, it is no surprise to find many businesses having a shoplifting problem which, as a percentage of sales, is equal to the amount of net profit for the business. The "silent treatment" happened several times, including one in which it was the owner who passed us by, and at the point we went to the cash register with our selection, we heard the owner holler, "Oh Brian, YOU have a customer."

Unfortunately, this type of action has become commonplace. Our concern is for the owner who says, "My customer service is as good as everyone else's". We hope not.

There is a second group of communication which we will categorize as the "minimum daily requirements". These statements include, "Can I help you?", "Is there anything else?", and "Do you want me to ring that up for you?". In a fast food restaurant, you often hear, "Is this to eat here? Is this to take out?".

Think about the appropriate answers to these questions; with rare exception the answer would always be yes, or the answer to the first questions would cancel the necessity of the second question. There is a degree of redundancy in these questions which show the salesperson is not really participating in the conversation with the customer. It is also a sign this person has been "trained" by the management as compared to being "educated" in customer service.

Bluntly said, animals are trained, employees should be educated.

Taking conversations a step further, we go into a category which shows an effort to converse, but still falls short. "My name is Bob. Let me know if you need anything." While Bob is at least getting past the traditional yes or no question, he is still missing the opportunity of developing a relationship with the customer. Just like a restaurant in which you really enjoy the experience, the relationship has to begin and continue with a waiter or waitress who wants you to experience enjoyment, and demonstrates a complete effort to assist you.

This sales person, or several sales people, do not have to be a pest to the customer, but can make an effort to repeatedly interact in a sincere effort to serve.

The last two levels demonstrate two extreme weaknesses which are too often displayed: lack of education, and lack of interest. Think of the customer who has read of a new product in a consumer shooting sports magazine, and then goes into the store to examine the item and perhaps make a purchase. The customer asks the sales person if the product is stocked. The answer is "No", to which the customer then asks if the store carries a product which is similar to the one asked for.

"I don't know what the item is", is one possible response by the employee. Obviously a lost chance for a sale by not asking the customer to explain the item. The other answer frequently given is the explanation of, "I only work here part time", or in larger stores, "I don't usually work in this department". These responses occur when a retailer settles for training instead of education, as well as when the retailer fails to assign a mentor to the newer employees.

The final group of responses occur when the retailer thinks they can treat the customer more like an employee and give directions. "That's not my job". "You will have to fill out this form to exchange that". "You will have to come back when the manager is here". "I don't know who would have told you that". With many of these responses, the only reason the customer is still standing there is because they want their money back.

There is an old saying of, "When the bear gets into the water with the alligator, the alligator usually wins." While independent store owners and managers generally believe they provide a level of service well above that given by a chain store, it is unfortunately too often not true.

How can we solve it? There is a noted retailer with a written directive to employees which says, "Use your good judgment in all situations. There will not be additional rules. Please feel free to ask any question at any time." The only suggestion we could make for an addition would be, "It is not a customer walking in, but a friend we have yet to meet. Converse with them, don't talk to or at them."

Next month, we are going to discuss the second half of this shopping experience where we highlight the ten sharpest salespeople we observed. But, what is the sound of silence? It is the lack of noise experienced as the customer has just walked out the front door looking for the competition. The sound of silence can be deafening; hopefully, we are listening and being proactive.

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This article is copyrighted by Tom Shay and Profits Plus Solutions, who can be reached at: PO Box 1577, St. Petersburg, Fl. 33731. Phone 727-464-2182. It may be printed for an individual to read, but not duplicated or distributed without expressed written consent of the copyright owner.

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