The Retail Dance

The correct customer welcome can be worth thousands of dollars over the coming years

Originally ran in Garden Center on April 9, 2012

Spring is here. The sap is on the rise. Acacia, cherries, crocus or pussy willow (choose your Zone) are flowering, and the birds are singing. All this reminds me of something I observed last spring.

It was a nice sunny Thursday morning—the fountains were clean and running; the robins were singing away in the trees. The garden center was not busy—just a few early shoppers looking around. A late 20-something mom with a sleepy baby meandered around the store, looking at orchids by the entrance, then stopping at seed-starting items on a display that said, “Spring Ahead of Mother Nature.”

She moved on, passing an employee in the small greenhouse, before she read signs and considered pansies and primroses. Then she stepped out into the nursery yard, where two employees were lining out container stock. Circling back, with the youngster now completely passed out in her arms, she looked at planted spring containers and empty pottery before returning to the store, where she again looked at orchids before exiting to her car past two busy cashiers at the checkout. Just for the record, she also passed an employee setting up fountains along the front of the building as she walked to her car.

At the risk of being arrested for stalking, I watched and kept track of this lady for 12 minutes. She was dressed in smart casual clothes and drove a newer car. Her blond child was very cute, dressed in a matching color of jacket as Mom’s and sleeping through most of the process.

At no time during her journey was she greeted, spoken-to or even acknowledged as living on the same planet as the six employees she passed en route from here to there—and back. Yet here she was in her spare time, volunteering to visit their store with her pocketbook and a possibility of paying someone’s wages that day. That team clearly failed to close the deal. The fact is that, as far as I could see, none of them even tried to open the deal.

So what’s going on here? These didn’t seem to be employees with an attitude; negative or angry at something. In fact, they were all working diligently, heads down, busy and occupied, even chatty with each other. They probably went home tired and happy that they cleared their task list, thinking they had really earned their corn. Well, actually, they didn’t. Was it their fault? No. Were they bad employees? Of course not. Was I seeing a mistaken focus and poor retail leadership? Absolutely!

“Hey, look at me, I’m paying your wages!”

I have spent my life in the nursery industry and shopped stores from Anchorage to Austin, from Seattle to Savannah, seeing more garden centers than I’ve had good airline meals(!). My verdict? We are not exactly customer-centric.

At various garden centers I have been told (none-too-politely) to step aside for a nursery cart coming through, stepped over electric cords of employees drilling a trellis, had a very noisy vacuum cleaner pushed within inches of my feet, and told (not asked) to move my car so the grower’s truck can get past (on a Friday morning, no less). And this trend doesn’t seem to be changing.

Without clipboard or camera, I think I look like a customer, using my spare time to visit their place of work to use my wages to pay their wages. Acknowledgement of my existence would be appreciated.

So, how do you fix this problem?

I would suggest you start by looking at your interview process as a casting call. Retail is theater, and all employees are players on the stage. So the first question you might ask during the interview process is whether that particular employee is even comfortable in the public eye spotlight. Some people are just not cut out for retail, so interviewing for that quality is an essential step in the retail dance.

If the answer is yes, let’s set the expectation and train how to start the retail dance in a way that engages the customer, rather than setting the wrong “tone” in the first few seconds.

We have some great employees in this industry. They are friendly, dedicated and hard-working in less-than-comfortable conditions for less-than-lavish pay. So why do they avoid or put shoppers down the list of priorities? Because we—as in the “we” that own or run the business—are generally too task-oriented.

Admit it: Completing the task—whatever task is on your list—is job No. 1 for you and your staff. Getting tables filled, plants watered, trees lined out, registers booted up, pottery dusted, and so on … you know what the job list looks like.

We hire people-friendly people (or do we?) and then pressure them to do tasks. Of course, we don’t say, “Don’t serve customers until you’ve finished,” but the inference is there; the unwritten culture is “get the job done and serve customers when they ask for help or approach you.”

Few owners still actually encourage retail employees to simply go on patrol without any other “task” in mind than looking for customers in need. It’s an old habit that dies hard. I remember a reply from a boss of mine when I told him, “I think that lady over in the roses needs help.” He looked at me as I actually stopped moving for a nano-second and said, “I don’t pay you to think. I pay you to work.” Priceless.

Until owners and senior managers make a point every day of saying things like, “Believe me, it’s OK to let a plant that cost us $6 wilt if it means helping someone spend $60” or “Leave those trees lying down and go help that guy pick out the right shrub,” nothing is going to change.

This has to start at the top. If you want your store known for customer service, it is your job to set the expectation, manage for the result and train those who don’t follow the procedure.

Owners and managers must establish that the first responsibility of the team is not having all plants upright and watered but that every customer is greeted and made to feel welcome. All team members must know a customer’s body language to see if they want to be served or to browse.

A non-invasive procedure.

So, now that we have a customer-service policy in place, how do employees make it work? Do they just go up and say, “Are you finding what you’re looking for today?,” like in the mall stores? BUZZ … WRONG ANSWER!

The first moment has been called the Host phase of selling, when we welcome people to our world, relaxing them and showing that they come first. The first few seconds of meeting a customer is great for testing their readiness and for acknowledging their existence. This is the first assessment of customers and makes life so much easier than running up to everyone assuming they need immediate help.

These first few seconds of contact set the tone for the whole visit, maybe even for years ahead. It must be a non-threatening, non-invasive moment with absolutely no hint of selling or even telling the customer anything.

This is just about two human beings sizing each other up before they start the retail dance together.

Remember, those that are over-greeted before they are ready to shop are switched off, while those that want immediate help feel ignored when not greeted.

So how do you know who is who? Simply a glance and a smile with a throw-away line, such as, “Beautiful morning” or “Good to see you again” will usually provide the answer.

Moms with sleepy toddlers are used to being asked how old the little darling is, while some people want their hat or shoes acknowledged, others might be carrying a cup of coffee that smells good. I’ve even seen a guy entering a garden center with a pet skunk on his shoulder (talk about a cry for help!). There’s always something to open the conversation with.

A greeting like this must be done with honest eye contact and a pause. Try this on the run as you pass someone, and they think you don’t care. But standing there staring at them intimidates.

All it takes is a slowing down of the walk, open body language, a smile, an unhurried tone with no agenda (i.e., no purposeful question like “Can I help you find something”?) and—perhaps most important—good eye contact.

Space—the final frontier.

Some customers are ready to shop or at least talk, while others are defensive of their personal space. Employees who get it wrong at this stage set a bad impression of the entire company that can last for years. What that first contact is actually doing is throwing a message over the fence around the customer’s space and saying, “Are you open or shall I back off and let you browse?”

The secret now is to pay attention to the customer’s response and reaction, which is why a brief pause is vital. Most shoppers will be please to be acknowledged but drop their own eye contact, return your tone with a throw-away reply like, “Yes, looks like spring is here at last,” and turn away or close their own body language. They are saying, in effect, “Appreciate the recognition but not ready—I’ll let you know.”

The other response is usually by a minority of shoppers with a mission and a timetable, people who will stay in your eye contact with open body language and respond with something like, “Yes it’s beautiful, I have a quick question …”

Clearly, the first few seconds can be a big help to a salesperson managing his or her time and an essential step in that retail dance we call selling.

Remember: People buy from people they like, and that opinion can be formed in the very first few seconds.