Creating Customer Connection Through Conversation


The recent economic upheaval has proven especially challenging for the retail sector. Although the economy showed signs of improvement through the end of 2010 and the first quarter of 2011, the recent downturn sent the Consumer Confidence Index plummeting at the end of July.

This and other indicators foretell  a rough holiday shopping season and an uncertain future. With struggles looming it is more important than ever for retailers to find ways to differentiate themselves – and this means going beyond dropping prices, adding incentives, and decorating store windows.

With their confidence bottoming out, customers want something more. Scratch that, they demand something more. And that is: Connection. So how does one move the customer relationship from mere transactions to meaningful connections that foster loyalty? It starts with the conversation.

Here are 3 mantras your sales force should commit to memory.

1. I will be here, prepared to be nowhere else.There’s nothing quite like standing at a cash register while being asked a series of questions by a sales associate who is making little or no eye contact. Do you need batteries? We’re running a special on x, would you like to purchase 1 more and save $2? Would you like to open a credit card account? May I have your email address so we can notify you of upcoming sales? And on and on and on.

I find this all-too-common practice frustrating as do countless others. Why? Because I merely represent an “opportunity” for the sales associate as they rundown their checklist of the company’s self-serving agenda. To top it off, I have nowhere to go. Cash register = captive audience.

Now don’t get me wrong. I understand the need and the positive intentions underlying most of these practices; however, building a relationship with the customer should come first, ahead of corporate profits. I don’t know of anyone who wants to have a relationship with a company through its credit card or mailing list.

Rather, we want a relationship with the people. So if you see me or anyone else standing at your cash register, engage with me. Set aside your agenda and simply be present in this moment. Right now. Even if it’s Black Friday and I’m your 200th customer of the day. By doing this first, your recommendations no longer solely represent your needs, but expand to encompass my best interests as well.

2. I will obey my instincts. The human condition is a tricky one. There are tangibles and intangibles we desire and yet, when put on the spot, we may back down and settle for status quo for fear of sticking out or being perceived as difficult. This tendency isn’t the problem. The real problem arises when we accept an answer at face-value, even though we sense something else is going on.

In customer service, it’s perfectly normal for a customer to tell that a sales clerk she’s “fine” or doesn’t need help – but do a gut check. Does she look fine? Or does she look lost? If you sense that not all is going as well as your customer says, take time to inquire. In all of my years, I have never had someone become angry with me for taking an extra moment to check in. In fact, the result is quite the opposite. It demonstrates that they are important to you, and that you are paying attention and in tune with their needs.

3. I will come out from behind myself, into the conversation, and make it real. In order for connections to occur, we need to be dealing with the genuine article. Not some corporate hologram of the ideal employee complete with 100% adherence to the almighty policy and procedure manual.

Remember, business is personal and people act for emotional reasons first, rational ones second. There is no faster way to drive a customer away than to avoid the personal, unique nature of every individual. Have you ever called into a customer service line for help only to be given a generic response that doesn’t help you in the least? We all have. And we usually put a special little star by companies like that.

There is a reason that companies like Zappos and Nordstrom excel in the area of customer loyalty. They place a high premium on building relationships with their customers, and take time to identify and meet the needs of individuals, rather than offering canned solutions.

Of course, it can be difficult to deal with an angry or upset customer, but by taking time to really understand the grievance or problem, retailers can ensure both that the customer feels heard, and that they can offer a real, meaningful answer. If you want to create the kind of long-lasting relationships that bring customers back time and time again, engage in authentic conversations, rather than dispensing generic solutions.

In a time of poor economics and a saturated marketplace, you can carve out your competitive edge in the area of customer connectivity. If your sales force is present, aware, and authentic, the customers will be there to stay.

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