Barrier busters: How to successfully engage more customers

Aug 22, 2014

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from Retail Contrarian, the blog of the Dynamic Experiences Group.

Unless a shopper has already visited your store, a barrier often exists between you and your customer. It’s not about you, it’s about perceptions and beliefs based upon a combination of the customer’s past shopping experiences at other stores.

That’s why it’s essential to take certain actions that bust those barriers and demonstrate to your customer the value you add. Here are some of biggest barrier busters a specialty store can execute:

1. Warmly welcome your customer with a smile. A huge barrier buster, a smile demonstrates to each customer that he/she is the staff’s priority, the staff is happy to see each customer, and that the staff enjoys working at the store. That last point is key. Who enjoys a party when the host or hostess isn’t having fun?

2. Get out from behind the counter. Counters are not only physical barriers, they’re personal barriers to connecting with your customer.

3. Avoid using retail clichés. When customers are asked over and over "How may I help you" or "Do you have any questions?," these barriers actually become even higher.

4. Acknowledge and move past the first barrier. Don’t take "I’m just looking" personally. If it’s clear they want to experience the store alone, by all means let them. Typically, however, "I’m just looking" is a natural barrier built on past bad experiences. Acknowledge it with something like, "Great, you’re going to find some wonderful things." Further telling them you’ll check back in a bit gives the customer space to take in the store, and gives you permission to reengage in a few minutes.

5. Proactively show your customer your newest products. Can shoppers easily tell what the newest products are? Nope. That’s how you add value, and at the same time bust a barrier.

6. Hand your customer a product whenever possible. Our work with boutiques, jewelry and other stores shows that when you get the product either in a customer’s hands or on their person, the likelihood to purchase increases substantially. This is also true at a hardware store, pet store, toy store, camera store, and so on.

7. Tell your customer about the product they’re looking at. It’s a great way to reengage. But don’t ask a customer if he or she has any questions or needs help! The answer will most likely be no.

8. Make it personal. Exchanging names with the customer is challenging for many people, but can make all the difference when your goal is to deliver the best possible experience.

What suggestions would you add to breaking down the barriers between shoppers and a store’s staff?

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17 Comments on "Barrier busters: How to successfully engage more customers"

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Bob Phibbs

Doug’s suggestions are spot-on. The devil is in the details, isn’t it?

We all want a smile when we walk into a store. Yet telling employees to smile is often a black hole. People smile when they are happy, secure, and content. As I wrote in this post about how to increase sales, there is an energy that develops in the store.

When retailers are OK with sending employees home shortly after they arrive, doling out repeated split-shifts—17 hours one week 27 the next—it makes smiling very difficult.

The retail superstars create an environment that allows the best in their employees to come out that. When coupled with retail sales training, this converts lookers to buyers. And that’s something everyone can smile about.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

Good suggestions. Some more:

  1. Have staff wear large buttons that say “I’m here to help.”
  2. Provide staff with business cards that have a contact name, phone number and email address (does not have to be the contact info of the staff member). Have staff distribute these cards where appropriate.
  3. Have staff suggest alternative solutions for products being considered, some of which might be perceived as value-added by shoppers.
  4. Have regular customer appreciation events, e.g., coffee and donuts, iced tea, lemonade, etc. It doesn’t have to be a big or expensive event as long as it provides an opportunity for staff and shoppers to engage outside of the sales floor interaction.
Dave Wendland

Great advice, Doug! Unfortunately too few retail operations acknowledge the importance of these. However, when it occurs, it is HUGE and really sets the retailer apart. To see this in action, visit a vibrant independent pharmacy some time and you’ll witness personal experience and relationship factors that seldom occur at their big box rivals.

At the end of the day, customers seek an engaging, memorable experience.

Ian Percy
If you’ll permit me a journey into the quantum field, the retail table was set before the customer even got into her/his car. Energy is not bound by time or distance and the sales person and customer have “prepared” for each other long before physically meeting. From the store side: How much do the sales people love their job and the merchandise they sell? How have they prepared mentally for the day? What flashes through their mind when they see a customer come in the door? In other words what is their energetic state? From the customer side: What response are they prepared for? Do they hope no one approaches them? What is the emotional bottom line from decades of shopping experiences? How eager are they to buy? What will buying do for them? The selling/buying experience is made up of thousands of energetic “touch points” ranging from how easy it was to park to the appeal of the product display to the energy exuded by the sales person to the price of the product. Any touch point that get a (usually) subconscious minus rating has to be made up by a higher plus rating elsewhere. When minuses outweigh the… Read more »
Chris Petersen, PhD.

Doug has offered an excellent summary of all the “simple” things that staff can do to break down barriers and make consumers feel welcome. While they sound simple, they are difficult for retailers to execute!

Apple has demonstrated the power and potential of “hiring for smiles.” The first challenge is recruiting staff who have the personality AND the willingness to exhibit these behaviors daily. The second challenge is retaining staff who can personalize the experience. Retail associates are turning over 50 to 100 percent per year in most national retailers.

The greatest opportunity and challenge retail stores face today is finding the talent who can willingly execute the eight points on Doug Fleener’s list.

David Livingston
3 years 30 days ago

Take down all the NO signs, like no backpacks, no shoes no shirt no service, no carts in the bathroom, no weapons. Over doing the NO message to me is too negative. Reword those messages without the word NO.

Ed Rosenbaum

All of the suggestions are good, but execution is the most important piece. If the staff uses the above suggestions and comes across as real, it will be accepted by the customer as real. If it is rote, you can kiss the customer goodbye.

gordon arnold

This article represents an excellent recap of what is needed to successfully work with customers that are new to your businesses and/or location. I would include with these necessities the skill of listening to the customer. We might also wish to consider that our customers may not be well versed in their wants and needs. This is noticeable when their descriptions and vernacular are not recognizable by the associate. To avoid further confusion, and maybe even frustration, the associate should request from the consumer how, where or when the subject matter is used or what it might be for.

Once the topic is disclosed the associate can demonstrate solutions until a satisfactory offer is made. The offer might need to include where the necessary product and/or service can be observed and purchased elsewhere. In this instance a couple legitimate alternatives and/or suppliers should suffice. While I know first hand that this is an accepted practice for many brick-and-mortar stores, there is much opportunity for our e-commerce colleagues to include this in the customer experiences they offer.

Shep Hyken

Great topic. Some of this is “Retail 101,” or what you might call basic. However, it’s the basics that are the foundation of any business. My friends at Ace Hardware get it. It’s easy to break down barriers by being nice. However, they add the level of being “helpful” on top of it.

The greeting includes the question, “What can I help you find today?” From there, the associate “helps” the customer find what they are looking for and, if appropriate, helps them by suggesting other products, alternative products, reminders of other things they might need for their project and more. The concept of “helpful” is the value-add that is used to separate them from others.

All of the ideas in the above article are excellent. Don’t let the fact that they seem basic get in the way of preaching and reminding employees about them. It may seem like common sense, but unfortunately it is not always so common.

Ed Dennis
Ed Dennis
3 years 30 days ago

All of the above ASSUME the customer has entered the store. This isn’t the biggest problem. The biggest problem is getting the customer to enter the store. How do you create enough interest to get the customer in the store? No business can make a go of it catering to repeat customers, there must be a flow of new customers. If a new customer walks into your store they did it for a reason (get out of the rain, just bored, whatever)—spend your time working on providing reasons for people to visit you. However, don’t tell people you are having a big sale on a product unless you have the product in stock.

Lee Kent

Good points all, however, I have to mention the “dressing room” experience. For those retailers in the fashion space, the dressing room is key. It is at this point that the customer is going to buy or not buy and it is precisely where a sales associate/stylist needs to be positioned.

Take a look at Anthropologie. They have comfortable seating, magazines, etc. for those of us accompanying a shopper. Then they have someone assigned to the dressing room at all times. They write the shoppers name on the outside of the dressing room door so as to always call them by their name. Then the best part….

When the shopper comes out to look in the mirror, the sales associate mentions other pieces and asks if they might want to try them. Outfits are put together, the customer is happy, sales happen and the next best part….

The customer returns another day!

And that’s my 2 cents!

George-Marie Glover
George-Marie Glover
3 years 30 days ago

If these “barrier breakers” aren’t already part of a retailer’s basic sales staff training, than they have more than a problem with breaking barriers with customers. They need to break the barrier to common sense.

Bill Bittner
Bill Bittner
3 years 30 days ago
I don’t believe I am about to say this, but I am really beginning to believe “there is an app for that.” The brick and mortar retailers are quick to deride showrooming but they have to learn to live with it. As true omni-channel retailers have learned to use the backrooms of some store locations as fulfillment centers, everyone must also embrace the idea that the sales area is becoming a show room. Why not take this concept all the way? Instead of customers needing to lug around purchases, allow them instead to use an app. The app could be automatically started when they walk into the store and pre-loaded with their preferences. If they like, their purchases can be recorded and delivered overnight. If they want to pick them up in the front of the store they can signal when they are ready to leave. Finally, if they really do like the cute cashier at their supermarket they can carry the purchases to the front end. The app could also be used to request the help of a sales person wherever they are in the store, but first it would be able to display answers for a lot of… Read more »
Doug Garnett

An excellent list of reminders and well worth reading. That said, I think it misses the mark on responding the problem that was laid out for these to solve. Why? Because all these activities presume shoppers made it to the store.

The biggest barrier to retail growth is getting these non-shoppers to make their first step into the store. So what’s described here is a second step in a growth program. The first (hardest and most critical) is the promotional activity required to get people to step inside.

My agency creates powerful programs for driving new shoppers and store traffic by advertising exclusive, innovative, high demand products as a way to drive new engagement at the store.

This is powerful because consumers don’t buy brand—they buy products and then learn to love a brand. When possible, it’s more powerful to attract people with exciting products that deliver tremendous brand experience…then ensure they have a good store experience.

Of course, this work should be teamed with other promotional activity (sales, circulars, events, etc.) to get the biggest impact.

Doug Fleener

Thanks for everyone’s comments. A couple thoughts I have on people’s comments:

1. Call it 101. Call it basic. Call it whatever you want…but the fact is you rarely experience these in most stores.

2. It’s not about training. We all could build a PowerPoint on these things in an hour. It’s hiring, teaching, coaching, and leading a team that wants to deliver this type of experience for their customer.

3. 100% agree with Bob and Ian. Positive energy ultimately breaks down barriers. I’ve always said that to be a great place to shop you have to first be a great place to work.

4. Agree that traffic is an issue for retailers. But as I told my stores when I was director of retail at Bose, if you don’t have a great experience or you can’t maximize the opportunity, why would you want to drive more people into the store?

Thanks again everyone.

Kenneth Leung

Training, training, repeat training, and rewards. Given the turnover of the retail staff and the push for short term goals, reinforcement is key for long term success.

Alexander Rink
3 years 21 days ago

One of the most impactful barriers is mood. Positivity is key in any retail environment. If the staff aren’t happy about their job, or are complaining about their weekend, it’s a major put-off to the customer.

Also, I find passion for the product or service is a great way to engage with the customer. I may not be sold on a product, but if an employee shows passion about what they are selling, I am more apt to make the purchase.


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