Early morning most Saturdays, you’ll find me at one of our Big Island Farmers Markets. Ours is an island where edibles can grow so well, plant and animal alike. I wish there were even more who would make their living farming the land, but thankfully, those who do show up at our markets each weekend to celebrate their bounty and share it.
Come spring and summer, my purchasing dollars get evenly split between what we’ll prepare for the week’s meals thanks to these farmers, and what we’ll grow ourselves in my very small kitchen garden. I rarely buy seed packets anymore, for I’ve learned what a true bargain seedlings in $1 baby pots or $3 veggie starters really are: They’re in exactly right mulch-mixed potting soil, flourishing with intuitively timed doses of organic fertilizing boosters. They look supremely healthy in their pot yet eager to stretch in the garden — and they are! Why wait for seeds, when you can buy these instead?
Sometimes I get carried away and buy a tray full, with temptation making it very easy to do, especially when season begins and I know my garden plot is primed and ready to receive. Usually however, I’ll force myself to pick just 2 or 3 starters at most so I can give them more of my appreciative attentions during the week to come: I acclimate in the spot I’ve picked out first, and transplant to garden or deck pot two or three days later.
I do this nearly each and every week, only skipping those Saturdays when travel for work keeps me away. There are two growers I frequent most: One specializes in herbs and veggie starters, and the other in succulents and native Hawaiian plants. I’ve enjoyed several conversations with both of them, finding they know their products exceptionally well, and will answer my questions with graciousness and generosity.
So imagine my crushing disappointment, when I approached the herb and veggie grower’s booth, ready to buy as I usually do, and was greeted with, “just looking?”
When you’re good at ‘talking story’ you’re great at Customer Service.
And when you’re not, you’re not.
The good news, is that everyone CAN be good at talking story given more encouragement to do so.
Innocent encounters such as this one, are goldmines of opportunity squandered in businesses large and small each and every day. Their golden opportunity is why I trumpet the goodness of conversation in so much of what we do as Alaka‘i Managers and Managing with Aloha practitioners. More often than not, I find that the best customer service training possible, is having managers train and coach their staff in the art of conversation, so that small talk will lead to the sales they want.
Warmly sincere and artful small talk creates a circle of comfort which embraces your customer.
On the other hand, the casually thrown out there “Just looking?” seems impersonal and thoughtless (and usually is), keeps customers at arms length, and worse, will push them away. I have bought so much from this veggie and herb lady; how could she be so flippant and dismissive? I’m sure that wasn’t her intention at all, but I know how little it would have taken for her to do so much better in greeting me.
The ease of creating that ‘little’ is what your customer service training must be about. I’d have been over the moon if she asked, “How is your tarragon doing?” or even, “Hello! Good to see you again.” I didn’t feel I was a stranger to her anymore… why did she treat me like one?
“We don’t sell; we help the customer buy.”
I shared the story of this quotation in Managing with Aloha’s chapter on HO‘OKIPA, “the hospitality of complete giving.” It was a motto adopted by the Mea Ho‘okipa of The Club Shop at Hualalai because the notion of assertive up-selling grated on them, and they wanted to achieve the same thing — better sales results — with a different, softer approach, one that amounted to cultivating a relationship with all potential buyers. An excerpt:
A common sight in The Club Shop was of husbands and sons sitting in the overstuffed arm chairs we had near the shop windows that overlooked the 18th green: They were waiting for the women in their lives to shop. They weren’t buyers, and the staff instinctively knew they didn’t want to be “sold,” but to our Mea Ho‘okipa, they were guests, and all guests needed to have every single comfort they could give them. It might be they needed small talk; it might be they’d prefer the morning paper and some coffee; it might be they’d just arrived and could use some inside-knowledge on the rest of the resort … whatever it was, they got it, yet they had almost never asked for it —they’d expected to impatiently sit and be bored.
As you can imagine their wives were thrilled with the attention paid to their men, for they could now shop in peace, and without much guilt; their purchase dollar increased. Those who were golfers were introduced to our golf professionals simply for the pleasure of good conversation. Perhaps they were given a putter and sleeve of balls to practice their short game and just kill time, and we booked more lessons. And guess what else happened? These were the men who would come back before Valentine’s Day or Christmas, walk up to the person who had helped their wives, and say, “Do you remember me? Would you help me find a gift for my wife?”
Most retail shops really need to figure this out: You have to invest in the customer relationship when you have the chance, not just when you’re pretty sure your prospect is ready to buy!
— Excerpt from Managing with Aloha, Bringing Hawai‘i’s Universal Values to the Art of Business
Talking story is teachable, for conversing is what we all will naturally do.
If you want the quality of your customer service to improve, teach your staff to talk story with the art of your business knowledge, and the grace of HO‘OKIPA and ALOHA. In the day to day march of your work, employ these five easy managing-as-verb practices: Altogether, they are Conversational Customer Service.
- Give your staff examples of things to say and suggest to repeat customers you’ve met, and to others likely representative of those customer profiles you know of as common to your business: Share the wealth of your awareness and knowledge about the customer, and introduce people to each other as often as you can — customers LOVE to be known and recognized (and they forgive you for a vast array of small sins when they are).
- In your weekly meetings and pre-shift huddles, regularly ask for staff input and experience: “Does anyone have a customer talk story to share with us?” Celebrate the stories, whatever they are, and I guarantee you: Product sales will continue to happen, and up selling will improve with naturally occurring ease.
- Also ask, “What are the questions you’re fielding from our guests lately?” and “What are people most interested in right now?” This helps staff be more proactive; they offer up the small talk of comfortable expertise, as conversational information that will potentially answer a question a customer has in mind, but hasn’t verbally articulated yet for the asking.
- When you see a staff member well engaged with a guest and visitor, or one who has that opportunity, clear their way: Cover their station and catch their eye to signal that you’ve done so for them — give them to the guest unfettered.
- Model the behavior you’d like to see repeated so staff can copy you. This is good mimicry: Welcome their copies, and encourage their personalization of your techniques and best practices. Another version of this tip: Warm up the customer with first contact with you, and then enlarge the conversational circle of comfort: Hand them off to your staff (always with a gracious and confident you-should-know-each-other! introduction) for their finishing touch.
“Civilized conversation is the Swiss Army knife of social skills that anyone can learn to use. Take it with you wherever you go, and you’ll be equipped to turn a seatmate into a confidant, an interviewer into an employer, and an acquaintance into a friend. As an accomplished conversationalist, you’ll be welcomed everywhere; everyone loves a good conversation because it is FUN.”
— Margaret Shepherd, from her Introduction within The Art of Civilized Conversation; A Guide to Expressing Yourself with Style and Grace