Can You Relate?

Every retailer knows that customer service is key, but customer relations-a more personal and nuanced aspect of retailing-is just as critical to a store's overall operation.





With the economy continuing to challenge retailers, being able to increase sales without spending one extra penny would be a blessing. The question is: How can retailers generate more revenue without spending more money?
Employing salesmanship is one option—it is certainly a trait that anyone can admire in a sales associate. However, great salesmanship may lead to selling products to people who do not need them, or selling the wrong products to customers. A better approach would be to invest a little time and effort in customer relations. This can only happen when storeowners nourish an environment in which employees are rewarded for the level of customer support they exhibit.

It is important to keep in mind that customer relations and customer service are not the same thing, although many people make that mistake. Customer service is not always as personal as customer relations. Think about it for a moment: Your relatives expect to be treated differently from your friends. Customer service is a broader term that applies to people in general. For example, a store that stocks a fair number of live feeder items—brine shrimp, black worms, feeder fish, earthworms and ghost/grass shrimp—is a destination store for customer service. Of course, the retailers make money on selling feeder items, but they are not obligated to sell them. They carry them in order to provide better service to their customers.

Another example of good customer service would be to carry a large selection of parts for the filters, pumps, light fixtures and specialty equipment you stock on a regular basis. This only seems logical, but with the advent of the Internet, fewer and fewer stores are doing so. Of course, many people buy their expensive items online, but what if a replaceable part breaks or stops working? They need this piece—immediately. That means, if you have it in stock, you can bring that person into your store to possibly buy something else while he is there. So, this is good customer service.

However, while customer service is important, customer relations is equally, if not more, crucial. What could be more important than those one-on-one encounters between sales associates and clients? If someone comes in looking for an impeller for their power filter, and you don’t have it, they are going to be a little discouraged. However, chances are that no other store is going to have it either. On the other hand, if someone comes in looking for help and advice and they are treated poorly, that person is unlikely to ever return. Either way, if you don’t come through for the customer, you have failed them. But, the second scenario is a profound failure that may be inexcusable and irrevocable as far as the customer is concerned.

Unfortunately, good customer relations are difficult to teach to employees. Since everyone is an individual, everyone is going to approach how they interact with people differently. If you are looking to hire someone, which quality would you consider more important: knowledge or personality? You can always teach someone about fish or products. Whether they learn or not is mainly up to them. The question is: can you teach them how to handle customers?
Training employees to follow a specific and rigid pattern of behavior with each and every customer limits their potential. It is, of course, critical that store clerks know the products they are selling. It is equally important that they know the customers reasonably well. This can’t always happen on a customer’s initial visit, but by the third or fourth time, that person should be profiled by anyone who has waited on him before. Once this is accomplished, a bond can be formed between the sales associate and the client. At this point, the salesperson should have adjusted his or her demeanor to fit that of the client. Let’s call this the chameleon effect, and it is not a simple behavior to pull off. Some people can do it, others cannot.

The most important part of the interaction between seller and buyer is the level of sincerity that is projected. People can tell when they are being patronized, and they do not appreciate it. Customers don’t want to be “handled;” they want to be conversed with. The flow of conversation should be natural, friendly and non-confrontational. A person should never feel that he or she is being hurried along so you can get to the next customer—even if you do need to help someone else. It’s frequently a balancing act that requires a bit of knowledge and a bit of savoir faire. These qualities are usually learned over years of work, but for a few exceptional individuals, they will be natural.

You might think—indeed, you would certainly hope—that no customer can be lost in a single encounter, but that is far from the truth. The first time someone visits a shop is the most important. An initial impression usually lasts a lifetime and is extremely difficult to change. Over the years, I have talked with many people who say something like this: “I was in your shop several years ago, but the clerk was rude, so I never came back until now.”

My guess is that this scenario occurs much more frequently than you might imagine. There is no way to undo an experience like this. You can offer to fire the employee alleged to have been rude, or you might chalk it up to someone having a bad day—either the salesperson or the customer. No one is on top of their game every single day. Everyone has good days and bad, but it’s not a good thing when it happens in retail sales.


Juggling Act

Often, a customer’s impressions are marred when dealing with overwhelmed, busy employees. On a given day, let’s say you have three sales associates on the floor. Perhaps one is stocking shelves, one is cleaning fish tanks and the other is waiting on customers. A good customer comes in, and he is looking for help with filtration. It just so happens that your filtration expert is tank cleaning. It is also the case that the person stocking product is the clerk who normally waits on this client. What should happen here? Well, if possible, the two sales associates should work in tandem to help this person. That would certainly be the most expeditious solution. It might also make the customer feel special to have two people waiting on him, and the results should be rewarding.

An owner or a member of middle management should never encourage a clerk to race through their involvement with a customer. On rare occasions, a store might be so busy that rushing transactions seems necessary, but if this happens, it’s a failing of the person in charge of scheduling, not the employees. If you know you are going to be busy Saturday afternoon, you should have more people on the clock at that time. Customer relations are not strictly the providence of employees on the frontline; all levels of workers are responsible. For example, if you are the owner, what could be more beneficial than to spend a couple of hours as a greeter? As customers come through the door, you say hello and tell them who you are. You might even hand out “specials” fliers or ask people what brought them to your store.

This level of customer relations would be exceptional, but it is not without its drawbacks. People must understand you are there to greet, not to serve—otherwise, you won’t last more than a few minutes. Everyone wants the owner to wait on them.

Every once in a while it’s a good idea to station an employee in a specific section of your store. The food department is probably the best place to try this, because it is most likely to have a fairly descent number of customers in a given period of time. Let’s say you are running a sale on everything aquatic. For a sale like this, you will want to bring in extra help. One of the additional people should be a dedicated customer-relations consultant. This employee doesn’t actually sell, but rather makes recommendations, offers suggestions and gives advice—no high-pressure sales techniques; just one person talking to another.

Now, in every pet shop or any other retail sales venue, there is going to be a fair amount of socializing, competitiveness, pettiness and downright backstabbing. If you try to control this, you will probably only make it worse. What you want is a team of people who work like a well-oiled machine, no matter what mix you throw together. What you will probably get is far from this idyllic concept. In order to make things work, you may find it necessary to schedule some people to different shifts or even different days. This should only be tolerated if the offending individuals have exceptional skills that you don’t want to lose. My point here is that when employees have issues with each other, many customers are savvy enough to pick up on this. Animosity between employees can quickly poison the ambiance in retail sales. If this happens, customer relations in the good sense will cease to exist. You must find a way to prevent personal feelings from affecting employees’ relationships with customers.

Lastly, keep in mind that the person who owns the store is usually worst person to teach someone how to interact with customers. A middle-management employee is often a better choice because they are more approachable or relatable to other employees. Even customers tend to act abnormal when being waited on by the store’s owner. A good shop owner directs like a conductor—he does not attempt to play all the instruments himself. 

Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for over 30 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.

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