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Carol L Schroeder

May I Help You?

December 2, 2013

May I Help You?Customer service complaints aimed at Walmart seem to be at an all-time high this year. "A negative experience can leave a bad taste in a customer's mouth for a long time," Grant Cardone reports in this interview about Walmart's recent decline in staff (and inventory) levels with Ashley Lutz of Business Insider - a timely reminder to independents that we should re-examine what we type of customer service we want to offer.

Do we want our salespeople to approach every customer who walks into our shop, or should we let customers browse in peace? In a specialty shop, I feel that one goal should be to have customers entering the shop be greeted by an employee. Not only does it set a pleasant tone, but it also lets the shopper know that there are employees present if they need help (and serves as a shoplifting deterrent).

Beyond the initial greeting, there can be great deal of variation in our interaction with customers - in large part because shoppers are ambivalent about the amount of assistance they want. In his fascinating history of shopping, I Want That!, author Thomas Hine explains that in Victorian times, there was a shift away from the solicitous sales clerks to employees who were instructed "not to speak to shoppers unless spoken to or signaled." This encouraged the new art of browsing, in which shoppers of all economic levels could examine the goods in a shop, even without any intention of buying.

The novelty of independent shopping soon led to the culture of self-service now that is now the norm. And yet customers who want or need assistance find it frustrating when stores fail to provide it. No wonder, as Hines remarks, "relatively few shoppers are pleased with the quality of service they get." He goes on to state, "Customers most frequent complaints are that they can't find a clerk to serve them when they need one, and that the clerks they can find are ignorant of the product line."

Although it's hard to do during this busy season, we should try to offer every shopper an initial greeting followed by an offer to be of assistance if needed. Of course we have all heard by now that the worst thing to ask is "May I help you?" The answer to this question is invariably "Just looking," even if the shopper really does want help. A better approach is to ask "Do you have any questions about that item?" or "Are you shopping for anything in particular today?".

When a customer does request, or appear open to, assistance, the trick is to strike the right balance between being too pushy and too aloof. It is important that every member of the sales staff have good product knowledge so that each interaction with a customer is a positive one. Happily it's not hard to beat the low standard set by the over-worked employees in a big store like Walmart, but even in an independent shop we have to remind ourselves daily that customer service is what we do best.