American popular culture loves a catchphrase. Always has. In the 1890s, businessmen were anxious to “get down to brass tacks,” and a well-heeled customer who was satisfied with his purchases was “as happy as a clam.” In the 1990s, if a customer discovered that a dealer’s claims were all smoke and mirrors, then the deal “went down the tubes,” and it was “hasta la vista, baby.”
The latest popular catchphrase — “thrown under the bus” — was originally used by sports writers. Referring to the team bus, an athlete was either in favor (on the bus) or out of favor (under the bus). The recent economic environment has made the phrase a favorite of politicians and financial writers. Washington Post writer David Segal called the expression “the cliché of the 2008 (Presidential) campaign.”
“Thrown under the bus” has come to mean the sacrifice of a person who doesn’t deserve to be sacrificed. For example, consider the way customers sometimes treat antiques dealers (or other retailers):
Customer enters store.
Dealer: “Can I help you?”
Customer: “Just looking”.
Dealer walks away.
Thrown under the bus. Sacrificed undeservedly, the dealer resumes his or her position behind the counter and wonders what to do next while the customer walks around the store, sneering at the price tags.
Two things to do after they say “Just looking”:
The call and response of “Can I help you/Just looking” is so ingrained in the retail experience that even when shoppers want help, they often respond with “Just looking.” This is especially true in stores that sell discretionary items, like antiques stores. In stores that supply needed goods and services, the response to “Can I help you?” is often “Yes.” “Yes, I need a haircut.” “Yes, I need a new pair of jeans.” “Yes, I need a new washing machine.”
Let’s get back to the drawing board and find a way to deal with the inevitable “just looking” response that doesn’t involve “Can I help you?” or any of its derivatives.
When customers enters your store, it’s important that you acknowledge them. Nothing annoys me more than to walk into a store, realize that I have been seen and no one has acknowledged my presence. I’m not suggesting that you employ the “Welcome to Wal-Mart” strategy. What works is to hit customers with a double whammy. Give them them time for their eyes to adjust to the indoor lighting. Then greet them, and employ a pre-emptive strike, something like this:
Customer enters store.
Dealer: “Hi, there. Have a look around, and I’ll be right with you.”
Bada-bing, bada-boom. Now they can’t tell you that they’re “just looking,” because you have just given them your permission to look around. You’ve insisted on it, actually. Plus, you’ve established the fact that you intend to approach them in the near future to check their progress.
When the time comes to approach them, don’t make a tactical blunder. Don’t fall back into “So what can I help you with?” or “What can I do for you today?” Now isn’t the time to be barking up the wrong tree. Be proactive. Keep the ball rolling. You’re building a business. Your first objective is to make a sale, but if you don’t make a sale, then your second objective is to build a relationship and gain a customer. Here are a couple of tactics for your consideration.
Ask an open-ended question
Let your customer “land.” Give them time to browse for a few minutes, and then approach them when they’ve stopped to look at something. Using your best smile, ask an open-ended question. An open-ended question is one that cannot be answered with “yes” or “no.” Examples: “What is it about this that caught your eye?” or “What sort of things do you collect?”
Open-ended questions reveal customers’ motivations and interests. Their answers give you the information you need to find items that please them, negotiate a price and make a sale (or not). If you ask, “What brings you in today?” then you just might find that customers are killing time while their cars are serviced. At least you’ll know where you stand.
The most valuable technique you can learn to improve your personal selling skills is to always ask open-ended questions. This is harder than it sounds. I once participated in a training exercise wherein salespeople paired off and interviewed one another. Participants were eliminated whenever they asked any question that could be answered “yes” or “no”. It took less than five minutes to eliminate the entire class — more than 50 experienced salespeople.
Ask for their opinion
If you have a customer who is lingering but not landing, ask his opinion. Point out two nearby items and say, “I’d like to rearrange this counter. Which of these two items should be the focal point of this display?” or some other similarly innocuous question. No matter what they answer, reply with “Why?” In fact, if you find yourself getting a “no” response to any question, the best way to re-start the conversation is by asking “why?”
Your purpose is to engage the customer in conversation and break down the “You’re not going to sell me anything” defenses. Consumers buy from people that they know, like and trust. If you engage them in conversation rather than pounce on them, they will be more comfortable being in your store.
Using the above suggestions, come up with your own questions and remarks that don’t require “yes” or “no” responses. You don’t need many — three or four approaches will do. The point is to break the “Can I help you”/“Just looking” habit.
Don’t let your customers throw you under the bus. When you find something that works, write it down. Use it over and over. Teach it to your employees. Make it a habit, and make your employees make it a habit. Doing so will be a real shot in the arm for your business.
And that’s the whole nine yards. Hasta la vista, baby.
Previously published in Antique Trader Magazine