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Customer Communication

Avatar photo by Casey Woods, Executive Director | January 9, 2018

I like attending conferences that are outside of my direct field of expertise. Gathering information from a different perspective encourages innovation. Main Street has always been an entrepreneurial or organic structure, and gaining some perspective can act as a catalyst for changes within our outreach and implementation strategies.

At a recent convention, a communications expert was brought in during a break out class session to emphasize customer communication strategies. The examples revolved around retail and food, but the foundation of the information presented is applicable to any business that deals with the consuming public. The following were some of the recommendations made to create stronger consumer ties that eventually generate loyalty and result in higher sales:

1. Establish a rapport with customers by building trust. At some base level, consumers understand that you are trying to sell them something. By focusing on consumer attitudes, values, and behavior as opposed to simply “buy this”, you can identify yourself as someone the consumer trusts for product or service information.

2. Strengthen the resolve in your customer that your product or service category is “awesome”. It doesn’t matter what you are selling; your clients need reinforcement to remember why they are potentially spending with you on your category of products or services. Rotating scripted statements with your staff should be a part of your training protocols. Someone at a pet store saying “aren’t pets just the best!” to a potential product buyer helps build rapport (you are both on the “we love pets” team). An accountant briefly explaining the importance of the profession to potential clients helps reinforce the reciprocal nature of the professional relationship. A barista engaging customers with a “is there anything better than freshly ground coffee?” question/statement encourages a positive response from an otherwise monotonous transaction. What is your “my category is awesome” statement?

3. Provide interactive testimonials. Conversations with customers that convey testimonials and extract opinions from customers can help drive sales conversations. A bike business can say: “I had a customer come in the other day that said they wanted to convert their bike to tubeless tires because they hate pinch flats more than anything- have you thought about going tubeless?” Such a statement shows that customers are taking a sales action within the store. It introduces a sales based concept to the consumer, it gauges the consumers product knowledge, it establishes expertise through product vernacular, and it encourages further interaction by extending the conversation. That seems a little more effective in creating a sale than “can I help you find anything today?”, doesn’t it?

4. Establish cultural authority. Some cultural authority can be achieved simply by proximity. A person sitting across a desk, on the other side of the bar, or behind a podium can assert a level of cultural authority through separation. Uniforms, relative positions (the consumer is sitting while a waiter is standing), and understood cultural icons (a whistle for a coach, a gavel for a judge) can carry cultural authority which indicate that a consumer should listen to a particular individual. Cultural authority can give your staff an initial “leg up” when communicating with consumers. But, cultural authority can quickly evaporate if other communication strategies are not implemented properly.

5. Insert facts into what you are saying with stories and narratives. People love some “inside information” that they can learn and pass along to their friends (which drives more traffic to you). If a consumer stopped by our local winery and wanted to try their new dessert wine, the person tending bar could say: “this is a sweet red dessert wine made in the port style, what do you think?” Or, an established retailer could say “this is a port style, but we have to call it a dessert wine everywhere in the world outside of a tiny area of Portugal where port originates. A long time ago, during a trade dispute between England and France, French wine was denied entry into England. English trade merchants were looking for a red wine that could take the place of some of the French varietals that were popular with the English public at the time. A small region of Portugal known as the Douro Valley had great red wines, but English merchants had trouble transporting them out the valley via the local sea dock in the city of Porto, all the way back to England without some sort of preservative, so the merchants simply increased the alcohol content by fortifying the wine, and port was born…” Which statement is more engaging for the consumer? Which communication would the customer be more likely to share with friends? Which dialogue is more likely to establish trust?

6. Control your speech patterns and look “put together”. Consumers prefer speech patterns in a moderate to high volume that is both clear and concise. Nothing upsets a consumer more than when they can’t understand the person helping them. The speech patterns should be reinforced by the “uniform” of the person helping the customer. The clothing worn should fit within cultural norms and expectations within the business. If someone at Bluestem Farm and Ranch was in dress whites, I would think it was a little weird. If a waiter at Radius was in mesh shorts and a tank top, I would also think it was a little weird… Style of dress should indicate you are employed with whatever business you are at, but also reinforce the cultural expectation of your position.

7. Establish credibility through expertise, trustworthiness and goodwill. If you simply act as a “person with a pulse” in a business, you are no different in the eyes of the consumer from the internet or any discount store. If you want to make better margins on your products, you must show the consumer that they are paying for more than just the products or services they are purchasing.

8. Consumers don’t generally remember one “big thing” (unless it’s bad), but a series of “little things” add up. I buy my groceries at Country Mart. I can’t think of one “big thing” the store has done that made me a loyal customer, but I can think of a lot of little things done over the years that have established my loyalty. Gary and his staff volunteer in the community (something that is obviously important to me), they have procured products that I like (even when they are out-of-stock), the staff interacts with me, they make it easy(er) to shop with my little one (the cookie they give out to young children helps convince my daughter to go to the store), and after a surgery last year that prevented me from lifting heavy things for a while, they had staff to carry out my groceries. Any one of those things doesn’t necessarily seem like a “big deal”, but the cumulative effect of all of those small things created customer loyalty.

9. Make customers a promise, and then follow through (but don’t over promise). Wait staff at a restaurant can make a promise as simply as “I’ll be right back with your drink” that establishes credibility with the customer. If that same wait staff said “I promise you that this will be the greatest meal you’ve ever had”, you might set the customer up for disappointment (you have no idea what meals they’ve had in the past) and damage your credibility. Making the promise is half of the equation; KEEPING your promise creates credibility.

10. Create a comfort zone for the consumer. Don’t hover. Keep confidences. Be self deprecating. Listen intently and actively. This can be a little tricky. Some customers simply want people to “leave them alone” until they have a question, but staff doesn’t know they have a question without being in relative proximity. I usually suggest establishing contact, offering a statement that solidifies expertise, and then backing off. Engage the consumer whenever the opportunity presents itself (an empty drink, touching a retail item, a look of confusion, etc.). Once you can establish a conversation, becoming a confidant can establish trust pretty quickly. A real estate agent that establishes that a client hates yard work may alter suggestions for homes available, and then state “your black thumb secret is safe with me…”. The same real estate agent could establish a “we are on the same team moment” by sharing a story about a plant they killed because of a lack of horticultural skill. The more comfortable a consumer feels with you, the more likely they are to spend with you.

11. Establish an environment of social attractiveness. Consumers like to do business with people that are likable. The “likability” needs to be backed up by quality products, services, and knowledge, but being likable can start the initial sales process. Likable people try not to rile folks up by talking about controversial topics or establishing a controversial tone during the sales process. Staff members that seek to communicate their “sameness” with the consumer generally come off as more “likable”. Remember that social attractiveness can give you an immediate advantage, but it can lose all credibility for your company if you are perceived as “fake”.

12. Generate “seasonal freebies” to establish conversations. Trying to initiate conversations with customers is tough. Clients are trained to say “I’m just looking” or take another defensive posture regardless of their actual needs. One way to break through the automated customer response is by offering something for free. It doesn’t have to be a big item, but it does need to shift on a minimum of once a season. Food businesses have an easier time with the “freebies” in the form of small samples, but most businesses can establish some sort of giveaway program if they plan in advance. Sales generated through the communication established should more that cover the small investment in any “giveaway”.

13. Flip the script (often). The communication techniques listed above should increase customer loyalty and the frequency of their visits. The authenticity generated through the establishment of authority, credibility, and attractiveness has a lot of “upside” for your business. The one “downside” is that you need to instruct your staff to change up their script on a continual basis, or they will loose credibility. If you tell the same story to the same customer over and over, they will inevitably think “they don’t remember that I’ve heard this before; I must not mean much to them.” Changing up the script is particularly important when dealing with large groups. If you have ten associated people visiting your location at the same time, you obviously can’t have the same conversation with all ten people and hope to maintain your credibility. Talk through variations in conversations that staff can have with customers, and add to dialogue options often.

Unique entrepreneurial businesses all have a business story. Categories of products or services usually have an origin story. People looking for experiences gravitate towards small businesses. A well trained staff can communicate your mission and importance to your customers. A developed strategic dialogue can give you the customer loyalty and sales your business needs to remain successful. If you need some ideas that are specific to your business, please contact Emporia Main Street. We are a resource for you!

About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.