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A customer’s reluctance to engage is often caused by staff actions
A customer’s reluctance to engage is often caused by staff actions
 










Oh, no not the dreaded 'May I help you?'

First impressions are critical so what should retailers do when a customer initially walks into their store? Stephanie Chan investigates how best to greet customers without using the phrase, “May I help you?”

It is widely believed that people form first impressions within seconds. What a retailer says and does from the moment a customer walks into their store can be the deciding factor between whether or not they make a sale; however, customers can often seem defensive from the outset, making it difficult for sales representatives to engage them and offer assistance.

And when it comes to retail sales one of the worst ways to start a conversation is with, “May I help you?” It’s dreaded by sales training experts the world over yet almost all retail staff open a sales opportunity with it all day, every day.

If “May I help you?” or “Can I help you?” are the best ways to slam the door on a sale then how should your staff begin a conversation? Jeweller approached a number of local and international retail experts and consumer behaviourists to find out how best to put customers at ease and prepare them for a purchase without uttering that most dreaded question.

Understanding customers
United Kingdom-based international consumer behaviour expert Philip Graves says a customer’s reluctance to engage is often a direct result of the salesperson’s actions: “Retail staff will often break important ‘rules’ of good communication. For example, when they say the same greeting frequently, the phrase loses its impact as a genuine offer of support. Customers instinctively pick up on this. The salesperson, in turn, is so used to hearing a dismissive response that they are protecting themselves by not delivering it with the vulnerability it requires to have meaning.”

As such, the greeting is not the only factor that needs to be considered when a customer enters a store; the behaviour of retail staff and how they deliver that greeting will also impact on how the interaction will ultimately play out.

It is also often hard for a consumer to assess the price of a jewellery piece because appearances can be deceiving – some jewellery looks very expensive and isn’t while the reverse is often the case. A consumer as a result doesn’t have an accurate indicator of price that exists in other retail categories, meaning they sometimes shy away from jewellery retailers because they want to protect themselves from looking foolish or being caught by surprise.

“They may have no idea what the price of an item will be and would rather find out for themselves than have the potentially uncomfortable situation of thinking, ‘I could never afford that’ when staff tell them the price,” Graves explains.

The set up
International body language expert and director of Pease International, Allan Pease believes a salesperson can speak with their body language before they’ve even opened their mouth.

“Instead of a typical greeting, give them an eyebrow flash and smile with teeth visible to indicate you have seen them and acknowledge their presence,” the Queensland-based authority suggests.

Body positioning is just as important, according to Candace Corlett, president of United States-based company, WSL Strategic Retail. She often advises retail staff to move out from behind the counter to help reduce customer anxiety.

“The counter is the ‘wall’ between you and the shopper that reinforces the view of sales associates as authority figures judging their worth,” she says. “Place yourself in the middle of the floor and then greet your visitor.”

When speaking to a customer, retail staff should be mindful of what National Retail Association’s (NRA’s) Jo Maxwell refers to as “paralanguage”.

“It’s not what’s being said when opening the sale but how it’s being said,” Maxwell explains. “The tone, pitch and volume of your opening line speaks volumes on how you really feel about approaching and interacting with customers.”

Maxwell, who is a program manager and industry trainer at the NRA, says that customers can tell if a salesperson is bored and disinterested or overly keen and pushy through subtle cues in their speech.

Graves agrees, noting that greetings can come off as insincere if salespeople deliver them without following a natural sequence of communication. “They blurt the greeting out without creating eye contact with the customer. I’ve even seen sales people say it to customers’ backs; having a stranger speak to you from behind is usually a very uncomfortable experience,” he says.


It is widely believed that people form first impressions within seconds. What a retailer says and does from the moment a customer walks into their store can be the deciding factor between whether or not they make a sale; however, customers can often seem defensive from the outset, making it difficult for sales representatives to engage them and offer assistance.

And when it comes to retail sales one of the worst ways to start a conversation is with, “May I help you?” It’s dreaded by sales training experts the world over yet almost all retail staff open a sales opportunity with it all day, every day.

If “May I help you?” or “Can I help you?” are the best ways to slam the door on a sale then how should your staff begin a conversation? Jeweller approached a number of local and international retail experts and consumer behaviourists to find out how best to put customers at ease and prepare them for a purchase without uttering that most dreaded question.

Understanding customers
United Kingdom-based international consumer behaviour expert Philip Graves says a customer’s reluctance to engage is often a direct result of the salesperson’s actions: “Retail staff will often break important ‘rules’ of good communication. For example, when they say the same greeting frequently, the phrase loses its impact as a genuine offer of support. Customers instinctively pick up on this. The salesperson, in turn, is so used to hearing a dismissive response that they are protecting themselves by not delivering it with the vulnerability it requires to have meaning.”

As such, the greeting is not the only factor that needs to be considered when a customer enters a store; the behaviour of retail staff and how they deliver that greeting will also impact on how the interaction will ultimately play out.

It is also often hard for a consumer to assess the price of a jewellery piece because appearances can be deceiving – some jewellery looks very expensive and isn’t while the reverse is often the case. A consumer as a result doesn’t have an accurate indicator of price that exists in other retail categories, meaning they sometimes shy away from jewellery retailers because they want to protect themselves from looking foolish or being caught by surprise.

“They may have no idea what the price of an item will be and would rather find out for themselves than have the potentially uncomfortable situation of thinking, ‘I could never afford that’ when staff tell them the price,” Graves explains.

The set up
International body language expert and director of Pease International, Allan Pease believes a salesperson can speak with their body language before they’ve even opened their mouth.

“Instead of a typical greeting, give them an eyebrow flash and smile with teeth visible to indicate you have seen them and acknowledge their presence,” the Queensland-based authority suggests.

Body positioning is just as important, according to Candace Corlett, president of United States-based company, WSL Strategic Retail. She often advises retail staff to move out from behind the counter to help reduce customer anxiety.

“The counter is the ‘wall’ between you and the shopper that reinforces the view of sales associates as authority figures judging their worth,” she says. “Place yourself in the middle of the floor and then greet your visitor.”

When speaking to a customer, retail staff should be mindful of what National Retail Association’s (NRA’s) Jo Maxwell refers to as “paralanguage”.

“It’s not what’s being said when opening the sale but how it’s being said,” Maxwell explains. “The tone, pitch and volume of your opening line speaks volumes on how you really feel about approaching and interacting with customers.”

Maxwell, who is a program manager and industry trainer at the NRA, says that customers can tell if a salesperson is bored and disinterested or overly keen and pushy through subtle cues in their speech.

Graves agrees, noting that greetings can come off as insincere if salespeople deliver them without following a natural sequence of communication. “They blurt the greeting out without creating eye contact with the customer. I’ve even seen sales people say it to customers’ backs; having a stranger speak to you from behind is usually a very uncomfortable experience,” he says.

Interestingly, Dr Anish Nagpal, senior lecturer in the University of Melbourne’s department of management and marketing, suggests that sometimes the jewellery store itself can cause customers to feel cornered when approached by a salesperson.

Nagpal, who specialises in consumer behaviour research, says that store layouts that lack open spaces and attention-drawing bells that ring upon customer entry can foster these feelings of apprehension.

“Consumers start to plan their escape,” he warns.

Nagpal recommends designing the store to ensure customers feel welcome, and to create a “browsing” rather than a “selling” environment: “This will make consumers feel comfortable and, more importantly, valued.”

Once armed with the knowledge of how to approach a customer, retail staff face the next challenge: what to say.

When ‘May I help you?’ isn’t helping
For years, retail experts have stressed that greeting customers with “May I help you?” is customer service suicide yet staff still do it.

By opening with the age-old question, Jim Prigg says that the salesperson has unintentionally asked for commitment before they have earned it.

Prigg’s business, Knowledgemaster, offers sales and communications training, and he advises,“The potential customer knows that by answering yes they will be put in a situation of being accountable to the salesperson,” Prigg explains. “People don’t like to be placed in a position of subservience, which is why they will generally answer no.”

Australian Retailers Association executive director Russell Zimmerman believes that part of the issue lies in the wording of the question itself.

“It is a closed question, meaning you can say yes or no, and if the customer replies no, you’ve got nowhere to go with it,” Zimmerman says. “The statement should at least be ‘How may I help you?’ Then the customer has options for different ways to respond.”

US sales trainer and author Stu Schlackman agrees: “An open-ended question such as, ‘What in particular are you looking for?’ is better as it can lead to a conversation.”

RetailOasis director Nerida Jenkins is another who believes that retail staff should greet customers by simply starting a conversation.

“Jewellery retailing is far more than simply a transaction; it is a high involvement emotional purchase,” she says. “Salespeople need to be more than just good at selling or being polite; they need to connect personally with their potential customers. Asking browsers if they’re shopping for an occasion is a great way to open up communication and give the salesperson more material to work with.”

Adam Toporek, customer experience strategist and founder of US-based CTS Service Solutions, says that retail staff should sell by not selling at all.

“The best approach is not to start the conversation by offering assistance but to start the conversation with almost anything else,” he explains.

Toporek suggests establishing a more personal connection by, for example, making a positive comment on an item of a customer’s clothing and by also letting the salesperson’s personality shine through in the ensuing dialogue.

“Your initial outreach to a customer should fit your own personality, your read of the customer and your brand,” he says.


“What it should not do is be the same approach the customer hears everywhere else. Establish a connection that is not about your product first and the sale is more likely to follow.”

Throw it back
Regardless of how well a retailer delivers their greeting, some customers will still brush them off with the all-too-familiar phrase “I’m just browsing,” but Schlackman has an ideal way of addressing that: throw it back at the customer!

He explains that the browsing response usually means the customer doesn’t want to have a sales discussion until they have gained a better idea of what they might want. “If they say they’re just looking, I would respond with, ‘Is there anything in particular you want to look at?’ Now the ball is in their court to respond. The best thing a salesperson can do is ask questions to gain knowledge about the customer’s desires or needs,” he says.


When it comes to keeping the dialogue open, staff should respond by reiterating that they’re “ther









ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephanie Chan • Staff Journalist

Stephanie Chan is a staff journalist for Jeweller. She has more than four years’ experience in business-to-business publishing, covering a wide range of industries.

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Tuesday, 23 July, 2019 07:43pm
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