Greenhouse Canada

Features Business Retail
Connecting With Customers

March 23, 2011  By Michael Lascelle

These are rather tenuous times in regards to retail sales, with even
regular clients tightening their purse strings in response to the
ever-present negative economic news.

These are rather tenuous times in regards to retail sales, with even regular clients tightening their purse strings in response to the ever-present negative economic news. The nursery and garden centre trade is no exception here, and we need to have an “every customer counts” mentality to get through what will probably be a few lean years. This means that being able to properly engage the buying public and accurately read their body language becomes a skill on par with expert plant knowledge or even formal business training. With that in mind, here are a few basic lessons in engaging customers that I have learned over the years as a retail nursery manager.

The approach
After having attended numerous trade seminars on retail sales, it never ceases to amaze me how many things I’m told that I am not supposed to say or ask according to the “experts.” In fact, if I were to eliminate the sum and total of those faux pas phrases from my day-to-day conversations, I’d literally have to put on some white make-up and start a new career as a garden mime. It really doesn’t have to be that complicated: I generally start by greeting the customer(s) – a simple “How are you doing today?” seems to suffice, but it is really important to say it with meaning, rather than just mouthing the words. I follow with a “is there something I can help you find?” or “was there something you were looking for today?” and then I listen carefully to their response. If the reply sounds like, “we’re just browsing,” I tell them to enjoy themselves and I point out where they can find me should they have any questions. Those with specific requests are taken directly to the plants or products they requested, during which time I ask “was there anything else you were looking for?” It all seems very basic and the important point I’m trying to make here is not to be pushy or “in the customer’s face,” just be ready to help them when the need arises. Also, when dealing with groups of people or couples, be sure to address all persons in the party, as many salespeople seem to unconsciously address just the men or just the women.


Be visible
Far too often staff are focused on work activities away from the customer’s vantage point, giving them the false impression that there is no one there to assist them. This can be a particular problem in outdoor sales areas during inclement weather, where on more than one visit to other nurseries I have observed clients milling outside while staff pass the time in the store. Similarly, staff should be easy to identify by means of some sort of uniform – usually a company shirt, sweat top or vest. It is also important to dress appropriately for the colder autumn through early spring season, so you can comfortably work outdoors where your customers are. In the nursery I manage, we’ve also set up an outdoor work station (where you can prune, weed, pot up plants, etc.). It is situated under cover but still has a full view of the perennial house, shrub beds and tree racks, so I can watch my clients shop and they know where they can find me.

Remember the regulars
For some strange reason, I have no problem recalling the plants that people have purchased in the past (even months or years back), but their names will often elude me. Remembering a person’s name helps to solidify the salesperson/customer bond and it generally sets the visit on a good footing. To rectify my “selective memory syndrome,” I use a visual word association to remember names – so in my mind a Fred becomes Fred Flintstone and a George a George Jetson (as you can tell, I watched a lot of cartoons as a kid). Using this simple method I have no problem putting the right name to a face, much to the delight of my regular clients.

Watch the body language
Whenever you see customers start to look for a shopping cart, it’s time to rejoin them and make sure that they have found everything they were looking for. Also, when they begin to glance towards you or make eye contact, it probably means they have a question in mind and you should start making your way to them, as opposed to staying put and waiting for them to come to you. Quite frequently, I’ll see couples having a mild disagreement over which plant to buy or how many they may need. The trick here is to not take sides, and to stick to the plant or product information – let them resolve their own argument in light of your advice. I would also like to reiterate that some people want to do their own shopping and keep their own council, and no amount of polite harassment is going to persuade them to buy more or change their mind. These clients almost always avoid making eye contact and tend to shop away from staff. Once you’ve made your initial contact, it is best to let them be unless they ask for help.

Whenever you’re out on the sales floor, it’s your job first and foremost to serve the customer and do whatever you can to help make the shopping experience easier and more pleasant. Just remember that when every customer counts, we treat them like people first, and when we do it properly, the “inner buyer” just seems to come out naturally.

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