How Can I Help You?
July 23, 2008 4:19 AM   Subscribe

How can I be a better retail employee who is helpful, but does not annoy you?

As back-to-school season approaches during these uncertain economic times, useful customer service becomes more important than ever. I want to be the type of retail employee you like to encounter. What are the things retail employees do that most turn you off, and what do you most appreciate?
posted by netbros to Shopping (55 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Aggressive offers to help are something that annoy me -- like when I am clearly just idly looking, and a clerk comes over to help and I say "no thanks, I'm just looking," but then the clerk just kind of hovers in the distance and then as soon as she sees me actually looking at something she swoops back in and says, "oh, that would look good on you!"

If I say I'm just looking, I'm just looking. It's possible that the only reason I pulled that shirt off the shelf was because I was staggered at how ugly it was.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:37 AM on July 23, 2008

What type of business are you working at? This would help your answers a lot. Just "retail" is a bit vague. But basically, I'd say learn to know when someone needs/wants help and when they just want to be left alone.
posted by zardoz at 4:38 AM on July 23, 2008

Wait until the customer has actually stopped and is browsing before you approach them. Don't go straight over to them. Ask them if they need any help within the first couple of minutes in which they're in the store.

Assume that the customer knows nothing about what they're looking for. Revise this position as the interaction continues to avoid seeming too condescending.

The above rules served me well when I worked in a wine store and a video game store for eight years
posted by minifigs at 4:39 AM on July 23, 2008

Response by poster: I am in sporting goods.
posted by netbros at 4:40 AM on July 23, 2008

The best kind of retail employee recognizes my presence immediately.

There's a chain called Sports Chalet in Northern California that trains their employees to do this well - I walk into the store and I don't get ten feet before someone says "Hey, how are you?" They're personable and they don't call me sir - but they make eye contact and leave the ball in my court.

After greeting them back I can say that I'm here for swimming goggles and they can point me to the right spot. And, if they don't have what I'm looking for, they are familiar with their competition in the area and not afraid to point me towards it.

Its really quite simple - smile and greet the customer, and let them guide you on how you can help them. You don't even need to state the question most of the time. Once you've pointed them in the right direction, leave them alone but still be available for further assistance.
posted by allkindsoftime at 4:44 AM on July 23, 2008

You can score points by:

1. Not initiating conversation with me: if I need help, I'll ask for it, see 2.
2. Making sure by where and how you're standing that it's obvious you're there to help, so if I need assistance I know you're available. Also, connected with this, don't spend your day chatting to co-workers and ignoring customers.
3. Actively looking out for customers trying to attract your attention, so they don't necessarily have to come over to you, but you can go to them.
4. Knowing your stock.

Double-plus-mega-bonus points for ignoring a ringing phone while you're serving me.
posted by unconvention at 4:44 AM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hah, sporting goods. Didn't even preview that - jinx.
posted by allkindsoftime at 4:45 AM on July 23, 2008

Instead of "Is there anything I can help you find" or "Can I help you with anything?" I would rather hear "Let me know if you need help with anything."

That way, I don't have to say 'no I don't want any help' but at the same time you have made contact with me should I need help after looking for a bit.
posted by ian1977 at 5:15 AM on July 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

I think smiling and seeming pleasant is the most important thing. Yeah, everybody has bad moods. But when you work in retail or the food service industry, you're expected to be there to make sure that everyone else is completely satisfied, and it's supposed to be the biggest pleasure of your life.

Also, unconvention-at my semi-retail job, we are instructed to drop everything to answer the phone, no matter what we're doing.
posted by d13t_p3ps1 at 5:23 AM on July 23, 2008

When you pass me my change and you see my hand out, put it in my fucking hand and not the little change tray. If you force me to move my hand between the change tray and your delivery of the change to make you put the change in my hand, I will never come back to your shop if I can avoid it.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:32 AM on July 23, 2008

Also, something like, "I'm over here folding t-shirts near the register if you need any help" is good, so I know where you are if/when I do want help later.

I hate the ones who say Hi then vanish, requiring me to hunt someone down or worse, leave out of annoyance that I couldn't find what I need.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:33 AM on July 23, 2008

allkindsoftime has it. 10 years ago I was just finishing 10 years in retail management. Make eye contact and greet the customer in a friendly way as soon as they enter the store. If they want help, they will generally tell you right away. Those that know what they are after or are browsing will generally return your greeting and just continue on their way in to the store. Leave them alone for the moment. Be observant of people that didn't immediately ask for help when they came in but later might need some. Vanishing after the initial greeting is bad as I_Love_Bananas said. Your customers shouldn't have to track you down if they didn't immediately ask for help. But you shouldn't "hover" either. It might take some practice to get the balance right.
posted by rglasmann at 5:48 AM on July 23, 2008

Also.... Once your are actually "helping" someone, solid product knowledge is key. I like retail sales people who actually know more about their products than I do when I am shopping. You should display your knowledge without seeming condescending or arrogant.
posted by rglasmann at 5:51 AM on July 23, 2008

bananas has an interesting point, which i have incorporated in multiple retail positions: have something to do. when the customer approaches, acknowledge them like above, but resume folding or sorting or paperwork or whatnot. the customer will feel much more comfortable browsing if they think you're not there just to watch them.
posted by lester at 5:53 AM on July 23, 2008

Also, unconvention-at my semi-retail job, we are instructed to drop everything to answer the phone, no matter what we're doing.

Please don't do this. If I have made the effort to come into your store and you stop dealing with me to speak to someone on the phone, I will walk out of your store and purchase nothing.
posted by meerkatty at 5:54 AM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you have to answer the phone, then say "thank you for calling [sporting goods retail store], hold please." Take care of the customers who are there in front of you.

If there is a line at checkout and you open up a new register, don't say "I can take someone at register 2." Say "I can take the next person in line on register 2."
posted by headnsouth at 6:07 AM on July 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

For me the classic test of a sporting good store, and its assistants, happens when asking for something like a running shoe where there is a huge potential range to choose from. A great assistant will know enough about the range on offer to help me narrow this down efficiently. They will take to listen to what I want and will be able to handle the conflict where what I want and what I need differ. They will try to sell me the best matching rather than the most expensive/profitable product. For preference I would like them to be keen on whatever sport they are selling me stuff for.
posted by rongorongo at 6:07 AM on July 23, 2008

If I enter your store and I am having a conversation with someone (who came with me or on the phone) do not interrupt.

Do not block my path in order to say you are there to help.

If you need to go to the back, tell me if you expect it is going to take 15 minutes.

If you get a commission on sales don't act like it. This is possibly the most annoying thing I have had while shopping.

Don't pressure me to buy things I don't want or open store credit cards I don't need.

NO MEANS MOTHERFUCKING NO, not please try harder to piss me off. If I say "no," or "no thanks," or "I am not interested," your response should be "okay," do not respond with "but..." "are you sure," or "come on, you know you want to."

I feel like these are all common sense, but I have experienced every one of these things (or seen coworkers do them) multiple times, so I guess not.
posted by silkygreenbelly at 6:09 AM on July 23, 2008

Make eye contact when you speak to me. Do not just "holler" a greeting as I walk through the store and expect me to 1) hear you and 2) know you're talking to me. You don't know if I have some limited hearing problems and it is rude to not make eye contact so I know you're actually speaking to me. I agree with another poster - just offer your service should I need any help instead of asking me if I need help. That way I can thank you rather than give a negative response of "no, thank you."
posted by cainiarb at 6:10 AM on July 23, 2008

If the customer is walking purposefully and appears to know where they are going, don't stop them to ask if they need help. They clearly don't.

Now, I'm a retail clerk's worst nightmare. I'm easily annoyed and I tend to overreact to negative input. So, I am now going to tell you how to deal with an unpleasant customer (me. btw, I'm working on it).

If a customer is upset, Just Listen. Don't take it personally. Don't say "you can't talk to me like that" because, in fact they can. They are not upset with you (yet). But if you dismiss, interrupt, make excuses, roll your eyes, or start to argue you will escalate the situation. No matter how rude, profane or awful the customer is keep eye contact, keep nodding, let them run down (this is really important) and then say "you are really annoyed/upset about (if you can easily summarize the situation, do>. They are likely to say "duh!!!!" Let them. Then, summarize the situation-- "You bought this item and it didn't have all the parts" (or whatever). Let them agree with you, or correct you, then repeat the correction. Tell them "I think we can help you with this. Tell me what you need me to do to correct the situation." &c &c. Keep this dialog going, letting the customer lead you. In other words, classic Active Listening. It really works.

I know that I am a nightmare for a retail clerk when I'm pissed off about something, but I always offer praise, both to the clerk and to their boss, when someone can defuse me.

I also deal with the other end of this equation because I work front of house at a theater 5 productions a year, so I absolutely know both what you're going through and how to deal with it.

posted by nax at 6:12 AM on July 23, 2008

I'm probably the odd one out in that I don't like sales assistants to make any approach to me whatsoever; people out shopping might visit 20 stores in a trip - they don't necessarily want to have to acknowledge every sales assistant, even if it's just to say 'hi'.

Be like a good waiter, hyper-aware of your environment, and learn to read body language. If a customer looks around as if they need help or can't find something, be there straight away. Otherwise, keep yourself out of the way.

And be a 'real person' - don't just parrot the same lines to ever customer.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:16 AM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Let me know if you need help with anything."

Literally nothing more than this is required, in my opinion. Not "Hi, how are you?", which requires me to ask you back, and then for you to respond back to me.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:18 AM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I want people to stay as far far far away from me as possible when I'm shopping. If I need anything, ANYTHING, I will approach you. Also, I know this shirt, dress, ironing board, looks great with me, you don't need to let me know. I'm buying it for a reason, thanks.
posted by banannafish at 6:25 AM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Body language seconded. Also, eye contact is key. Look the customer in the eye. If they avoid eye contact with you, they don't need or want help yet. If they look you in the eye you will know from their expression whether they need assistance.
posted by mds35 at 6:25 AM on July 23, 2008

What headnsouth said. I will walk out of the store -- leaving stuff at the cash, or on the nearest horizontal surface -- if I get interrupted by a phone call for longer than a "Please hold".

And the usual. Don't hover. Don't disappear. Keep your eye out for people who are looking for an employee -- craning their neck, standing on their tiptoes (if, like me, they're short). Don't condescend. And if you do not know the answer, do not lie and say that product x will fit my needs.

I don't care if you say "How can I help you today", though like others I would prefer "Let me know if". I don't mind greetings. Small talk can be annoying if I am going into multiple stores. I agree, it is very hot for April and I am pleased at how the team is doing, but honestly, I do not care enough to have that same conversation with every employee of every store. I already have had it with every coworker. That said, it's not a crucial issue.

If you're helping someone and I am waiting, just give me an acknowledgement that you have seen that I need help. If you walk off with the other customer, just tell me not to worry, you'll be right back to help me -- and then do it, don't let yourself get sidetracked by someone else. (I will walk out of the store for this as well.)
posted by jeather at 6:36 AM on July 23, 2008

Its really quite simple - smile and greet the customer, and let them guide you on how you can help them

Its not at all simple. You like to be greeted and smiled at when you come into the store - for some people, knowing that you're going to be 'greeted' before you're 10 feet into the store would be a complete turn off and they will avoid your store unless they have no choice.

Just reading the response in this thread clearly shows the diversity of preferences for this kind of interaction:
some people want to be greeted straight away
some people don't want to be approached unless they're clearly looking for help/can't find what they're looking for
some people dont' want to be approached at all and will come to you if they need help

In all honesty, I doubt you'd be able to tell which kind of person they are just from looking at them.

If it were me, I'd take the middle ground - smile and make eye contact when the enter the store, but don't speak (unless they speak to you). Be close by and available if they need you but occupied so you don't look like you're hovering. Watch their behavior and if they attempt to get your attention or look like they can't find what they're looking for - approach and ask if they need help. If they say no - bugger off.
posted by missmagenta at 6:44 AM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

If there is a line at checkout and you open up a new register, don't say "I can take someone at register 2." Say "I can take the next person in line on register 2."

Even better, determine who that person is yourself and entreat them directly to come over.

If the person ahead of me in line took forever, even if it wasn't your fault (and I know it probably wasn't), apologize for the wait. I'm not looking to blame anyone, I'm just looking for acknowledgment that yeah, shit happens.

If you're a manager and there's a long line? Get on a damn register for the five minutes it'll take to clear it off. The paperwork, the phone, and the conversation with your favorite associate can wait. And I am a lot more likely not to come back if I think the management doesn't care about customer service than if the associates don't.
posted by gnomeloaf at 6:47 AM on July 23, 2008

After you ring up a sale and hand me my change/credit card/purchase make eye contact and say "thank you". Sure you'll have to do it a hundred times a day, but as a customer I've got dozens of places to buy the very same stuff. I'm far more likely to return if I feel like the retailer actually appreciates that I chose to do business with them.
posted by plastic_animals at 6:54 AM on July 23, 2008

quoting gnomeload - "If there is a line at checkout and you open up a new register, don't say "I can take someone at register 2." Say "I can take the next person in line on register 2."

Even better, determine who that person is yourself and entreat them directly to come over."

At least three times, I have walked out a store because of this. I've always had 'want' items so it really wasn't a big deal to me but the lasting impressions I left on the store clerks faces were priceless. Leaving the items on the floor near the newly opened checkout lane is key! :-)
posted by tickettrader at 6:57 AM on July 23, 2008

A lot of good advice in this thread. I like it when someone makes their presence known but immediately backs off if I don't have any questions. I like it when they remain in the distance, but not hovering over my shoulder.

Don't say "you can't talk to me like that" because, in fact they can.

Don't listen to this. If a customer is acting so badly as to have someone say "you can't talk to me like that" then that is verbal abuse and no one should ever allow themselves to be treated like that. Their inability to deal with a situation like an adult is not your problem and any competent manager would immediately throw them out. The customer is NOT always right, however, they are right most of the time.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:59 AM on July 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've worked retail for five years. It's frustrating to read some of these responses:

Not initiating conversation with me: if I need help, I'll ask for it

I want people to stay as far far far away from me as possible when I'm shopping. If I need anything, ANYTHING, I will approach you.

If the customer is walking purposefully and appears to know where they are going, don't stop them to ask if they need help. They clearly don't.

My store's main, #1 customer service policy is to greet every person who enters the department. Obviously not everyone needs assistance, but in the feedback from our ongoing customer surveys, people say they want to be acknowleged. I say "Good morning," or "Are you finding everything okay?" Hopefully I'm not aggravating people and ruining their day by subjecting them to a two-sentence conversation. My advice is to ignore people who tell you not to speak to customers. Somehow acknowledging your customers (this isn't to say you should hover, or tell them your life story) is actually good customer service.
posted by jschu at 7:04 AM on July 23, 2008

Actually know your stock - what it is and where it is. If you don't know, know exactly who does and where to find him/her. Honestly, the greeting, the change, the line - everything else can be perfect and it all goes for naught in the face of an employee who knows absolutely nothing about what the customer is looking for. Particularly in a sporting goods store, particularly me, because I know nothing about sporting goods: I'm the harried mom with the list from the kid and I need you to say, "Oh, yeah, we have air hockey paddles, they're over here, and CO2 tanks for paintball guns are over here and this is our arcane policy on the refilling of said tanks and you can find swim goggles over on that wall and, I don't know anything about kayak paddles but here is Fred, who does." That would make you my dream retail employee forever and I will tell all my friends and even blog about you on the local community blog and send everyone there to shop.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:19 AM on July 23, 2008

1. Say hello, politely. Don't be over-the-top.
2. Ask if you can help me with anything today. I'll probably say no.
3. Don't hover, but be available so that I can come get you if/when I have a question.

It's a fine line to draw between giving a customer space to browse, and being there if you're needed. But, practice will get you there quickly.
posted by Citrus at 7:28 AM on July 23, 2008

Know what the hell you're talking about, or don't talk. Nothing pisses me off more when I ask an employee a question about their products and it's clear from the first second that a) I know more than they do and b) they are 100% full of shit.

(I'm looking at you, Best Buy! And that guy at the grocery store who, when told I can't find the brand of meatballs I want, walks me all the way back across the store to where the meatballs are and says, well, we have these.)
posted by callmejay at 7:29 AM on July 23, 2008

It's all in the little things really.

I agree with allkindsoftime that the best ice breaker is "Hey, how's it going?" This is an non-invasive question, includes a greeting and leaves it up to me to say "Fine" or "Pretty good. I 'm looking for Soy Sauce."

Being knowledgeable about the store is important. If someone wants a specific product, have accurate directions.

When giving directions use your hands to convey what you are saying. "Down this isle" is straight pointing. "Make a left" is pointing left. "It's up high on the shelf" is lift your hands high. And if a customer repeats directions (good advice in any circumstance) confirm they are correct by saying "Correct" instead of "right."

Also being available is important. In your area when not helping someone, try to stroll near the end of isles or cases. Go back and forth if you have to so that if someone needs something, they can approach you.

Read the customer's non-verbal queues and act accordingly. If you tell them that the TV they are looking at is $2,000 and they grimace a little, say "yeah it is a little steep, but it's worth it" and give reasons why or direct them to something of similar quality for a lower price like "Yeah, but this one is only $1,500 and the picture is just about as good. the only difference is you'll lose XYZ feature."

And if you are working in a place that installs things in the car, let the customer know in advance what all the little parts are going to run them extra. Because the $50 piece of equipment may be free to install, but there are about $20-30 in cables and mounting that are sometimes neglected to be mentioned.
posted by thebreaks at 7:30 AM on July 23, 2008

Some of y'all are a bit specific about how to be treated. It's retail, and if you are acknowledged politely, then allowed to browse, that seems pretty reasonable.

Don't give advice unless you know it's accurate. I hate when somebody says "this tool will do the job" when they don't actually know it.

Listen & give options. Don't keep a customer waiting 15 minutes while you look up an answer they don't care much about. "That sweater might be available in blue; it takes 10 minutes to check inventory; would you like me to do that?"

Don't talk to a co-worker as if there's no customer standing in front of you.

Be cheerful, calm, and un-intrusive. I've been through 6 stores trying on ugly clothes designed by boneheads. My hair is a mess, my feet hurt, and I still have nothing to wear to my cousin's wedding. I don't want to hear about your cat.

Give good directions: It's in the fishing section, next to the flytying supplies. Walk them over if possible.

Customers can be really nice. Listen to them, and you'll hear great stories, get good information, and maybe make some friends.
posted by theora55 at 7:57 AM on July 23, 2008

And give the coins 1st, then the bills. I hate getting the bills, then somebody carefully puts the coins on top of them, and they slide onto the floor.

Use the penny dish, and don't give customers 4 pennies.
posted by theora55 at 7:58 AM on July 23, 2008

It's a little unnerving knowing that some of my fellow mefites are the very same customers that I tell my sales team to avoid at all costs. The best way to be a really amazing retail merchant is to pretend that you own the building and that you bought everything in the store. If it was your shop and your product you'd know everything about both. This kind of relationship with the product and the environment facilitates natural, easy-going customer service. You should know who makes what products, why they're out of stock, when they'll be back, why certain sizes run bigger than company's sizes...essentially all information that will allow you to anticipate the customer's questions.

That being said, you are not your product. You represent a company that sells a selection of goods - but you are not a good in and of yourself. Typically, around 5% of your customers forget this and think that because you have chosen to work for a certain company, you somehow have stopped being a human being who is a member of their community and have become just another product of whatever store you're working for. Do not be afraid to remind them that despite however upset they may be that you didn't have product X even though it was in the catalog, they may not talk to you with any less respect than what is owed to any stranger you meet on the street. You don't have to save every transaction, often allowing one customer to leave enhances the experience of all the other customers in the store.
posted by thankyoujohnnyfever at 8:31 AM on July 23, 2008 [11 favorites]

I like it when retail employees do the initial greeting and "let me know if you need help," then back off while I'm browsing, but reappear if I'm looking confusedly in the direction of the fitting rooms or empty counter. It might be a good idea to position yourself near the parts of the store where you know people might need help. I'm much more likely to buy something from a locked display case if there's a guy nearby I can ask than if I have to go hunting someone down.

Knowledgeable employees are great, but misinformed ones suck. If you tell me that the three-pound weights are "great for toning" and the twenty-pound ones are better for building muscle size, I'm less likely to believe anything else that comes out of your mouth, even if it's about the return policy.

Also, try to avoid any comments that could be misinterpreted. My mom and I still roll our eyes about the lunch at Olive Garden ten years ago when we were so famished we plowed through appetizer, salad, entree, and dessert, and the waitress kept making chipper my-aren't-we-hungry comments. I think we would have given her a negative tip if we could. Likewise, don't make offhand comments about how much someone's spending or "you look like you need a sturdy treadmill!" and so on. (This happens so much in stores that sell women's clothing or cosmetics: "these pants are so slimming!" or "this cream is excellent against wrinkles!" The customer hears: "you're fat and have wrinkles.")
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:39 AM on July 23, 2008

You've got a ton of responses already (I haven't read them all), but I must give my own input because poor customer service irks me to no end. Here goes...
- Be available. But don't ask me "Can I help you?" as soon as you see me. For me, just making eye contact, and not disappearing is enough.
- Smile. And appear as if you enjoy being there.
- Listen. And don't interrupt.
- When giving answers, be honest. Even if that answer is "I don't know". (It bugs me when a salesperson lies, just to seem like he/she knows the answer. Happens in HomeDepot ALL the time.)
- Don't be in a rush to get rid of a person you're helping.
- Don't forget the niceties; please, thank you, you're welcome, etc.

That's all for now. Good luck. I wish more people in your line of work cared about the customer.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 8:43 AM on July 23, 2008

Instead of "Is there anything I can help you find" or "Can I help you with anything?" I would rather hear "Let me know if you need help with anything."

Also, something like, "I'm over here folding t-shirts near the register if you need any help" is good, so I know where you are if/when I do want help later.

I really like these pieces of advice and the non-intrusive ways of helping the customer. I'm one of those customers who doesn't like to be greeted at the door, so if it must be done, then I appreciate it when no response is required of me beyond an "Ok" or "Thanks."

It might be a good idea to position yourself near the parts of the store where you know people might need help.

For me, that's the changing rooms. If you're in the kind of store that locks changing rooms, try to position yourself nearby so when I come over looking to try something on I won't have to hunt and wait for an attendant to unlock the door. If no one is near the changing room then I'll look for a bell or buzzer to ring someone, but usually there isn't one. It's really frustrating to hunt around for an attendant only come back to the changing room and find a group of customers waiting there "ahead" of me.

If you're already helping another customer and I walk up and wait, it'd be nice to give me a little acknowledgment that you see me waiting there and will get with me momentarily. I don't mind waiting, but do mind when employees finish with the first customer then walk away from me like I'm not even there.
posted by hoppytoad at 10:11 AM on July 23, 2008

I wouldn't repeat the answers given above but I'll second the "Hi, let me know if you need any help" phrase and make eye contact and smile with the customer.

I hate it when sale people just repeat the lines that are mandated by corporation like parrots without even looking at me. Also don't have a blank face, SMILE.
This pisses me more than no greeting at all.
posted by WizKid at 10:14 AM on July 23, 2008

Pretty much the same points as PPs, but I'll add this one (which may be my own not-shared personal preference): If I ask where something is, I want you to tell me, not speed walk over to it and expect me to follow. I'd rather be given directions than led to the section I'm looking for, but you can always cater to both sides by saying, "It's on aisle 8 on the left hand side. Would you like me to show you?"
posted by alpha_betty at 10:34 AM on July 23, 2008

In regards to the subject of introductions, does this sporting goods store require you to wear a uniform? If I am entering a store whose employees are wearing the same clothes, I don't need anything more than a "Good morning/afternoon" greeting because I will know who to turn to if I need help.

Otherwise, if you're allowed to wear whatever you want, I'll need some clue that you're a clerk, so the greeting should be extended a little (even if you have a shiny metal name-tag). This is probably the good time to ask if I need help, and if not, that your name is X and you'll be in the section if I need you. I've now identified your face and outfit-of-the-day with the fact that you appear to work there.

From my experiences on both sides of the cash register, I've learned that when talking to customers, you will have to suppress your own beliefs and values. As a clerk, you will encounter people of many religious and cultural backgrounds, differing economic levels, and wide-ranging values. You will have to talk to people who might be misogynistic or condescending. You will have to talk to people who may not have the disposable income that you do, or who may be filthy rich and flaunt their wealth in your face.

None of that matters. You don't have to get to the point of groveling at their feet, agreeing with every decision the customer makes, and pretend to be a lowly peon to the lordly customer. You also should not pretend to be at the same level as they are; you are not as wealthy, you are not as cool, you are not as beautiful, and you are certainly not better than the customer.

If someone comes up to you and plops some merchandise on the counter, you ring them up with a smile and a thank-you. You don't need to fawn over them, you shouldn't have to compliment their purchases, and by all means do not question what they are buying. You are dealing with a customer who has already decided what they want and most of the time they don't need you to justify their purchase. Store-required spiels of business card/account promotions, magazine subscriptions, or ink-and-toner deals can be made, but don't push it. If the customer says no, drop it.

If someone comes up to you and asks for help, your role changes. You are now an adviser, an unbiased source of assistance. The customers are there to browse or buy from your store, and you have a responsibility to provide them with a high standard of service no matter what you might personally think of them. If a customer asks about a product, you are there to provide facts about it, the pros and cons in comparison with other goods of similar functionality, and any other data so that the customer makes the best decision they can.

And that really is a key point. By providing an honest appraisal of the merchandise, you are letting the customer decide whether or not it is a good purchase. A customer that believes they have made the best possible decision based on all available facts is going to feel very satisfied with their shopping experience. Perhaps they may not like what they've bought later on down the road, but they will at least know that your store was honest, helpful, and overall on the up-and-up. In their eyes, you are someone who is trustworthy, and perhaps most importantly of all, someone they can buy from again.
posted by CancerMan at 10:45 AM on July 23, 2008

There is a lot of good advice here - even though much is contradictory. I think that fact supports the main idea that you need to try to clue in to the shoppers style. Thats pretty hard to do at the door, so I'd stick with eye contact and a minimal greeting.

My personal pet peeve: if you are a sales person and you are not assisting someone, I'd like you to be slowly moving around the store looking for a shopper in need of help. I'd far prefer to make eye contact with you and ask you to come over, as opposed to finding you wherever you may be. And acknowledge me if I am waiting for your help. This is not rude to your existing customer, this is common courtesy.

And - thanks for asking. Many salespeople don't seem to care much about providing quality customer service.
posted by AuntLisa at 11:16 AM on July 23, 2008

Europe has the greeting thing figured out. When you walk into a store, everyone in earshot of the door says "hello" as a general greeting. That's fine; I don't mind someone saying hello when I walk into a store. I do mind walking in, heading toward my product and having someone chase me down to ask how they can help. Say hello and then go away! I don't even mind tracking you down; but don't offer help, or else offer it only in the most general way.
posted by nax at 11:25 AM on July 23, 2008

A personal pet peeve - sales people trying to steer me to something cheaper (or more expensive), based on their assumption of how much I can afford.

I sometimes dress down for comfort (i.e. non-designer jeans and a nice but not expensive blouse or t-shirt), and I have had someone repeatedly try to steer me away from more expensive merchandise on the assumption that I really could not afford it. I basically had to repeat several times and very emphatically that in that particular case I was interested in the features of the product, and not really concerned about the price, and was prepared and able to pay for the features I wanted. I was about ready to walk out and take my business to someone who would just take my money without judging me on the way I looked. This was particularly bad when I was younger ....

Also, and this is particularly (and stereotypically) bad sometimes in electronics stores, I'm a woman and the sales people will sometimes ignore me, or, if I can get their attention, will direct all tech talk to my husband, assuming the little woman doesn't know anything about that stuff (wrong buddy; I'm usually the one who knows more than he does.)
posted by gudrun at 11:53 AM on July 23, 2008

Having had worked retail for at least 7 years, the biggest thing I've found is to keep in mind that different customers have different desires and to try to come up with a strategy that will allow the minimal amount of fuss.

For example, some people (as some posters above mention) don't want to be approached at all. On the other hand, there are other customers who will not approach an employee, but will fume if no one offers to help them. IIRC, my general way of handling this was to acknowledge anyone that makes eye contact, and develop a sense for what people look like when they need help and then offer a general "let me know if you need anything."

Also, often customer preferences will be in direct contrast to what your company requires you to do. As an example, one chain bookstore requires cashiers to attempt to sell a "membership" to every customer they ring up, while another big box requires cashiers to try to get people to sign up for credit cards. Try to find a way to balance the "needs" of the company and the wants of the customer on that.
posted by drezdn at 12:00 PM on July 23, 2008

I sell yarn, and teach knitting, which is an admittedly unrelated part of retail. But. I suspect some things I have learned will be helpful to you.

1. Remember what the person likes. This takes time. Yesterday I was able to pull out just exactly the type of pattern that a customer was hoping to find (Her description: a cardigan for a baby girl, fun enough to make for twins. This could have been any infant cardigan pattern in the store.) Had I not paid any attention to her in previous visits she would have had to look through two huge binders of baby sweater patterns to decide for herself. As it was I was able to hand her one binder to browse while I pulled out the pattern from the other. She was impressed and because she trusts me she didn't look for something "more perfect."

2. Also of your repeat customers: remember little things about their lives, if they've shared them. Don't ask complete strangers anything personal, but if they share unprompted they're likely to be impressed if you remember. Again, this takes practice. If Jack is always buying ping pong balls whenever the grandkids come into town and mentions that they're having a birthday party for the six year old this weekend, and that's why he's getting more than usual (is it obvious I know nothing about sporting goods? I thought so.), remember that when he comes in again.

3. If your company has a distasteful policy (doesn't take AmEx, doggies are not allowed in, returns have time limitations) that the customer is (knowingly or otherwise) attempting to get around, be polite about it. This wording works well for me, "I'm sorry Jane, we can't accept American Express, but we do take Visa, Mastercard, or Cash." This lets them know what their options are, and prevents them from pulling out a checkbook or Discover card as option two.

4. Don't dress like a slob. This is kind of hard for me sometimes. It means that I have to stop wearing shoes once they look the least bit beat up. My favorite pair of jeans with the busted belt loop stays at home, and I brush my hair. It's amazing how much more seriously people take me when I take an extra moment to assess myself in the mirror before I leave the house. I tend to dress a little "older" because I look so young. But it helps reinforce the fact that I didn't learn to knit last year.

5. Know everything you can about your area of expertise. For me this means reading all the current knitting magazines, being involved in a huge online community, practicing different techniques, and reading the blogs of famous knitters. It also means that I try as many different yarns as I can get my hands on, even many we don't stock at my store. This means when a customer brings me a pattern and says, "I want to make this, help me find a yarn," I can say, "Oh, I've used the Claudia's Handpainted Sock Yarn (It's actually called Fingering, but that's just kind of funny), I really like it and we carry the Cherry Tree Hill, which uses the same base yarn and comes in lots of great colors." What I mean is, be able to offer a comparison. Obviously, I know it's easier for me to try out a $5 or even $20 ball of yarn than for you to run a mile in multiple pairs of $150 shoes. That is why I say "everything you can" and not "absolutely everything there is to know."

6. Keep track of every single question that customers ask you for, say a week. Note which ones come up the most. Find and know the answers to all the questions. Repeat every few months. If a question comes up about a particular product (or class of products) with surprising regularity, don't wait for it to be asked! For us it's machine washability. I nearly always ask people up front if they have washability requirements for the garment they're making. If they say yes then I don't need to show them Alpaca Silk blends. If they pick up un-washable products I can say, "that would work with your gauge, but it would have to be hand washed." And our customers appreciate this. I'm sure there's something related in sporting goods.

7. Bonus - be able to give basic directions in the neighborhood of your store. How to get there from major streets, as well as a few decent places to eat. You will be amazed at how often you notice people asking for this kind of information once you're actually prepared to give it.
posted by bilabial at 12:14 PM on July 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

thankyoujohnnyfever: you rock.

Netbro, some of these people are going to suck out your wonderful, caring soul by being hostile to your good intentions. Having been a sensitive retail employee for four years, I try to see it as miscommunication. Most of your customers are on the defensive; doing anything independent of help indicates that one is capable with a capital c, and some customers may feel threatened that they'll be viewed as the opposite. The responses here prove that this insecurity exists, and almost anything can be misinterpreted by someone in that state of mind: we're not allowed to hand back a credit card a certain way, we must present complete sincerity at all times, we must not let Person A feel like he can't do it himself, we must not let person B feel ignored, so on.

If you can do anything to break down their animosity (not listening to your coworkers when they bitch about bad customers is helpful in the extreme), do it! Feel proud that they are deferring to you for help, but realize that they would so much rather not need your help.
posted by boy detective at 12:25 PM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't guess at the answer when I ask a question because you're afraid to admit you don't know. I can tell a salesperson is lying when they say "Oh, yes, I'm sure Product X does [thing I desire]" Go get someone who does know. But don't leave me hanging indefinitely. If you ask Fred and Sara and Bob and none of them know (or you can't find another employee), come back to me within 5-10 minutes and say that you're going to call the manufacturer to get the answer [do not wander around their web site and waste my time!]. They most likely have a customer service line that can help you. Call them while I'm there if possible, or call me back as soon as you find out.
posted by desjardins at 1:24 PM on July 23, 2008

At the register, my tolerance limit for non-essential interruptions is pretty low. I really hate it when, during the course of what should be a quick transaction, I get pitched the store credit card AND pressured to buy an additional product AND asked for my zip code/phone number, AND whatever else.

Relatedly, I get irrationally angry when I am in a long line and I see the sales reps go into these pitches. I understand that it's not always possible to avoid long wait times, but when they occur the top priority should be getting customers rung up and out of the store quickly and efficiently.

I understand that this is annoying, but certain places have a strict policy where the cashier HAS to say this to every single customer or they can lose their job. There's a thing called a "secret shopper," and if this secret shopper came through the line without being asked all the required things, it could be the cashier's ass. If it really bothers you this much, don't take it out on the person who is doing their job, go up in the command and tell someone who can actually change that rule.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 2:49 PM on July 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

My store's main, #1 customer service policy is to greet every person who enters the department... Hopefully I'm not aggravating people and ruining their day by subjecting them to a two-sentence conversation.

Ruining my day, probably not. Aggravating me, yes.

If I'm out shopping, I don't want to have the same, pointless, insincere conversation in every single store, especially not when it's blatantly a scripted line the greeter has been told to recite. In particular, when I'm in the 15th store of the day, I don't want some chirpy "Hey, how you doing?" from a total stranger who doesn't actually care.

If you insist on greeting me, then please do so with a closed greeting that doesn't require a response. I'm not in your store to make small talk.

My advice is to ignore people who tell you not to speak to customers.

I don't understand this recommendation. Several people above (presumably all customers at one point or another in their daily lives) have stated they don't want to be greeted, and yet you seem to be suggesting that good customer service is just to ignore their opinion.
posted by unconvention at 10:36 AM on July 24, 2008

If I say I'm just looking, I'm just looking. It's possible that the only reason I pulled that shirt off the shelf was because I was staggered at how ugly it was.

Hah, I wholeheartedly agree with this. It can make things really awkward. I was shopping with a guy friend and I said, jokingly, that he should buy this hideous leather jacket that was completely not his style. He could tell I was joking, but I guess my delivery was too subtle because this employee in the department chimed in that yes, it would look very good.

Anyway, I like employees that do not talk to me. If I need to ask a question, I know where to find one. I don't get worked up over employees asking me the usual, "Can I help you find anything today?" when I first come in the store, partly because I know a lot of them are required to do this and partly because it's just so common. But if I could have it my way, they wouldn't ask even that.

Once I say I'm "just looking," though, I think it clearly means I don't want to talk unless I follow it up with something. If they follow it up with "We're having a sale on whatever," I still don't hold it against them because that's usually required too, and on occasion it's been useful. But if they try to get me to buy things, like making recommendations I didn't ask for, I will literally leave the store. I know how to shop, I'm not an idiot, and I'm capable of asking for recommendations when I want them. When I ask for a recommendation I really value getting good information, though.

Basically, I think you should say the typical, "Can I help you find anything?" and go from there. You can usually tell by someone's body language if they want to be left alone. For example, I will give a sincere smile but look back to whatever merchandise I'm looking at quickly. Some people get chatty with retail employees, though, or want to ask all kinds of questions, and, well, that'll be obvious. Even timid people will timidly approach you. If you just answer people's questions you're doing a good job, I think.

The only unsolicited advice I tend to appreciate is when I've picked out a product that actually sucks, and it's clear the employee just knows from personal experience and isn't trying to coerce me into buying something more expensive. For example, I've had employees recommend cheaper products, or similarly priced products. Also, sometimes they will do that if they've had a lot of customer complaints or returns. I really like that.
posted by Nattie at 1:36 PM on July 24, 2008

My name is NOT dude. My name is NOT buddy.We are not hanging out in your frat house or Opium den. I am "Mr. Megafly" or you can call me by my nickname "Sir".
posted by Megafly at 4:47 PM on July 24, 2008

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