It’s time for our store’s annual “IT’S 4TH QUARTER, LET’S PANIC!” staff meeting, a Sunday night pizza-and-pop extravaganza when we review all the events scheduled in the next two months (and I do some mea culpas for booking the dog rescue AND the ninja event on the same weekend WITH the offsite author festival AND the reindeer visit….), unveil all the new wrapping paper, and do some staff training for new and returning holiday help. We vote on our staff Top 10 book choices in the picture book, middle grade, and YA categories, debate the dress code for Plaid Friday, and engage in some wheeling-and-dealing over shift coverage to accommodate everyone’s holiday obligations. Somewhere between the breadsticks and the Cranberry Sprite, slip in some staff training on customer service. Specifically, I want to give our folks some helpful words and phrases to use in conversation with customers, and some “red hot lava” sentences to avoid. Just in case you’re in staff training mode, too, I’ll share my list of “please, never say this”:
- Can I help you? This is that old chestnut of good intentions, bad outcome. It just invites the customer to respond “No thanks, just looking!” and a furtive duck behind the board books. For most customers at this time of year, entering the bookstore is not a familiar experience. They are overwhelmed. Suddenly, they feel like they haven’t read anything, don’t know the new books, and are completely lost. Putting them on the spot is exactly the wrong thing to do. Instead, we find it works better to just greet them with a “hi!” or “welcome!” or even “wow — it’s raining hard — can I take your umbrella and put it here for you?” gives them a minute to acclimate. We can follow up with something specific, “Is there an age group or section I can point you towards?” which is ever so much less threatening. If they came in the door looking for a specific title, they will tell you.
- We’re out of that. Yes, we might be. But Eureka! There’s a whole network of publishers and distributors… we can solve that issue. Instead, try “that’s in the warehouse. Should I have it put on the truck tonight? I’ll text you in the morning, and we can set one aside for you to look at.” The term “Special Order” is so daunting, and sounds like it will take weeks. We are competing with same day, next day, or down the street delivery. Make things sound easy, because they are.
- I don’t know. This phrase, while truthful, doesn’t help the customer at all. In just as few words, you can say “let’s find out.” Even if you can’t answer the question with all the available brainpower in the store, you can ask for an extension. “May I work on that a bit and email or text you later today? Which is easier for you?” Then, even after you’ve had a chance to consult the oracle, and even if no one can find the answer, you can at least maintain the relationship through the follow-up communication, and make a friend. Usually, though, there’s another staffer or another customer eavesdropping who can jump in and answer your question. Sometimes, they might even be right.
- Were you able to find everything? Is that all? Two issues here: you’re asking someone AT CHECKOUT if they found what they were looking for. Where have you been the whole time they were shopping? Do you really think that a customer is going to bring up a stack, be halfway through paying, and THEN ask for help? Nope, nope, nope. Surgery is closing at this point, and there will be no more organs removed. Better to check in with the customer while they’re pursuing the shelves, offer to take their stack and set it down “you can add or subtract more easily if your hands are free” or even offer to get started wrapping items that they know they are buying. Personally, I find the “is that all?” question kind of insulting. It’s sort of like my Aunt Marion looking at my Thanksgiving plate and asking if I’m going to eat ALL THAT STUFFING. Yes, I am. How about “is there anyone else we can cross off your gift list?” or “what other ways can you stump us today…. it’s been so much fun thinking of things for your kids!”
- It’s in that section over there, or any other phrase or gesture that looks like pointing. Call me old-fashioned, but I think it’s rude. Customers are guests, so just walk over and show them where something is. If your hands are busy wrapping or bagging or scooping a two year old off the train table, then at least use a full descriptive sentence, like: “the biographies are on that white set of shelves just to the left of the bathroom. I will be right there to show you, but if you want to follow that aisle to the right, you might beat me there.” Then follow up and get yourself there.
- Would you like that wrapped? Let’s try the more gracious “how would you like that wrapped?” Instead of a yes/no question, that will make the customer feel like you are doing them a favor, assume that you are wrapping everything. “How would you like that wrapped?” allows them to indicate the holiday they are celebrating, and makes them feel like the service is just part of what they are buying by shopping local — which it usually is. That two or three minutes of just standing there while you gift wrap their purchases may be the only break a busy parent has in their day. Be that moment of grace, or offer a chair.
- It’s no problem. Yes, I have read all the carefully worded articles about how this phrase is generational and inoffensive, but so are flip flops, and you can’t wear those while you work in my store, either (too easy to drop a case cutter or slide off a stepladder — I have no aversion to toes). Rather, you have two choices: “thank you” or “you’re welcome.” If you get tired of those, you may substitute the more elvish “it was fun!” or even “it’s my pleasure,” but you have to share the waffle fries.