The Fine Art of Reading Customers

Elizabeth Bluemle - June 18, 2009

Training staffers to read customers’ signals can lead to much better, more successful experiences for both customer and bookseller.

In Robert Altman’s delicious film, Gosford Park, Helen Mirren plays Mrs. Wilson, the impeccable head housekeeper of an English country manor. Toward the end of the film, Mrs. Wilson reveals the secret of her efficacy to a young lady’s maid: "What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It’s the gift of anticipation…. I know when they’ll be hungry and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves."

While retail is certainly not servitude—though it can feel that way sometimes, har har—it is a form of hospitality. Tto be a good retailer means to be a good host, sensitive to the needs and anticipating the whims of the customer.

After nearly thirteen years of bookselling, we’ve gotten a pretty good handle on what customers, wittingly or not, are trying to say to us—not only with their words and tone of voice, but with their body language. This kind of "reading" comes more naturally to some folks than others, and certainly is refined through experience. So it occurred to us that bookseller colleagues might welcome a little tip sheet for staffers who might be newer to retail or just not as attuned to the signals customers telegraph. The examples below aren’t comprehensive, but should serve as a basic guide to the kinds of things we encounter on the floor, at the register, and after the sale.

On the Floor
A customer’s approach into the store is immediately telling. If someone walks in the door and strides toward you or the checkout counter, she’s obviously on a mission and knows what she wants—and a bookseller had better be ready to ring up that gift card or find that special order, pronto. If someone comes in and goes immediately to a particular section, he knows where he’s headed and probably wants to browse there without help or interruption, at least for a while. A quick hello suffices there. If customers come in hesitantly, looking around, this is likely a first visit and needs to be handled with just the right balance of welcome and space: you want to establish contact so they know whom to ask for help, but not smother them with the kind of boutique-y attention that sends many customers (myself included) running for the door.

As a general rule, we like to greet customers with a quick, friendly hello when they walk in, then let them settle into the store before offering help. Your hello tells them you’re there, paying attention, available if needed. (That initial contact from a salesperson has also been shown to reduce shoplifting.) A customer’s hello tells you even more: a brusque or hesitant reply generally means, "Please leave me alone to browse. I’m not ready for / interested in personal interaction right now." It’s really important to let these customers be. Like many of us, they prefer to browse on their own and feel hovered over if salespeople are overly solicitous. Body language signal: a turned-away of the body or head indicates a desire for distance and independence. Crossed arms are a definite "leave me alone" sign. Most of these customers, once they’re comfortable in the store and secure in the knowledge that you are not going to stand over them, will relax and let you help them if they need it. (One caveat: customers who avoid eye contact and won’t engage even to say hello might merely be socially awkward, but an avoidance of sales clerks is also a hallmark of many shoplifters, so just be alert.) We try to make sure we connect with every customer two or three times: once when they come in, usually once during the browsing process, and a sincere "thank you" when they head out, whether or not they’ve made a purchase.

Though we generally leave customers alone to browse, our job is to notice when customers need help, and respond quickly to that need. Even the most independent shopper might want help finding a title; in fact, these shoppers are the most likely to leave a store if they don’t find what they’re looking for quickly. They’re not thinking, "I wonder if they have my book in overstock, or in another section, or can order it for me?" They’re thinking, "Not here. Go elsewhere." So how do you know when or if you should check in again with someone? Their behavior gives you a clue: someone scanning the shelves up and down quickly is not finding what he or she wants. The same is true of someone who goes back and forth between two or three sections; something is missing, and our job is to help them figure out what it is.

We train our staffers to offer help after a few minutes, but from a distance. "Let me know if you’d like help finding anything," we might say from behind the counter or as we pass by, arms full of books to shelve. Call it customer psychology, but if you really want to be asked for help, get busy doing something else, and the people will flock to you with questions. (It’s some form of Murphy’s Retail Law: the customer will want the most help when you are least able to provide it, and vice versa.)

Body language is huge when you’re recommending books to customers. They will literally lean toward you and a book when they’re interested, and lean away or step back when they’re not. Kids are particularly funny about this: kids (especially ages 6-10) who don’t know you, and who are not yet as schooled in politeness as most adults, may actually silently refuse to take hold of a book you’re showing them if they aren’t intrigued. When this happens, I either move on to the next recommendation or, if it’s a great book I’m pretty sure the child will love, I reassure them that they don’t have to commit to any book they take a look at, and that they might find it worthwhile to read a page or two of the proffered title. I also let them know that these are just suggestions, and that they certainly won’t hurt my feelings if they decide not to get a book I’ve recommended. "You want the right book at the right time, a book you’re in the mood for," I tell them, and—the pressure lifted—they usually are willing to take a look at whatever book with an iffy cover but terrific insides I’m trying to hand them.

Some people only want one or two choices to choose from; others want personal shopping assistance for as long as you can give it. When customers have reached their fill of recommendations, you’ll see their gaze start to wander and they will seem distracted. They’ll start nodding and saying "uh-huh" to your every sentence; they’re being polite, but really, their minds have gone elsewhere. They cannot absorb another book. This is your cue: find them a place to sit with the little stack of books, suggest they make their yes-no-maybe piles, and let them be.

Noticing customers’ body language will help you gauge their interest and comfort level and adjust your own sales behavior accordingly, backing off or stepping up when appropriate.

Handy tip—if a customer, child or adult, is vacillating between two books, try this: take the books, shuffle them behind your back, and then say, "Pick a hand." (Sometimes, a child might resist, thinking they’ll be stuck with the one they pick; if this happens, reassure them that they don’t HAVE to take the one they choose.) When the book they’ve chosen is revealed, watch their expression and ask, "Did your heart sink or leap when you saw this one? Did you kind of want the other one, or is this the one?" Usually the answer is suddenly clear. This little game works 99% of the time to help make the choice. The other 1%, a child will say, "I don’t know. They’re both the same." And that’s when you help
lly say, with a mischievous smile at the parent, "Then I guess you should get both!" Or offer to put one on a wish list for their next visit.

At the Register
Nothing drives me crazier as a customer than being ignored while waiting to be rung up. Once people are in line, they’re generally done browsing and ready to get going. Employees should be aware of this; it’s so easy to make quick eye contact with people in line, smile, and say, "We’ll be with you shortly." That simple act does more to stop the sighing, fidgeting, and tapping of impatient people than just about anything else you can do short of shoving the people ahead of them out of line.

If you notice a really impatient person (again, the heavy sighing and tapping of a foot or fingers will be your obvious clues), you might check in with them quietly while you’re helping someone else, asking "Are you in a hurry?" When they inevitably say yes, offer a solution: "Would you like me to ring this up and wrap it while you’re doing some other errands nearby?" or, "We’re open until six if you’d like to come back." Often, kind-hearted customers ahead of the rushed customer will hear this exchange and offer to let that person ahead in line. When that happens, I often joke, "Flying Pig triage," which usually gets a tension-relieving chuckle, and I make sure to thank the person who’s generously let the other customer cut in. That’s a win-win situation; everyone feels good, acknowledged, helped or helpful.

After the Transaction
While no one likes waiting in line, and most people telegraph at least a little impatience while waiting their turn, once they get up to the counter, they often become expansive, even chatty. This is when your inner retail host has to be most graceful—you want this time with your customer, because the relationship is real, because you’ve seen their kids grow up, because you know their dogs’ names, because you are a community member with ties to many of your customers and an interest in all of them. (Well, all but that one imperious, entitled customer you wish would find another bookstore to terrorize.) You need this time, but you also must be aware of those waiting for your attention, too. Again, being aware of the bodies around you and what they’re communicating is the key to keeping a balance between enjoying catching up with a customer and risking alienating the goodwill of the next person. If someone is chatting with you for too long, oblivious to the people behind her, your own signals can help: make eye contact and nod to the next person in line, reaching out a hand for their book to ring up, while saying something like, "It’s always so great to see you!" to the person you need to nudge along. Whatever you say and do, of course it must be genuine; fakeyness, even for a good cause, is always a huge turn-off and easily scented.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s the staffer who lingers too long, chatting with a customer who is actually trying to get out of the store. Feet give away a person’s intentions; if a customer’s feet are pointing toward the door, then even if their body is turned toward you, they’re on their way out. They’re chatting but secretly want or need to to get on with their day. If you can help your staff read the feet, you can avoid the pitfall of being friendly past the natural expiration date of the interaction.

Addendum: Kelly, one of our very well-read staffers (and I mean that in both senses of the term ‘well-read’), just mentioned another body-language signal savvy booksellers should note: the lingering goodbye. This is related to the ‘tricky follow-up question.’ Let’s say a customer has come in seeking a particular book that you happen to be out of. You place it on order for the customer, and let them know when it is likely to arrive. Some booksellers stop there. But unless that customer immediately heads right back out the door, he or she wants something else. A lingering customer is hoping to find something to take home. That’s your opportunity to ask, "Are you in the middle of a book right now, or would you like a recommendation?" This is the tricky follow-up question; you don’t want to be sales-y, but you are sensing a need, you are in fact a bookseller, you are surrounded by great books, and your customers love to read. There’s nothing to lose by trying to meet that need. It may turn out that your follow-up conversation leads to the customer remembering an unread book on her stack at home. That’s fine, too. She will leave feeling like she’s had a terrific customer service experience when there is no expectation hidden in the invitation for her to buy another book. And she’ll be back.

Booksellers and customers out there, what signals do you wish the person on the other side of the counter would pick up on?

12 thoughts on “The Fine Art of Reading Customers

  1. archiepw1

    Elizabeth, Your posts are a joy to read, and the experience you provide for the customers at your shop sounds wonderful; nothing turns me off more than a sales clerk that is overly zealous. Is it against the rules to tell us the name of your bookstore and where it is located?

  2. shelftalker elizabeth

    Thanks, Archie! I don’t think our bookstore info is cloak-and-dagger. : ) Josie and I co-own The Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, VT (a little south of Burlington). If you’re ever in the area, please introduce yourself. Thanks for the great comments.

  3. Eva Mitnick

    Your comments and tips transfer perfectly to a public library setting – I want to send this to every children’s librarian in my system! Thanks so much.

  4. SlyFoxVirden

    Next month marks the end of my 11th year peddling books. I couldn’t agree more with your comments on reading customers. You are spot on. I’ve also found that on a slow day, all I need to do is take a restroom break. And I better take the phone with me because either the door will jingle or the phone will ring.

  5. Aimee

    Thanks for this. I am one of those customers who doesn’t generally want assistance, and it’s sometimes hard for me as a bookseller to find the right balance between leaving customers alone and trying to make a sale. You know what else gets customers in on a slow day, SlyFoxVirden? Washing windows. I get all set up outside the window furthest from the door with my windex and paper towels and the phone, and a customer inevitably enters the store.

  6. shelftalker elizabeth

    When I lived in Oakland and took the BART into San Francisco every morning, a sure-fire method for getting the train to come was to start putting on mascara, or doing any task that required about three hands and all of my attention. Worked like a charm.

  7. George Edward Stanley

    What an incredible posting! This is what I miss so much today – the feeling that when I enter a shop or a store my business there is really appreciated. I grew up in a small town in Texas in the late 40’s and early 50’s and that’s what we had then. Thank you, Elizabeth! Maybe all is not lost! There are still civilized shopowners around.

  8. nancy

    Reading customers works just as well in my school library, and is especially helpful since I have a short window of opportunity with each child. The hands behind back is going to be one of my new tricks next fall.

  9. Stephanie Reed

    Wow, I wish I could shop at your store. Required reading not just for bookstores but all retail shops–I’m going to print this out and give it to my daughter, who works at a women’s clothing shop. I would like to add that I’ve worn hearing aids since I was 22, but hearing aids don’t restore me to perfect hearing. If I don’t respond to a hello, it’s because I didn’t hear you. Please make eye contact if customers don’t respond. Many people don’t even realize their hearing is less than perfect.

  10. Carol Chittenden

    Brilliant — and thorough. We’ll be discussing it at the next Eight Cousins staff meeting. I would only add that there are those staffers who simply get it, and others who take a little extra guidance — which you have just provided. For you next post, I hope you’ll instruct those of us who will just never get the hang of cocktail party chitchat.


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