This is a guest post by Liz Cichowski, Instructional Design Lead at Learning Means Business.
Last week I visited two different convenience stores to get some much-needed supplies. Both stores were doing a great job with social distancing, cleaning, and keeping customers and employees safe with face coverings. Both stores were (thankfully) well-stocked. However, there was one store I will DEFINITELY go back to, even though it’s a bit further from my house. That other store? Not so much. No one even said hello to me! More on that in a moment.
The CDC Recommends Face Masks: This Does Not Mean Retail Stores are Hospitals
Maybe government officials are requiring face coverings where your stores are located. Maybe they are not. Either way, you may be requiring them for employees and maybe even customers … to assure the health and safety of as many people as possible. This may present several challenges to you, whether you’re open right now or you’re reopening soon:
- Certain customers may object to wearing a mask, and you may need to politely turn their business away if you’re serious about a “face-covering required” policy.
- If employees are uncomfortable wearing masks, you may not get consistent compliance with a face mask policy. This may endanger both employees and customers, and even damage your reputation.
- Some employees who were once outgoing and friendly may change their style when hidden behind a mask, either because they are either uncomfortable with it and/or they are missing out on some relatively simple best practices for engaging with customers while wearing a mask.
- Unless employees are able to properly and sincerely greet and engage with customers from behind a mask, people who may already feel isolated or unable to connect may feel even more isolated. Without a human connection, they’re more likely to try another store next time, or to shop online.
In this article, I’ll give some tips for connecting socially with customers from behind a mask. Incorporating this information into training on new health and safety protocols may help your employees feel more comfortable wearing a face covering, which may help customers feel more comfortable with it. And a genuine connection, whether you’re wearing a mask or not, gives customers a reason to want to shop with and buy from you.
Connecting: What’s Changed; What Remains the Same
Going back to the two stores I visited, in both stores every employee was wearing a mask in proper fashion. That what’s changed since the CDC guidelines came out. Here’s the difference: In the one store I visited, I was sincerely greeted by every employee I encountered. They looked up from cleaning and stocking to say hello. I could tell they were happy to see me because they were smiling with their eyes. I returned the favor by asking them how they were doing, whether they were comfortable wearing a mask all day, etc. It felt good to connect! We were all happier as a result.
In the other store, I was ignored. This did not feel good. I don’t think the employees felt good either. Most humans are social beings, and we thrive on social connections. If you want YOUR customers to shop with and buy from you, your employees need to make human connections. This is true even when someone has ordered online and is simply doing curbside or in-store pickup.
Masks and social distancing are what’s changed as a result of COVID-19. What remains the same: Genuine connections are still required to create sales and to capture market share from your competition. The question is: How do you connect socially from behind a mask?
Tips for Selling Behind a Mask
Here are some tips for engaging with customers from behind a mask, whether an employee is selling from six feet away, a cashier is ringing sales and selling loyalty programs, or someone is running curbside pickup and stocking shelves. Regardless of any technology, you may have implemented (e.g., BOPIS or buy online-pick up in-store, scheduling in-store appointments online, etc.), I believe these guidelines still apply.
- Greet every customer with a genuine smile. In most cultures, a smile means you’re happy to see someone. When people can’t see your mouth, your eyes reveal a genuine smile. Look up from what you’re doing, smile, say “Hi!” or “Thanks for coming in!” and BE HAPPY TO SEE YOUR CUSTOMERS. They are the only reason your store is open. Period.
- Speak clearly. There is now a door greeter at my local grocery store. I call this new role “the mask police.” One greeter, Tanner, greets me with a HUGE grin and a friendly “Hello. Welcome!” And I can understand everything Tanner says to me. The other greeters frown, and I can’t understand a word they say. I don’t like being greeted by the other greeters. But I LOVE being greeted by Tanner. I want to meet Tanner’s parents and congratulate them! The bottom line: It is EXTREMELY frustrating when customers can’t hear you. When customers CAN hear you, they are much happier.
- Ask questions to check for understanding. A lot of customers may be too embarrassed (or in too much of a rush) to tell you they didn’t understand. Ask questions like, “Does this match up with what you were looking for?” “You said XYZ was important to you, I think this is great. What do you think?” “Hey, I know it may be hard to hear me from inside this mask. Am I missing anything?” Said with a smile, these kinds of questions WILL be appreciated.
- Use body language to connect. Eye contact, people! Not staring, but making eye contact when speaking. Nod your head to indicate you’re listening. Don’t cross your arms, and relax your shoulders. If you are social distancing, you can still be social with your body language.
Consider incorporating these tips into any training or communication you have around requiring employees to wear face coverings. Make sure your managers help employees practice and are out on the sales floor, recognizing employees for a job well done. People tend to do what they get recognized for. And make sure people are recognized as often as possible. That way, when someone misses an opportunity to engage with a customer, they’ll be more receptive to a little corrective coaching.
About the author
Training and Development Specialist
Liz is a learning & development professional with over 20 years of experience, specializing in the retail industry. Her company, Learning Means Business, Inc., helps retailers optimize revenue, profit and market share through exceptional customer experiences, efficient store operations, goal setting, and more.
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