A Guide for the Lowly Shop Assistant

When you first waltz into a shop your initial impression will be your lasting one, in which case, the person guarding the counter ought to have a few skills under their belt to impress you: an encyclopaedic knowledge of the product, a contagious smile and a confident, positive attitude. This initial interface becomes even more critical if you find yourself working in a niche retail industry and you sell retro products that have long ago peaked in their popularity.

Retail Battle Stations

When I was 14 I wanted a job badly, but the expression “beggars can’t be choosers” hadn’t clicked with me yet, and the sheer thought of debasing myself to the grease-traps of Mickey Dee’s sent me into panic stations. Where I needed to work resided in my local Westfield – a place only a handful of hermit regulars frequented and kept the dusty place alive: the local second-hand bookshop. I was already in love with books, having barely gotten over my unyielding crush on Mr. Rochester, and I felt my OCD would slot into the organised system of the store quite nicely.

Cut to nine years later and I was running the shop and had become the overarching expert on authors, novels, Man-Booker nominations, and how to establish strong relationships with customers whilst also being a retail sensation. At the time, the bookshop industry was on the decline: people were trading in their book collections for a loveless Kindle and novels were slowly being abandoned to be pushed to the side along with floppy disks and VHS.

Through the drawback of working in an industry that was debatably dying I learned how to truly push sales, how to keep my customers returning and how to happily serve the public.

Smile ‘Till it Hurts

After I finished high school I started working at the bookshop full-time, earning more than enough to continue refunding the shop with my book addiction. The only problem I had with working every day was I felt like I was living at work: the customers I served were my family, and the book shelves that structured the shop were becoming some kind of abstract metaphor for the alphabet nightmare that was my life.

Looking back I realise it was easy to get bogged down in this way of thinking, especially considering I was so used to my job I was able to predict customers’ queries before they even opened their mouths. However, regardless of how I internally felt about a question, each customer was treated with equal friendliness, a bright smile and a keen interest in them. So if someone asked “Do you have Don Kwicks-oate?” or “Do you stock that book by the bloke?” they were answered by a calm, understanding individual.

Customer Control

You may be thinking, “How do people like this even exist?” but you need to keep in mind that you are this customer. How many times have you curiously walked into a quirky shop and had no idea what you were looking for? Or asked a retail assistant for help while exhaling a giant verbal faux pas? We all do it – and at the end of the day, just because I was asked if we stock “Fifty Shades of Grey”, literally 50 times in a day, didn’t mean that the customer in question deserved a bad-tempered or snarky response.

Unless your name is Hugh Grant, you really have zero excuse for any fumbling, bumbling or vocal slipups when it comes to conversing with your customer. There’s nothing less endearing or disappointing then going into a shop, only to have the person over the counter acting as clueless as you are. How much confidence do you put into the “Ums” and “I don’t knows” of this world? Not a lot I imagine. Remaining strong and confident in your stance will permeate throughout the rest of the interaction – I found that even my feigned enthusiasm and coolness was always met with the sound of the cash register dinging to life: so faking it really does work.

The Regs

One of the best things about working at the bookshop for so many years, was I ended up having awesome regular customers that I’d established great relationships with. I would often keep books aside for them and they would continue to return for that kind of service. Once I had clued onto what books they liked, I found it easier to keep my eye out for any titles that might spark their interest – a service that never went unnoticed.

Another reason why customers kept coming back was the way I was with them – an aspect that changed from person to person. Customers tend to like servers who have a bit of personality or who can have a laugh – there’s no need to become best friends, but rather you need to seize any opportunity you see to build a rapport. Some of my regs became the kind of people who gave me chocolates at Christmas or who would watch the shop while I popped to the bathroom.

Creating strong connections with your customers doesn’t always have to be a case of making a sale; you can end up establishing worthwhile relationships that make your working day better as well. And if you’re caught in an interaction that’s becoming sharp or isn’t going anywhere, the best thing to come from that customer will be the amount of appreciation you have for the next one who walks along and smiles back at you.

– Cassie

Sher-Locking in the sale with attentive customer service

When Sherlock Holmes, a detective whose skill is only eclipsed by his fashion sense, walks into a room for the first time he immediately begins to observe every single little detail, no matter how seemingly insignificant, so that he can mentally piece together the puzzle that is the unknown.

It might be the mud on a gentleman’s boot, which indicates the location from which he has come, or a tan line across a lady’s finger revealing a long-worn wedding band that has recently been removed. Much of the theatricality and genius behind Sherlock’s famous (albeit fictional) crime solving is due to his ability to notice what other people typically miss.

When it comes to customer service in retail, your success depends on the relationship you manage to cultivate with your customers. People relate more to someone who understands them and can anticipate their needs, using nothing other than sheer, observational investigation, a la Sherlock Holmes. Nobody is looking for help from a retail assistant who is simply haphazardly guessing and checking, like an inept Scotland Yard detective.

As a retail customer service representative, keeping alert is absolutely essential to sparking a successful relationship with your customer. If you’re chatting away with a colleague and only lavish attention on your customers once they express a query, chances are you’ve lost them long before “hello”. Always keep your eyes and ears wide open; because piecing together who this customer is, where they are from, and ultimately what they are looking for, begins the instant they walk into your store.

“As a retail customer service representative, keeping alert is absolutely essential…”

Let me share a personal pet peeve from some of the earliest days of my ever blossoming obsession with motion pictures: incompetent customer service at the video store.

Allow me to elaborate: there were two ways in which I used to enter my local movie rental store. Either I’d stride in with purpose and search with deliberation for a specific film. Or I would meander along the aisles, idly searching for a movie I had not yet seen and was willing to spend my precious pocket money on.

Almost every single time, the customer service reps would manage to either misread me or not even bother to observe me at all. If I was searching fruitlessly for a specific movie, they’d be sitting behind the counter picking at their nails. If I was leisurely browsing the catalogue, I would inevitably find myself the victim of incessant Can-I-Help-You’s.

I was clearly not being Sherlock Holmes-ed.

Had the customer service rep been doing his/her job properly, they’d have been watching my mannerisms, body language and facial expressions. It would have been easy to ascertain what kind of a customer I was and consequently how I should be effectively approached.

The important point is that as a customer service representative your key to success is to gather as much information as you possibly can, so that when you do approach the customer you can cut straight to providing for their every whim.

Listen out for a name (people love hearing their own name and it grabs their attention instantly), look out for signs of confusion or determination, take note of who they’re shopping with, what conversation they’re having, listen for any mention of a specific occasion and observe in which section of your store they are looking. Knowledge is power, and it is your job to gather as much knowledge as you can.

Once you engage the customer, use the opportunity to take control of the conversation, armed with the clues you’ve uncovered, to be used to your advantage. Don’t force the customer to ask all the questions; proactively suggest different varieties, options and alternatives that they might be interested in. Keep them engaged and keep them interested by relating to them and their needs. By maintaining control, you can close that sale, every single time.

It’s not hard to become Sherlock Holmes – but it does take proactive observation, uncompromising alertness and the willingness to put in that extra effort to transcend the hum-drum of most customer service. Remember what the great detective himself said: “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”

– Aaron

Shop Sharing – Something Fishy Is Going On

Business share a lot of things these days: a healthy rivalry, customers and if you’re a hip Melbourne small business – a shop location! At first, this might sound counter-productive: two different businesses operating in the same locale. Allow me to explain…

Two businesses – one shop: it’s an idea so crazy there’s no way it can’t work. The first one I came across was a clothing store with a barber shop inside it. Genius, when you think about it. People who are going to get a haircut want to look sharp – and the clothes being sold right here complement their new look. Or perhaps while you’re trying on a shirt you notice you look a bit scruffy – hey presto! – there’s a barber shop right there to fix that. That’s the beauty of shop sharing.

So what we’re seeing is two businesses that feed off each other’s clientele but don’t infringe on the sales. Plus, I’m sure the split utility bills help too.

More Examples of Shop Sharing
Shop Sharing

Think of it as the business version of ‘friends with benefits’

Another that stuck in my mind was this delightful little bar called The Catfish, located on Gertrude Street in Fitzroy. Inside is a food stand/kitchen called Sparrow’s Philly Cheesesteaks. Again, both feed off each other. Hungry and feel like a drink? Thirsty but could use a bite to eat? It’s the perfect combination (PS: the Philly Cheesesteaks are to die for).

This outside the box thinking is a prime example of small business passion and ingenuity. They’ve found what they’re good at and focussed on it. Then they’ve found someone else who complements them (and vice versa) and formed a perfect symbiotic relationship. This is nothing new; the Clownfish has been ‘shop sharing’ with Sea Anemones for centuries!

– Lachy

Aim Carefully, Don’t Over Shoot

I’ve worked in customer service, in a variety of different settings, for many years now and until recently I didn’t really ponder the dynamics of the customer service relationship too deeply.

A couple of weeks back I had the displeasure of shopping at a chain of clothing

“What do you mean you don’t need my help?”

“What do you mean you don’t need my help?”

stores whose staff have been mercilessly beaten with an attitude of “push, push, push” and the result is a flow-down effect on the customer. I entered their store and after about 5 minutes of contented browsing I was approached by a young man whose face was split by a smile that was not reaching his disinterested eyes.

How are you today man?” he boomed in faux-enthusiasm. I replied that I was great and returned my eyes to the racks.

You looking for something in particular, because these are made and designed in Oz” He said at me, while holding up a shirt from a nearby rack and pointing at it suggestively. I replied that I wasn’t and I was just browsing. However, this seemed to be like waving red to a bull – how dare I attempt to browse this store without his input.

Yeah, I get that all the time. Did you know that all those jeans are handmade? You’d rock the mauve ones” He said pointing behind me. I thanked him and told him that I was just browsing – again.

After an awkward silence he exclaimed “You look lost!” and moved far too close to me. I assure him that I was not, and I was exactly where I wanted to be.

Are you sure?” He asked. I repeated that I was fine but I now had a sinking feeling that I will not be allowed free reign of the store without being rude to this “salesman”.

Well, you sure look lost. Hey, you’d look good in one those jackets. I’m thinking you’re a dark blue kinda guy” he says while physically grabbing my arm to drag me somewhere. It was at this stage that I decided enough was enough and told him, in no uncertain terms, that I didn’t want anything anymore and left the store.

I think this kind of persistence is something that, if we’re honest, we’ve all experienced in a sales environment. For me, it drove home the importance of ‘reading’ a customer. Great salespeople will tell you that a good sales pitch gets the sale and a repeat customer. The ‘brute force’ method of mercilessly pushing a product will sometimes get the sale, but it will likely deter the customer from coming back to you because they found the experience to be uncomfortable or intimidating.

By no means should customers be ignored, what I’m trying to illustrate here is that it’s equally detrimental to overshoot in the other direction. A salesman who’s obviously faking his enthusiasm, and covering the customers like his opponent in a footy match is more likely to put off customers than keep them coming back.

– Kyle

You Get What You Pay For

We’ve all heard the saying ‘you get what you pay for’. This is especially true in budget businesses such as discount retail stores, accommodation, air travel – you name it.


In October 2010, I returned from a trip to Japan in complete awe of how fantastic their customer service is (you can read the blog article about it here). So you can only imagine the initial shock I felt when I read an article slamming a Japanese airline for their poor service and careless attitude towards handling complaints. It just didn’t seem right for Japan. Sure, maybe America but not Japan!

To summarise the article, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government filed a complaint against Japanese budget carrier Skymark Airlines after it posted notices informing customers it would not be accepting complaints during flights. Even more shockingly, Skymark’s ‘service concept’ stated that cabin staff “would not help passengers stow their bags and that attendants were not required to use ‘polite language’ when talking to customers.”

My astonishment was almost immediately washed away when I read that this was a budget airline. When you sacrifice price, everything else goes out the window. Lower fares meant less staff who received less training and less pay. As a result, they couldn’t afford to care about anything more than the bare minimum. Put simply, if you want to pay less you can’t expect the best service.

Cheaper rates might see more first time customers through the door, but the cheap service won’t see them return a second time. Outstanding customer service and attention to detail is what brings people back for more and at Messages On Hold, it’s what turns first time clients into long term, loyal customers.

– Kym Illman

New Year’s Resolution: Fostering Loyalty

At the risk of sounding materialistic, I love spending money. Nothing beats putting on a new pair of jeans or sunglasses. During this time of year, that part of my brain goes into overdrive; which got me thinking about retailers and the particularly tough year their sector has experienced.

Why were major retailers like David Jones and Myer battling it out for a bigger slice of the consumer pie by offering huge discounts? Was the higher cost-of-living really to blame for our frugal spending? Perhaps we could point the finger at the media for peddling this economic doom and gloom? Or maybe the problem is closer than we think.

It’s hard to deny customer service standards are declining and consumers are voting with their feet. After years of below par service and high prices, they’ve said ‘enough is enough’ and turned to the welcoming – and favourably priced – online stores like eBay and Amazon. The products are cheaper, shipping is relatively quick, and you don’t need to fight the crowds or deal with a store clerk who makes no effort in hiding the fact they’d rather be somewhere else.

At Messages On Hold, an end of year analysis revealed that for 2011 sales were up, as were our salespeople’s conversion rates. Just like Myer and David Jones, people continue to shop us around. But they also continue to choose us in the end because our product is backed by strong and attentive customer service.

From the moment a new employee joins the Messages On Hold team, we instil a culture of going above and beyond the norms in terms of service. It might be something proactive like providing each client with a bullet point list of their latest production’s messages so they don’t have to read through the entire script, or providing clients with complimentary seasonal messages on a regular basis.

This begs the question: what are you doing to retain your clients and how can you improve your service to gain new ones?

– Lachy Banton

Welcoming a Happier Customer

I have worked in retail and hospitality, and in both industries I was instructed to always greet customers when they entered the store/cafe. “Customers feel more comfortable browsing for longer and are more likely to buy something” I was told. And they were right! Whenever I visit a store or approach the counter today as a customer and they don’t greet me, I feel as though I’m intruding or shouldn’t be there. A nice warm welcome is a really simple way to let customers know that you appreciate them visiting or calling your business.

Ever called a company only to be greeted by a receptionist who sounded half asleep, grumpy or just plain disinterested? It doesn’t create a great first impression. An automated phone greeting is a better way to ensure every customer is greeted in a warm and welcoming manner.

Is the phone always ringing off the hook in your office? Perhaps some days you’re understaffed and it rings longer than you would like. With an auto attendant set to kick in after two or three rings, customers aren’t given the opportunity to hang up before their call is answered/take their business elsewhere. They’re greeted instantly with a warm and welcoming greeting message. The auto attendant can then ask the caller to leave their details, play a menu directing the call to the right department, or place them on hold until staff are in a position to give their full attention to the customer.

I was out shopping recently and upon entering a store, I was not only greeted but advised “today we have 25% off everything in store!” Naturally, I bought a few things that I wouldn’t have picked up at full price, simply because she took the time to greet me and let me know about the promotion. What I also noticed however, is that when the same shop assistant answered the phone she neglected to mention the sale to her prospective customer. Now no one’s perfect. (I like to eavesdrop.)  But a professional phone welcome message that not only greets every customer but also mentions “Everything in store is 25% off” makes good business sense.

It’s a simple customer service principal that can be applied to any customer interactions, on the shop floor, in the waiting room, or on the phone. First impressions matter. With our professional scripting and voiceover services, you’re able to leverage your Auto Attendant to make callers feel valued and appreciated. And perhaps even make a few extra sales while you’re at it!

– Rachel McGeorge