I waitressed for two summers during college and met some pretty interesting people. The first summer I worked the counter of a Bloomingdale’s restaurant in Hackensack, New Jersey. I served two Secret Service agents who were trailing Pat Nixon and her daughter Tricia who were eating in the dining room of the restaurant. Nice guys, easy going, and tipped well.
Prior to my sophomore year I worked at a 24-hour diner called The Forum. The Saturday night shift went from 5 pm to 4:30 am. As you could imagine, the crowd here differed from Bloomingdale’s.
One cranky guy ordered veal parmigiana every night, asked for 2 glasses of water at once and woe to the server who let those two glasses go empty. He was infamous for leaving a quarter for tip. I kept refilling the glasses and he must have liked me – he left me 35 cents.
Then there were customers like Chris. Chris was a muscular, 38-year-old gentleman with thinning salt and pepper hair who raised and groomed horses. His patience and optimism made him a pleasure to serve. He ate light despite his size (sometimes just a half cantaloupe with cottage cheese) and would leave me a $5 tip on his $7 tab.
How did I know so much about my customers? I talked to them.
Many of the consumer business owners I work with fear talking with customers. It’s true. These savvy business people who have launched companies, some of whom have solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars from investors, turn shy when faced with a customer.
Because it’s not part of their routine.
Typically the business owner needs to know something and designates a specific time to talk to customers. This now formalized appointment begins to spark anticipation like a first date or a job interview.
And like a first date or an interview, the anticipation spawns the fear of being judged. Business owners who are passionate about their business become emotionally invested in it. Negative comments about the business or its products can feel like a personal attack.
All this build up can make the most outgoing business owner feel awkward, shy, and tongue-tied.
Don’t let this happen to you.
These fears are unfounded. Most customers don’t bite. (Most.)
You can keep customer conversation demons at bay and receive great feedback on your products.
Be the bartender of your brand. And no, I don’t mean serve your customers alcohol before talking to them.
Think about beloved bartending characters that you know. Sam Malone on Cheers. Isaac Washington on The Love Boat. Rosie on M*A*S*H. Okay, maybe not Rosie. (All three of them made factoidz’ Ten Best Television Bartenders List.)
How did they get people to talk to them? By creating a safe, non-judgmental haven. By listening well and talking little. By being around often. And by serving alcohol, but we’re not going there, remember?
These characters got to know their customers over time, with many small interactions instead of one long interrogation.
Follow their lead and become your brand’s listening post. Here’s how:
- Be casual.
o Be part of the customer’s environment and start by listening. (Think of Sam Malone drying and storing glasses while overhearing conversation.)
o Avoid items like clipboards and tables that create a barrier between you and the customer and that lend formality to the interaction.
- Use small talk first. Avoid very specific or personal questions upfront.
- Listen more than you talk. Ask a general question about your product and let the customer guide the conversation.
- Be patient. Don’t try to get all your questions answered at once. Learn about your products and brand through many small conversations instead of a few monumental ones.
- Show up often. Make this part of your routine.
How will you know when your customer conversations are paying off? When what you learn from customers starts to give you new ideas – ideas for product improvements or for new products, for example.
In the end, customer criticism isn’t your biggest risk. Your biggest risk is being unaware of customer needs and wants, which cripples your ability to improve products and to grow your business.
One more note – some customers will be too kind. Knowing your business affiliation, they may temper or sugarcoat their feedback to you. Enough customers will be frank to make your efforts worthwhile, however.
Go often and I bet that you will find that talking to customers is much easier and more fun than you expected. It was and remains one of my favorite parts of my job.
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Nice piece – I have several vendors who do what you’re suggesting VERY well – they care about the RELATIONSHIP more than the business – or thats how they present themselves. Makes me want to call them and use their services and products again and again. Helps build my TRUST in them, too.
Now for my favorite bartender: guess its Sam!
Have a great weekend!
Thanks Michele! And yes, the integrity in showing that you care about the relationship does build trust and ultimately brings more business in the long run. Another good reason to keep talking to customers!
I was a bartender! Had a lot of bar flies. They just wanted someone to listen to them.
Really a good analogy. Listening is a forgotten skill. I took a listening class about 17 years ago. Really terrific. And I’ve offered a listening class. Maybe I should do it again? or maybe, you’d like to do it with me?
My favorite TV Bartender? How’s about Issac Washington on The Love Boat.
Thanks Giulietta! A listening class is an intriguing idea.
I adored Isaac Washington – he seemed to have endless patience, the kindest heart, and an answer for everyone.
What a great idea. The fear you describe perfectly explains my boss, who hates talking to customers after he’s made the sale. He’s overly proud of the business and his product, which is getting a little dated. When I show up on site to deliver our services, they talk about how he can be a little prickly. I guess he makes a pretty good pitch, though.
Of course, since I’m on site, I’m always in touch with the customer, and at many levels of their hierarchy. I do my best to give feedback to my boss, but it tends to go poorly. When I’ve witnessed him with clients, I’ve seen him get riled up if they make suggestions.
Any thought’s on how to help him accept feedback?
From your boss’s behavior, it does sound like he takes the feedback personally. Try talking about product improvements as a route to business growth (rather than current version deficiencies). If you suggest that your company may be leaving money on the table or has an opportunity to increase its revenue per customer, you may be able to get his attention. Rather than mentioning the improvements as fixes, couch them in terms of a new version upgrade.
A new version has the benefit of providing a newsworthy opportunity to touch base with all your clients (past, present, and prospects), so there is great marketing value there too.
As for getting him to accept customer feedback directly, is there anyway for you to show that the customers who give feedback are more profitable than those who don’t? Feedback is usually an indicator of a more engaged customer who is saying something because they wants the product to work for them. This could be a tricky analysis, but if you can swing even a small sample, it makes a strong case for listening.
Lastly, maybe you should be going on the sales calls to field those comments!
I hope that helps.
This is a great take on how you can effectively approach customers. Just being out in the market and selling foodservice a lot this week I am fondly remembering my days in restaurants. Being able to strike up a conversation with someone about food is made that much easier by having a restaurant
background. This is a great tip for sales and marketing personnel!
Food is a great conversation starter. Just about any common point will do though, even the weather as trite as that may seem.