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.