Five Customer Service Tips for your Retail Sales Associates

Customer service: A saving grace where all one’s grievances can be aired or a doomed hellscape where time has no meaning and problems go to die?

Depends on whom you ask.

The way your customers answer the above question can absolutely—and we don’t use this cliché lightly—make or break your business. A reported two-thirds of customers are one disastrous phone call or one ill-conceived email away from quitting your product or service for good. And yet the same two thirds, if they enjoy your personal spin on everyday economic interaction, are likely to stick by your side through thick and thin…even if you charge more money than your competitors.

Given these extreme numbers, it’s your job to nip customer culture clash in the bud by training your sales associate team in thorough, kind and considerate troubleshooting techniques.

Not sure where to start? Never fear. We’ve got this.

Here are five essential tips for maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships between your customers and your representatives.

Let’s begin with the basics. (From here on in, we’ll address your sales associates directly…)

Tip 1: Bring Humanity Back

It’s an absurdly obvious concept, but it bears repeating: We’re all human beings and we all share the common experiences of living, breathing, working, relaxing, eating, sleeping, suffering and rejoicing on this planet we call Earth.

Don’t ever forget it.

As a frontline communicator for a company, you need to activate your people skills in the same way you would if you were dealing with any fellow human, be it a local barista, favorite work colleague or cherished friend. Keeping this in mind, you should always make sure your customer feels respected and heard ( advises taking a page out of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People by listening intently to show that you’re “invested” in your customers’ continued satisfaction). You should likewise remember to speak like a human and avoid responses that sound overly rehearsed or routine (instant template email replies, for example, look suspicious and can put customers immediately on their guard). Oh, and don’t be afraid to engage a little; if the customer mentions their child has a soccer game that afternoon, it’s good policy to say you hope she does well or to ask what position she plays. Odds are small exchanges like this will telegraph to the customer that you’re on their side, that you acknowledge their feelings and that you have a personal interest in addressing their complaints.

Similarly, experts agree that using a customer’s name when speaking (or writing) to them goes a long way toward restoring a sense of authenticity and genuine connection. But tread carefully. If you’re on the phone with a customer who happens to have a uniquely beautiful name and you’re unsure about the pronunciation, just ask. It’s a simple gesture, but it won’t go unnoticed. In addition, it’s best not to make assumptions about titles such as “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” “ma’am” or “sir” unless you’re 100% sure about the customer’s marital status, gender identity, and preferred pronouns. Again, if you’re uncertain, ask. When in doubt, use neutral terms like “you” and “they” or simply revert back to names.

Tip 2: Keep Things Positive

“You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”

“Service is best with a smile.”

“Always say, ‘please.’”

The list of platitudes about niceness and positivity is endless. And with good reason. No one likes to interact with a person—or an organization—that leaves a bad taste in its wake. So when it comes to talking with customers, keep things as upbeat as possible. As international helpdesk software company Help Scout advises: “Positive language keeps the conversation moving forward and prevents accidental conflicts due to miscommunication.” And hey, let’s face it: The world is just a brighter place when we’re kind to one another.

It’s crucial to strike the right balance, however. Be sure not to diminish your customer’s negative feelings in an attempt to remain cheery. That said, you shouldn’t be a total downer, either. Try sympathizing with your customer’s plight while simultaneously focusing on the good. Don’t dwell on the solutions you can’t quite provide or the services that are unavailable. Instead, take the reins and steer the talk toward something more optimistic, if not downright better. Here’s an example:

Customer (we’ll call him “Danny”): I’m annoyed your software won’t do something I want.

Sales Associate: Yeah, I’m with you, Danny. That service would be super helpful, and it’s definitely something we’re looking into. Meantime, can I offer you a $10 credit for any inconveniences this issue may have caused over the past week?

Danny: Gee…thanks!


Tip 3: Exercise Due Process

You’ve definitely been a customer at some point in your life, so you’re most likely already familiar with the concept we’ll refer to as the “My Colleague Was Misinformed” Conundrum. You know the drill. You spend precious time explaining your problem to a sales associate, only to have them tell you your issue will be solved instantly as soon as they transfer you to the appropriate department. But, once you’ve been transferred, the new associate tells you the first associate was incorrect, that your problem is simply too big and that you may have to settle for a replacement product or a refund.

Cue the immense desire to scream and throw any breakable items within reach.

From the consumer side of things, there’s nothing more maddening than receiving mixed messages from a support team. Your company may be sizeable and you may oversee several different departments, but that’s no real excuse for having policies that vary according to the day or to the person handling the situation. Avoid this pitfall by insisting your departments talk to each other before they talk to anyone else. Get your entire staff on the same wavelength before any troubleshooting begins and make sure you have a workflow procedure that will dictate which departments should tackle which issues and when. Finally, do everything in your power to streamline processes so customers don’t have to repeat themselves with each new email or phone conversation.  

A parting metaphor: Don’t let your customers get bogged down in bureaucratic red tape. Move them swiftly through the business courts with your own brand of due process.

Tip 4: Open the Lines of Communication

If there were a 1-10 scale of customer service frustration, not having a crisis resolved would probably score a perfect 10. And…well…duh. The resolution should always be the endgame of any sales-associate-to-customer interaction. But what would come in at number nine?

Our money is on being left in the dark.

Only marginally less infuriating than not getting the results you want is not being given any information as to why. You may hesitate to explain the inner workings of your troubleshooting to your customer, you may think transparency makes your business appear wimpy or disorganized, but you’d be selling yourself short in the long run if you do. In fact, strategists counsel an open communications strategy when dealing with customers. “Brands tend to keep their [less-than-flattering] bits are hidden because it can feel like those weaknesses will make them seem less legit,” The Muse contributor Alex Honeysett notes. And yet, she says, “Sharing the hard times and how you overcame them is actually what will help your clients get to know you, connect with you, and ultimately, cheer you on.”

So next time there’s a glitch, a screw-up or a situation in which you suspect the ultimate solution may take a while, let your customers in on the state of affairs. Take responsibility for what’s gone wrong and provide a step-by-step account of what you plan to do to help and how you plan to do it. If you have to take a break from talking or emailing your customer to get things rolling on your end, be sure to circle back and provide updates on the case. The customer is likely to be less perturbed by the amount of time it takes you to fix the problem if they’re given some insight into why it’s taking so long. A polite, protracted exchange may inspire customers to stay with your company longer than they would if you brushed them off or constantly kept them guessing.

And one final Shakespearean tip…

Tip 5: Work with More Matter and Less Art

When in doubt, take a cue from the Bard and let brevity be the soul of your customer service wit. That is to say: Keep things short and sweet whenever possible. Be as clear as you can, but don’t fall into the trap of babbling over the phone or running on via email. The more long-winded you are, the less inclined your customers will be to listen to, read or even understand what it is you’re trying to say. Don’t veer too far off topic (for example: if the conversation turns to canines, it’s great if you want to mention you have the same kind of dog as your customer, but less great if you ramble on for days about his feeding and walking habits), and try to stay clear of extended explanations that might confuse your customer or make them think you have something to hide.

There’s a lot more to learn in the days to come, and there may be some things you’ll have to intuit through trial and error, but we hope this mini-lesson will give you a solid foundation as you venture out into the unknown territory of customer complaints. If you simply hold onto what makes you human, though, the journey will probably be worth it—for you, for your customer and for your entire enterprise.

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