Customer service • 09.05.2019

The customer is always right? Two customers might spell trouble!

How salespeople can handle customers who bring company along

Customers rarely shop alone. Most of them shop with family or friends. The other person might not always be in a good mood, patient or friendly. Can the salesperson simply ignore the other person in these instances? How should he or she handle this tricky situation?

Photo of a smiling man with glasses; copyright: Burkhard Treude...
Burkhard Treude, freelance sales trainer and consultant
Source: Burkhard Treude

We got the answers to these questions from Burkhard Treude, a self-employed business management consultant, sales trainer and expert in this field.

Mr. Treude, what makes the situation so unique when customers bring someone along on their shopping trip?

Conventional sales psychology always assumes the customer shops alone. Yet in reality – and for a long time, nobody has systematically approached this aspect – this is often not the case, which makes things more complex for salespeople. In a one-on-one situation, the salesperson can immediately spot how the customer responds and read body language signals. As soon as there are two or more people, the sales associate needs to divide his/her attention and the situation is getting more complicated, especially if the companion displays resistance.

What are typical customer service scenarios where salespeople should not ignore the customer’s companion, even though it first seems the easier thing to do?

You have the - stereotypical - bored husband, who accompanies his wife on her shopping trip but would rather stay home and watch sports. 

A woman is looking at clothes on a bar, a man sits angry with shopping bags in...
Source: PantherMedia/Wavebreakmedia ltd

Another stereotype is a defiant child or a pubescent teenager. There is a conflict of interest at work in these settings, a dilemma. It’s important to create a situation that is conducive to customer service. Otherwise, you risk losing the primary customer.

If the customer has a hearing impairment, the salesperson should also not just communicate with the accompanying person.

Another scenario is a migrant family of Arab origin where the mother might not speak German and stays in the background. But if you know who tends to make the decisions in this type of family, you also know that it is critical to make eye contact with the mother and obtain her approval and get buy-in.

You mentioned “resistance“. Can you give us a few examples?

One example is a couple with different tastes in furniture and design. The salesperson might end up favoring one side and lose the other and the sale in the process.

Two women looking at a dress in a shop, one enthusiastic, one sceptical;...
Source: PantherMedia.net/Arne Trautmann

Then you have the best friend phenomenon. The friend comes along on the shopping trip but finds fault with all the available options. There might also be some underlying competitiveness, envy or jealousy at play in this setting. The girlfriend might secretly not want her friend to attract more attention from others.

Quite often, a teenage daughter or son accompanies a parent to purchase consumer electronics. Oftentimes, the children know more than their parents in this case and tend to make their parents look bad instead of helping them or they try to outdo the salesperson with their knowledge.

How should a salesperson handle this tricky situation?

In this setting, it’s important to include the companion and create a vested interest in the result by making him or her an assistant consultant. If the salesperson asks, “What outfit looks best on your wife?”, the accompanying husband is no longer able to stab the salesperson in the back and work against him or her. The trick is to get everyone involved as equal partners and that takes experience.

You guide and train retailers. What lessons have you learned over the years? 

During the training sessions, people share situations that I was unfamiliar with and didn’t know about. It’s only when you hear about employee struggles that you realize the challenges that even successful salespeople face. This job requires you to make a connection with customers at lightning speed: You have to figure them out and ask about their tastes and lifestyle. Salespeople are expected to incorporate this information and use it in the sales conversation.

Would you advise retailers to role-play these types of companion scenarios to hone their staff’s skills?

That makes perfect sense. To consciously explore these situations can help you to handle a situation that might not be identical to the one you just practiced. Having learned some techniques to deal with certain situations can be a great stress buster.

It might also be helpful to approach these scenarios in a marketing setting together with retailers from other industry sectors. After all, customers exhibit the same behaviors, regardless of whether they shop for perfume or shoes: Apart from subtle nuances, the patterns are always the same. This knowledge makes things easier for employees because we often think that customers only behave this way in our industry sector. It can be quite refreshing and freeing to realize that this is actually not at all the case.

"The customer is always right”. What is your take on that? 

I believe the sales myth of “the customer is always right" is actually debilitating and counterproductive. The customer is not always right if he or she totally misbehaves. My take is that customers have the right to be treated as equals. However, if some of their behaviors are rude or cross the line, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask customers to leave your store. Mutual respect is a must in this unique relationship.

Interview: Katja Laska, iXtenso – Magazine for Retailers

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