by Jeff MacDowell

One thing that always grabs my attention when shopping in a retail environment is when an employee makes eye contact and delivers an authentic message about how he or she can help. No amount of education, or training from an HR department, can teach someone the intrinsic nature of a genuine smile and a willingness to serve.

Whether a person’s kindness is due to good parenting, DNA or some other factor, it is the key to a successful customer service strategy. Take a look at your life habits and behavior. When was the last time you went out of the way to do or say something nice to someone?

In a world where we wake up daily to news stories often starting with “reported gunman,” it seems that the need for kindness is at an all-time high. Social media is polarizing and loaded with click-bait-level garbage. Every news site claims people are “outraged” — when in actuality one person is outraged and nobody else gives a crap. OK, enough ranting.

So how do you deliver kindness? How do you market kindness? Great questions. If you are lucky to have employees who have emotional intelligence and try to anticipate others’ needs, you have the winning formula. 

The most exceptional qualities I see in the best showrooms are kindness and the ability to build trust through competence in operations and knowledge. It is simple — but not easy — to deliver an experience that makes your customers always feel welcome, wanted and appreciated. It is far more challenging to make sure your systems, policies and procedures speak that same language. 

Trust is established when the customer feels welcome in the showroom, a topic we will discuss in future columns. You can gain trust when you close the sale, but if you don’t start — and finish — with kindness, you’ll never have the opportunity to establish trust.

Making a customer feel welcome is as simple as a sincere greeting with eye contact from a person undistracted by a workstation or cell phone in hand. Beginning with a few innocuous questions such as “Is this your first time here?” and “What project brings you in today?” helps create a carefully crafted journey that extends through a customer’s visit.

In this column, I am only bringing you through the first steps of a welcome. Offering customers a tour, along with a beverage, will also help them feel comfortable quickly. The key is to ensure customers feel your approach to them is sincere — not canned or sound as if it is an inconvenience. How many times have you noticed someone in retail who seems inconvenienced by helping you? And when that happens, how quickly do you exit the store? 

I’ve always tried to share real-life examples with my team of “things you shouldn’t do” in retail, and I’d suggest you do the same when you observe customers receiving a less-than-great retail experience. You may even want to have someone visit your competition to see what level of service they provide.

Handwritten Notes

On the topic of kindness, I am often asked what type of marketing works best. If you are looking for a low-cost, high-impact marketing strategy, I would start with some paper and a pen. Think about this — when you grab your mail at home, do you ever open the “pre-approved for a new credit card” snail mail? Or do you open the hand-written envelope out of the sheer disbelief that someone took the time to write you a letter?

Admittedly, I need to do this more and start with freshening up my handwriting skills. As with all things, practice and discipline work. Consider setting aside 10 minutes each day before lunch to write short but sincere notes of thanks to someone who provided exceptional service or to a customer for their business. 

Business owners, imagine your employees’ reactions if they opened a note from you at home wishing them a happy birthday or thanking them for a random act of kindness you witnessed. Using those 10 minutes a day can make a big difference!

About 80 percent of all email is junk. Sending a message that way is certainly not as impactful as the old-fashioned way.

I know I shouldn’t have to mention this, but a handwritten envelope — rather than one with a printed label — is key, along with using regular stamps instead of a metered machine. You want the mail to look like someone took the time to send it. Envelopes with metered postage and printed adhesive address labels just won’t get opened. Or if they do, they’ll be opened along with the rest of the junk mail and tossed in the trash.

Handwritten letters deliver kindness. They show that you gave of your time and care about your customers and employees. 

Natural kindness should be a trait you look for when prospecting for employees. While questions about talent, skill and enthusiasm are great, I also would ask questions such as, “When was the last time you did something nice for someone?” and “Describe a time when someone’s kindness impacted your life.” These types of questions are vital to finding retail-centric people.

I hope this column will lead you down a path of kindness in your daily operations. Ultimately, I hope you’ll see a measurable difference in you and your team’s ability to achieve the next level of trust with customers by exhibiting kindness.