At Your Service: Avoid These Customer Etiquette Mistakes

Glenn Polyn//March 1, 2022//

Photo of confused young lady standing in supermarket shop near cashier's desk. Looking aside.

At Your Service: Avoid These Customer Etiquette Mistakes

Glenn Polyn //March 1, 2022//

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Some might believe that in 2022 there’s no need for etiquette in the world, as the need for civility and professionalism is greater than ever. That’s why one of the programs I’ll be presenting at Global Pet Expo on March 23 is “Creating a Great First Impression with Effective Business Etiquette.”  

I don’t want to give away all my tips and techniques because I want to see you at my session, but I thought I’d give you a sneak peek into some of the things you’ll learn that day.  

First and foremost, I always remind people that etiquette is not about being stuffy or overly formal. Etiquette is simply a set of generally accepted ways of behaving when you go out in the world and interact with other humans. For argument’s sake, I want to focus these behavior “rules” on how we should behave and interact with customers as working professionals. I also like to remind people that your customers aren’t just the folks that you check out at the register. Customers include your coworkers, suppliers, service professionals and others you interact with in the capacity of your job. Therefore, we should apply these guidelines to all our customers.  

Acknowledge people when you see them 

Whether it’s a customer or supplier walking through the door or your coworker coming in for the day, let them know that you know they’re there and that you care. This could mean simply telling a coworker, “Good morning,” or greeting a customer by asking if there’s something specific you can help them find. This is especially important if you’re on the telephone and a person approaches you in person. You don’t necessarily need to rush to hang up your call if it’s important, but you do need to acknowledge the person standing in front of you, so they know that you know they’re there. I always believe the person in front of you is the most important one. Therefore, if the call is taking too long, you might consider putting the caller on hold or offering to call them back when you’ve helped the customer in the store.  

Use common courtesies 

One of the first things parents teach their children after “momma” or “dada” is usually “please” and “thank you.” However, somewhere along the way as we grow up, we start to think we can just imply appreciation by saying something with a pleasant tone. Don’t make that assumption. A please, thank you, or excuse me is always appreciated and appropriate. In Texas where I live, a common courtesy is to use “sir” or “ma’am.” However, we’ve probably all been in situations either in-person or on the phone, when someone selected the wrong pronoun to address someone and it often results in someone being upset. I find a great way to get around this faux pas is to refer to groups of people as folks to, whenever possible, try to avoid personal pronouns. When addressing an individual, I’ll say, “Hello! I’m Amy. How can I help you today?” I can continue the conversation addressing the person as “you,” without addressing the person’s gender. You might also consider asking the person their name. That way, if you have to refer the person to another employee, you can say, “Ted is looking for . . .” If you’re worried about customers who prefer to be referred to by their last names, such as Mr. Davis, when you ask the person’s name, they’ll usually respond with what they prefer to be called.  

Humans are your No. 1 priority 

It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, if a person approaches you, you need to stop and give them your undivided attention. The only exception would be if you’re handling an animal and it would be unsafe or the animal could escape if you diverted your attention. If you’re stocking a shelf, stop doing what you’re doing and help the customer. If the person asking for help happens to be a coworker, you have a little more latitude to ask that person to wait until you finish, but only after you assess whether their need takes priority over what you’re doing. Finally, one thing I’ve observed in several retail settings is that employees often get distracted by the animals in the store, especially when a customer comes in with a super-cute puppy or there are lots of animals in your store for a special adoption event. It’s fine for employees to interact with these pets and ooh and aah over them as long as they’re constantly on alert for customers who might need their help. The same goes for being busy in the back of the store when there could be customers waiting up front at the register. Employees need to be aware that stocking and accepting deliveries are important, but someone needs to be watching the front to ensure customers aren’t standing there waiting.  

Don’t forget telephone etiquette 

In an age of text messaging and online chats, you may find that many of your employees are not only unskilled, but also uncomfortable speaking on the phone. Be sure to spend some time training your staff in proper telephone etiquette. For example, many of your customers’ first impression of your business will come from calling on the phone. A great way to teach your employees to answer the phone is to have them use a greeting, introduce themselves, identify the name of your business and then say, “How may I help you?”  

It sounds like a long greeting, but it really isn’t. It’s complete and opens the door for the customer to immediately share their needs. Putting people on hold is another important skill to learn. 

There’s only two ways to put someone on hold. One way is to simply say, “Please hold,” and then put the person on hold. The more polite way is to ask if the customer can hold and wait for a response. However, if you choose this latter method, you’ll need to be prepared to address customers when they say, “No, I can’t hold.” If that happens, you’ll either need to prioritize them and help them, or take a message and call them back. Finally, be sure employees know the importance of answering the phone quickly. If a customer is calling and the phone rings more than a few times, they’re likely to hang up and call your competitor. I’d rather my employees let the phone ring than answer the phone with food in their mouths or midway through laughing at a coworker’s funny comment. It’s better to let the phone ring two to three times to compose yourself than to answer quickly, yet unprofessionally.  

Although there’s more to retail etiquette than this, working with your staff on etiquette basics and making etiquette a priority is key to creating a positive and professional image of your business and your team. 


Amy P. Castro, MA, is a business, leadership and communication expert, author and speaker who helps organizations develop leaders and build amazing teams one person at a time. She works with pet industry professionals who want to grow their loyal customer base by building a “Best in Show” team that can deliver a 5-Star Customer Experience. Amy is also the president of Starlight Outreach and Rescue, a nonprofit rescue in the Houston, Texas, area, and she has personally fostered more than 1,000 shelter pets.