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April 3, 2019

BY: Amy Castro

Getting to know customers on a personal level is one great advantage that small businesses have over large corporations. However, many retailers miss out on relationship-building opportunities because they don’t know how to get to know their customers better. It’s not enough to just greet a customer and say, “Let me know if I can help you with anything.” With so many competitors out there, you have to take the time and put in the effort to learn who your customers are, what they want and how you can give it to them.

Open the door to a conversation

Building relationships starts with building rapport, but you have to go slowly. Just like someone who shares too much information on a first date and sends the other person running for the nearest exit, you don’t want to bombard customers with questions and product suggestions too quickly.

Start with, “How can I help you today?” rather than asking, “Can I help you find something?” The first question is an open one—it invites more detail. The second question requires just a yes or no answer. If customers don’t know you, they’ll likely say, “No.”

If asking how you can help results in a specific response such as, “My dog is having issues with dry skin,” then the customer has agreed to engage with you. If the customer says, “I’m just looking,” they simply might not be ready to walk through it yet. Simply say, “Great! We have a lot of products to look at, including these new items we just got in,” then point out the products and let him or her browse.

If you see a customer linger in front of something or pick it up, try to start the conversation again. Just don’t overdo it. Customers don’t want to feel like you’re watching their every move.

Ask questions, then listen to responses

The simplest way to learn what your customers’ want is to ask. Whether the questions are delivered via intake forms or face-to-face conversations, many business owners say asking great questions is the best way to get to know your customers, their pets and everyone’s needs. Additionally, gathering the right information about your customers will allow you to create a customer profile for your business. Knowing who your ideal customer is, what he or she buys and why can positively impact every aspect of your business.

Julie Paez, owner of The Big Bad Woof, a small, independent pet supply store in Washington, DC, says, “The number one thing is to talk to them and ask questions. When a customer is having issues with their pet, we try to problem-solve with relevant questions to identify what’s going on so we can match them with an appropriate food or product to help.”

“I honestly believe most people have lost the ability to just listen without constantly interjecting,” said Deborah Dempsey, owner of Mouthfuls Pet Supply in Denver. “We pride ourselves on listening to our customers. We ask a lot of questions and as our customers answer those questions, we find ourselves better able to solve their problems, which equates to sales. When we’re successful in solving or bettering their problems, they excitedly come into the shop and give us feedback.”

Jeff Jensen, co-owner of Four Muddy Paws, a family-owned healthy pet market and dog wash with locations in St. Louis and Edwardsville, Illinois, says, “We train staff to ask good questions about what they’re currently feeding, health concerns, size of pet, age of pet, activity, etc., and from there we can zero in on the issue and present them with a variety of options.”

Survey customers for honest feedback

Sometimes the best way to get honest feedback about your services or products is through a survey. Customers often won’t share their problems or concerns in a face-to-face conversation like they will in an anonymous survey. Additionally, a well-crafted survey can really help you understand what your customers are thinking and how they feel about your products and services.

Jensen said a survey he conducted a few years ago gave him valuable information to improve his business and services.

“The information was very helpful in the stores,” Jensen explained. “It highlighted opportunities we were missing and we made valuable changes based on the results.”

Communicate electronically to stay ‘front of mind’

Whether it is via email communication, a Facebook group, your Facebook business page, YouTube videos, Instagram or all of the above, keeping in touch with customers when they’re not in the store is another great way to keep learning more about them.

“I do a regular newsletter to get information out to customers and I get good feedback about my customers from the newsletters,” Jensen noted. “We also create YouTube training videos about things like food and nutrition, and our customers respond with questions that help us get to know more about what they’re interested in.”

Educational events give you immediate feedback

Hosting seminars on pet health, nutrition or grooming is a great way to share information with your customers and get timely information from them about their needs. Paying close attention to the questions they ask and the concerns they raise is key.

Jensen hosts occasional seminars at his stores with good results. “It allows us to learn more about what customers are looking for when it comes to their pet food and how they’re feeding it.”

Paez said her store hosts product demonstrations at least two to three times a month. “People come in with a lot of questions and we have the answers. It’s a great chance to get to know their concerns and interests.”

Take advantage of POS technology

To many retailers, their point-of-sale system is just a glorified cash register. However, every time a customer buys a product or service, your POS system is picking up valuable information you could be using to better meet your customers’ needs and improve your bottom line. For example, inventory reports can let you know what your best-selling products are, what’s not selling and what’s being returned most often.

With this information, you can start investigating the “why?” and take advantage of this key information about what your customers want and don’t want. Additionally, the information the system captures about your customers’ purchase history could allow you to offer personalized product recommendations and coupons that keep them coming back for the things they love.

Capturing customers’ email addresses allows you to send special offers, invite them to events, offer customized advice regarding the use of the products they’ve purchased and recommend new products that would benefit their pet.

“Our POS system is very robust,” Paez concluded. “If a customer wants to change food, we look up what they’ve purchased in the past, find out why they want to change and then we’re able to recommend another product for them.”

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