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Turn Difficult Pet Store Customers into Sales, Repeat Business


Years ago, when I taught retailers how to handle difficult customers, the focus was on dealing with people who were angry or upset. These days, difficult behavior comes in many forms, often with subtle differences. Therefore, retailers and team members should get to know the types of difficult customers and learn the best approaches to positively and proactively respond – not only to keep customers happy, but also to increase sales and earn repeat business.

The Internet Comparison Shopper

At first this customer may seem like they’re distracted from shopping and simply focused on a text message or email, but what they’re really doing is scanning barcodes and comparing your prices to local competitors, big-box stores and online retailers. Then, they’ll either walk out the door without a word or try to haggle with your team members to see if you’ll budge on price.

How to respond: First, try not to get upset and take it personally. Many of your customers don’t see this behavior as being disloyal. They don’t know how hard you work to keep an independent, brick-and-mortar business open and they have no idea how much you care about providing the best products and services for them. They’re simply looking out for themselves and their wallets like we probably do when we’re shopping. If you see this happen and the customer is about to leave, just ask what you can help them find today and see where the conversation goes. Be sure to ask, “What can I help you find?” and not “Can I help you?” Open questions require a more detailed answer, and are more likely to result in them sharing what they’re looking for and why they’re not buying from you. If the conversation turns to the fact that the customer can get the item cheaper elsewhere, the best thing to do is focus on the benefits of buying from you . . . right now. It might be having one of your expert staff demonstrate how a product works or stressing how much fun their pet will have starting today rather than waiting several days for that new toy to arrive. By staying up to date on what competitors are offering online, you can also sometimes correct their misconceptions. For example, when comparing prices, have they considered the cost of delivery or the fact that the less-expensive food online is a smaller bag than what you carry? Finally, mentioning your frequent-buyer or loyalty program, BOGO specials you might be running or your return policies and warranties might encourage people to buy from you now for instant gratification and long-term satisfaction.

The Equivocating Evaluator

This customer will be a customer someday… eventually… maybe… if they could just come to a decision. At first glance, this person could simply be a window shopper who never intended to buy. We know some people just like to look to kill time. Others may just be struggling to make a decision. Sometimes they’ll let you know verbally by directly asking for help, which makes things a bit easier. However, many times you’ll have to be alert to the look on their faces or their comments made to no one in particular, like, “Wow, I never knew there were so many types of kitten food,” which is basically the same as asking, “Can you help me find the right food for my kitten?”

How to respond: Being too pushy can send window shoppers and equivocators running for the nearest exit. Start by greeting them, mentioning specials you’re running and ask how you can help. If they say they’re just looking, leave the door open for them to let you know if they have questions. If they start telling you what they’re looking for, make life as easy as possible by helping them narrow down the options. For this customer, closed questions are your best friend. They require a yes or no answer, a number or a characteristic. For example, if someone is shopping for kitten food, asking the kitten’s age, what brand he or she is currently eating, whether they’re looking for dry, canned, freeze dried, etc., can likely help you narrow down the choices to two or three top products. Sharing your knowledge and expertise can be a great help with these customers too. An equivocator who hears a particular food is your top seller, the one your store’s owner feeds to his kitten or that it received top-notch reviews on a reputable food-rating site will be supported in making a decision with this information. This is also a good time to share key information about your return policy, so these customers realize they have an “out” if something doesn’t work out.

The Time-Consuming Talkaholic

Sometimes, talkative customers can be fun to have around. They’re usually pleasant and they’re interested in new products your store has to offer. Sometimes these customers just love the sound of their own voices, other times they might just be lonely and you could be the only person they’re going to interact with that day. However, when things are busy, it can be difficult to balance being polite with extricating yourself from a conversation that isn’t going somewhere productive.

How to respond: When you don’t have time to talk, or when you see another customer is trying to get your attention, it’s okay to cut the conversation short… politely. A subtle way to shorten a conversation is to stay “poised” at what you’re doing. For example, if you were in the process of restocking a shelf, don’t stop what you’re doing completely. Keep a product in your hand, “poised” to put it on the shelf. Of course, if you happened to be stocking 40lb bags of dog food, you don’t want to stand there with two in your arms, but you can still stand with your lower body facing the shelf and your upper body facing the customer. This body language indicates partial attention to the customer, but also that you plan to get back to doing what you were doing previously. Another way to shorten a conversation is to just be honest. You might say, “Excuse me, I hate to interrupt you, but I see that another customer needs me,” and then start making your move away. If there is no other customer, you can take steps to shorten a conversation by summing it up or asking closed questions like, “Can I help you with anything else today?”

The Entitled Egomaniac

These are the people who are quick to tell you how much money they have, how much money they spend at your business and how quickly they’ll leave you if they don’t get their way. Whether their threats to leave are real or not, entitled customers are probably the ones that get team members boiling the quickest. The root of this behavior is success, meaning, they behave this way and say the things they do because it has worked for them in the past. They know what buttons to push to get what they want and they’re not afraid to press them, repeatedly.

How to respond: If the entitled shopper wants to feel special, sometimes it’s just easiest to give them what they want and make them feel special. Call them by name. Thank them for their business, patience and understanding. Let them know they’re your top priority. If what they’re asking is within your power, give it to them. However, realize that if you do it once, they’re likely to ask for it again. Finally, don’t let you or your team members get into “teach them a lesson” mode. Trying to change the entitle person’s behavior by denying them service or telling them “no” in an attempt to change their behavior isn’t going to work and you’re wasting your time. That being said, when you do decide to draw the line with entitled customers, it’s important that you make this decision thoughtfully, because when you do, you’re going to need to stick to it.

The Know-It-All Expert

These customers have done their homework and feel they know more about what their pets need than you do. Sometimes they truly have a lot of experience, for example, they might be a breeder or have been a groomer. They’ll take any opportunity to correct what you’re saying, even if you’re not talking with them, but to another customer. Sometimes they’ve just done a lot of research online and by the time they make it to your store, they know what they want or have at least narrowed down their options.

How to respond: Listen well to what they’re saying and try not to correct them unless their information is dangerously wrong. Putting them in a position to feel insecure or embarrassed will likely stress them out and make them leave. If they’re convinced a particular food is the best for their dog and it’s one of your top foods, this isn’t the person to try to sell another product. However, if their information is flat out wrong, and you do need to correct them, acknowledge what they said first. You might say, “You’re right, that was the philosophy for many years. In fact, I just read a research article the other day that said…” then you can share the latest info. Flattery also goes a long way with expert shoppers as long as it’s sincere. If customers really do know a lot about dog nutrition, compliment them on their knowledge. You’ll get a lot more cooperation from people who think you respect them than from those who believe you’re competing with them.

Following these tips won’t make difficult customers disappear or miraculously transform them into your easiest customers. However, having a plan for responding to their behavior helps reduce the stress of difficult encounters for you and your team. Finally, being consistent in your response to difficult behavior helps customers realize the boundaries you’ve drawn for dealing with “bad” behavior and will often result in them changing or minimizing the difficult behavior

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