"Body language strategies for initial engagement with a customer on retail floor"The retail industry in the past decade has not only faced exponential growth but also tough competition from online stores. The personnel on the retail floor, serving as the “first line of interaction” in the retail industry, now need to have a lot more than just operational knowledge and product expertise to be able to stand out in the crowd. Customer experience has become not a luxury but a necessity. The level of the customer experience adds to the value not only of the store but also of the brand. For this, managers need to learn how to systematically coach behaviour of their staff that can lead to consistent customer experience.

My personal experience running a retail store has taught me that the most essential trick to capture, hold and enhance customer experience is to engage with the customers who walk into the store. Engagement need not be immediately at all times; as a salesman, you would need to be able to take a call as to when it made sense to initiate conversation with a customer, how to make sure she felt connected with your products, and finally make a purchase. Since there are different ways and timings of approaching a customer, retailers can use non verbal strategies to their advantage, not only while deciding when to engage, but also how to do so. Here I share some strategies I used personally during my stint in retail sales

1. Approach from the front: Since humans are descendants of the jungle, the ancestral part of our human brain has been hard wired to look out for enemies or hostiles. Any approach from the back is normally raises our survival antenna and we put up a defensive front. That is precisely why, to be an effective salesman, you must make it a point to approach the customer from the front, even if he is standing right in front of you with his back toward you. The customer might be engaged in internal dialogue about a product, in which case an unseen approach can badly backfire. Take a full circle if you must, but remember to greet or engage with a customer from the front.

2. Remove all barriers: It is all too easy to be seated in your usual spot behind the table and greet a customer when she walks into your store. The only catch is that it might not seem sincere to the person being greeted. If you want the customer to open up her wallet for you, it would be worth the effort to rise from your cosy nest as a respect for the customer. Remember to look into the eyes when you smile and greet. Tables also become unnecessary barriers during check out. While it may be necessary to have a partition between the customer line and goods being checked out, customers would feel more connected with the store if the personnel handling checkout would be standing rather than sitting. It would help, if she can see the sales person helping with the purchase, especially if there is a long checkout queue. An apology for the delay, while looking into the customer’s eyes can help prevent a last bad impression in the customer’s mind.

3. Mind your body when you engage: When you lock eye contact with a prospect, be wary of your body movements. You might be looking at her but your body might be oriented elsewhere, possibly because something else is distracting you. The previous customer engagement might not have been pleasant and is still on your mind when you are handling a new prospect. That is probably why you are flashing an annoyed facial expression without realizing it. Or you might be smiling but having closed body postures. The new customer need not be a master in reading body language to realize that you are not treating her with respect. Anything which suggests to her that you are not sincere in your engagement will make her cut off from you. It can also lead to an annoyed potential customer who walks out without a purchase.

4. Respect space: Every person can have her own requirement of a distance at which she is comfortable conversing with a stranger. If you see a customer take a step back when you approach, be respectful of her need for personal space. Try and maintain this distance, which is usually 4-5 feet. This personal space bubble will naturally decrease as your level of engagement with the customer increases. Intruding this space immediately can put off the customer without her even realizing it.

5. Observe eye movement of customer: As a salesman, you might be standing at a distance and waiting for the right moment to approach a prospect. Utilize this time to follow her eye movements when she is browsing the goods, without appearing too conspicuous. Any pause in her eye movement on a particular spot or retracing the path to stop on a specific area of the store can give you a peek into her thoughts. It would be easier to help if you can spot what attracts the customer rather than asking very vaguely how you can help her. You can directly lead her to the product that attracts her, in which case the customer would like the fact that you could read her thoughts.

6. Watch their feet: If you haven’t had the chance to engage with the customer while she was browsing the goods, make sure you follow the direction where her foot is pointing once she is anywhere near the exit. A foot pointing towards the exit, even while the customer herself is appearing engaged, is a sure telltale sign that she will be walking out any minute without any purchase. This would possibly be the last chance to approach her. Beware of the question “How can I help you”; it will most certainly be answered with “No, I will browse around myself”. You might want to start the conversation by offering some inputs on the product currently in the hands of the customer.

7. Reengaging the customer: Experienced sales people can read signals that a prospect has lost interest in making an immediate purchase. This does not mean all is lost. Though reengaging the prospect can be tricky, one way to do it is help open up her body language. You can do this by asking her to hold onto a product to examine or a basket to hold the goods she likes. Maintaining good eye contact is essential during this phase. You can involve her in conversation to understand her requirements in greater depth, giving her a chance to establish her dominance and reconnect with you and your store. Great care has to be exercised not to demonstrate any dominant behaviour yourself at this time. This would mean no arms on the hips, or crossed arms, or spread out feet or chin in the air.

Customer engagement is an essential step in enhancing customer experience. If, as a retailer, you learn to pay attention to this in greater detail, it can go a long way in not only increasing repeat footfalls, but also word of mouth publicity.

The author, Khyati Bhatt, is a body language consultant and advises retailers on non verbal strategies for floor personnel. Her website is www.simplybodytalk.com