It's OK Not to Know the Answers
By Ian Baldwin
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SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
Ah spring; the daffodils, the greening lawns, the plum blossom. And of course there is also the Bobcat that now won’t start, new truck drivers who don’t know your “before 10am” policy, the phones that didn’t re-charge overnight and the customers: oh yes, “them”!
Every year (like an ice-storm in Atlanta), spring seems to arrive as if it was a surprise to many. Garden retailers take in more on the first busy Friday than in the previous 4 weeks. By 11am on Saturday, you have already beaten the sales for the entire month of January. Yet employees are unprepared for the stress, hired and thrown in the deep-end (or allowed to continue set-up “task” jobs even as the parking lot is bulging). The next ten weeks should pay a year’s bills; this is intense stuff and not for the fainthearted! Nor for the shy or the task-obsessed; the next few weeks are about people, specifically, customers.
After many years of walking retail garden businesses I am still amazed how easy it is to be ignored by the people on payroll that day. I don’t mean to suggest these people are lazy or disinterested; they are often busy, even overwhelmed, with a task list from their leaders, but somewhere in the training, orientation and mentoring, a crucial behavior becomes lost.
So even with all the caveats about hiring earlier, selecting for character and training for knowledge and so on, here’s the Baldwin spring mantra for the next few weeks:
It’s OK not to know
but it’s not OK to avoid customers because you may not know…
So, look up, catch eye contact, smile, welcome your wages coming your way. Engage with a non-invasive “Good morning! Sunshine (or warmth/cloud/rain) at last(!)”, and then pause to ‘read’ the customer’s response. That’s all it takes, literally!
Been there, done that
I have been there. At 18 I remember lifting, carrying and digging my way through spring, keeping my head down and my eyes on the job, praying that customers would not approach me and ask me a question I was sure I would not be able to answer. “The boss knows everything, ask him,” I thought. “This is my first spring, how would I know when to plant sweet peas? I am just filling the tables with them; please, oh please don’t walk over here…”
Obviously, the more product knowledge and experience they have, the more confident the retail employee will be and the greater chance the customer has of being engaged by a smiling face, instead of looking at busy people with their heads-down. But retail is theater and is all about self-confidence. If you don’t like that moment on “thin ice,” don’t volunteer to go on-stage.
No one knows everything and never will. This industry and its products are evolving so quickly even the veterans have a hard time keeping up to date with PK (Product Knowledge). But employees in garden retail cannot let their own lack of knowledge govern their behavior towards paying customers, who don’t know or care if the employee has been there two days or twenty years. Anyone in uniform is fair game.
If this frightens you, retailing may not be a good fit for you. If it encourages you, congratulations and welcome to a great industry! The day will be much more fun and the customers much happier if you look “open for business.” Spending your time avoiding customers’ eyes can add up to a long long day!
So for now, I wish you a “heads up and happy spring!”
Stay tuned here at Ian’s Bits & Bobs for the next installment: Anticipating the Customer’s Questions.
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Get to know Ian Baldwin
Ian and his wife, Lisa, have assisted hundreds of independent garden centers, nurseries and home goods retailers in a wide range of topics ranging from developing a profitability model to sales team building, from product marketing feasibility to retail design and merchandising.
For more on Ian Baldwin, Click Here.