What do you say after you say ‘hello’?

Book"selling" is really about opening the conversation.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: “A customer walks into a bookstore ... and leaves empty-handed.”

When you consider that exceptional customer service is one of the few competitive advantages that an indie bookstore can rightfully claim, it's mind-boggling to see just how often booksellers fail to initiate a conversation with customers, or worse yet, ignore them completely. While we may just want to browse around, it is nice to have a friendly soul offer a warm greeting. Isn't it one of the things we expect when we shop at a small business?

There are any number of reasons front-line staff may not be so comfortable opening the conversation:

  • they are avid readers and passionate about books, but socially awkward
  • they are engaged in another task and feel the need to complete it without interruption
  • they are absorbed with technology
  • they don't want to appear to be intrusive or overbearing
  • they're too busy talking with one another behind the cash wrap

The truth is that it is a bookseller's number-one responsibility to engage customers in a positive and meaningful way, which may be easier said than done. However, with a bit of training and direction, or leadership by example, booksellers can actually engage customers and inspire a sale. Let's look more closely at how this can be accomplished.

Before a single word is spoken, you'll need to make direct eye contact, and make the customer feel welcome and appreciated with a smile – even if you’re in the midst of doing something else. If it's someone you know, what follows shouldn't be difficult at all. Simple statements like “Good to see you again” or questions like “How are you today?” work well as starting points.

But if the face is unfamiliar, your task is a bit more challenging, but not by much. You could say "Welcome to the bookstore. Please let me know if I can help you in any way.” But that places the burden on the customer, who will most likely not want to bother you. Another option might be to say “Welcome to the bookstore. We make every effort to get to know our customers, but you don’t look familiar. Is this your first time here?” Depending on how the customer replies, you now have the makings of a conversation that can allow you to learn more about how she or he found out about the store, and ultimately, his or her tastes, interests and needs.

It may not be readily apparent, but most people hunger for acknowledgement and sense of connectedness. You may be surrounded by books and believe that a book can sell itself, but the more you can focus on what customers experience when they walk in the door and the more you can engage their senses, the more likely it is that a sale will result. It all begins with a smile and ‘Hello’.