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Retail sales people often ask walk-in traffic a service oriented question such as “may I help you?” In turn, many customers respond with “I’m just browsing thanks.” Is this an effective initial interaction?

It depends on what the prospect wants. If they are seeking immediate assistance, the “may I help you?” introduction is a sound one and will likely be fruitful. However, with a person who wants to look around before purchasing, a too direct query may put the customer on the defensive. While the intention of the salesperson to assist the individual is excellent, they likely want to first make a comment that will put individuals at ease, welcoming them to the storefront. People are more likely to buy when they feel relaxed, comfortable, and secure.

One approach to enhancing comfort is to first acknowledge the customers’s presence with a sincere greeting (“hello”, “good morning”). Then, give the person physical and psychological space to look around; anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. The time between saying “hello” and your next comment or question should be based on what you think the customer desires. Perhaps they want immediate assistance and ask for it. Or, they give off a browsing vibe and look around. Respecting their preferences you say “please make yourself at home and let me know when I can help you with something”.

You can usually spot the difference between an immediate buyer and someone who wants to first survey the store. The intentional customer will have a purposeful look and will hold your gaze longer. A browser will move more slowly and tend to avoid eye contact. The exploratory shopper is communicating ‘give me some space and a little time till I am ready to purchase’.

Make it a habit to greet customers with a friendly “hello”, while thinking to yourself ‘how may I best assist this individual?’ Tune in to them. Based on your assessment of customer needs decide if this person wants help right now or do they want to be acknowledged first and then given space to acclimatize.

From time to time, remind yourself that your job is to help people buy. Make it easy and natural for customers to move ahead. Tailor their purchasing experience to align with how they want to be treated and sold.

At a deeper level, the sales world is a metaphor for what happens in life. We buy in to who we need to be and what we are capable of accomplishing. Before subscribing to limiting beliefs or the height of obstacles in the way, take a moment to determine how best to move forward. May I help you?