The Hell Zone: Getting Ahead of a Customer’s “No, I’m Just Looking”

Bob PhibbsBy Bob Phibbs

Were you ever picked by a teacher to come up in front of class when you weren’t prepared to speak?

It felt like hell, I bet.

There’s an area of your retail store potential customers will avoid; it is the first eight feet after your doors. Some call it the decompression zone, some call it the threshold area—it should be called The Hell Zone.

The Hell Zone because customers don’t want to go there. They might remember a past experience where an aggressive employee pounced on them wanting to shake their hand. Or they might remember another employee asking them a question, when all they wanted to do was get their bearings. They had to blurt out a No just to get rid of the pesky employee.

It’s hell because employees don’t want to go there either. They’ve asked strangers in their most helpful way, “Can I help you?” and those darn customers always answer “No!” or “No, I’m just looking!” After weeks of this rejection, your employee gives up trying, says nothing, and retreats to the counter to text a friend.

Because customers answer these greetings over and over with a negative, employees feel dehumanized. That negativity and lack of connection also opens the door to rudeness. Customers turn their back and walk away; they talk on the phone at the register; they haggle over prices or make unrealistic demands.

It’s hell too because owners and managers see this happening time and time again but don’t know what to do to change it. Until now…

Use these steps to avoid, “No, I’m just looking.”

First, wait at least ten seconds and no more than fifteen to greet a shopper. This gives them time to settle. 15 seconds may sound like a really short amount of time, but it isn’t. Use a timer and walk through your store. In most cases you can reach the back of your store within 15 seconds. You will find that your sweet spot will be around ten seconds.

By greeting your customers within 10-15 seconds, you achieve several goals: It trains employees to always have their eyes up to see who’s coming in; it makes them wait and not pounce, and it helps provide a welcoming atmosphere. And as a bonus, it also helps prevent shoplifting.

During those 15 seconds, grab a prop. This has to be something large enough to be noticed by a customer like a book, a box, or a sample. This creates the appearance that the employee is interrupting something else to notice the customer, rather than swooping down on them like a hawk on a mouse.

Then with prop in hand and with at least ten seconds gone, start walking toward the customer at a 45-degree angle. This will allow you to give you greeting and then move past them without blocking them.

Greet them as you go by with “Good morning. Feel free to look around, and I’ll be right back” or simply say “Good morning.”

By not asking a question such as “How are you?” or “Can I help you find anything?” the customer is not obliged to have to respond at all, though many will with a simple “thank you.”

Most customers will appreciate having the time and space to look around. If they really need something, they’ll feel comfortable enough to stop the employee and ask them.

This technique of greeting-with-a prop-puts the customer at ease, gives the employee a reason not to linger, and dissolves The Hell Zone.

Let’s say you are an employee at an electronics store. As a customer walks in, you pick up a Bose headphones box and head towards them within 15 seconds. Approaching the customer at a 45° angle, you move past them with your prop, pausing to meet their eyes and say, “Good morning, feel free to look around, and I’ll be right back.” If you do this correctly and with the right intent, the customer always says “Thank you.”

Skeptical? Try it right now and you’ll be surprised. If they don’t thank you, consider that you may have approached at about a 90° angle which blocks their path, or you might have lingered too long when you said the comment, or you didn’t look them in the eyes.

Now you don’t need to do this when you are slammed on a busy Saturday afternoon or during the holidays, but for those times when no one else is in the store, it is perfect.

It lets the customer off the hook and lets them relax, gain their bearings, and look at all you have to offer.

Remove The Hell Zone by making your greeting more human, more timely, more engaging, and ultimately…more profitable.

Bob Phibbs is the CEO of The Retail Doctor, a New York consultancy. As a speaker, sales consultant and author of The Retail Doctor’s Guide to Growing Your Business, Bob has helped thousands of businesses since 1994. With over thirty years’ experience beginning in the trenches of retail and extending to senior management positions, his presentations are designed to provide practical information in a fun and memorable format. For more information on Bob, please visit www.RetailDoc.com.

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Wordsmith Peter DeHaan shares his passion for life and faith through words. Peter DeHaan’s website (www.peterdehaan.com) contains information and links to his blogs, newsletter, and social media pages. Peter DeHaan is the president of Peter DeHaan Publishing, Inc., (www.peterdehaanpublishing.com) the publisher and editor of Connections Magazine and AnswerStat, and editor of Article Weekly.