Christian Retailing

Customer Engagement: Listen and learn Print Email
Written by Larry E. Haege   
Wednesday, 06 January 2016 02:48 PM America/New_York

5 ways to consult with customers to increase sales at your Christian retail store

iStock 000038009376 XXXLarge Steve DebenportWhen considering how to improve your store and increase traffic and sales, you may have wracked your brain, questioned your family and friends, and seriously prayed. In these times, we all have.

But what about asking for input from the people who know your store the best and pay your bills every month? Let’s look at ways God can help us best discover—from our customers—what keeps them coming in and what might bring them in more often. Consider these five methods of listening that have proven effective in Christian retail:

1. Interact directly with customers. One of the most effective methods of learning how your best customers feel about your store, your staff and your products is by interacting directly with your customers. Successful store owners and managers will often commit at least one day a week to be on the floor all day engaging with their customers. While they learn about their staff, their product presentation and their service, they learn the most from their customers. Customers readily share how they view the store and how well their expectations are met. They will share their thoughts and feelings about store pricing policies, product selection and the level of service in light of current opportunities. Often, if the store is considering adding or dropping product lines, adjusting staffing or store hours, this direct interaction can provide the most accurate and timely insight as to how customers will respond.

If you take the time to interact directly with customers, be intentional about it, be quick to listen to the feedback you receive and capture what customers tell you. Customers want to know they have been heard, and whatever decisions you make in the end, you can still validate them by recognizing their input, sending thank-you correspondence or perhaps even gift certificates. Sometimes it is more important for the customer to be heard than it is to see the requested change put into place.

2. Survey your customers. Using surveys is one of the most widely used methods of gathering empirical data from current and prospective customers. The questions are carefully thought out, and the responses are often simple, ranking answers for easy reporting. The survey’s open-ended questions give respondents the opportunity to share more in the areas where they have more to say.

Customers’ ranking of operational elements such as store location, hours and product selection as well as pricing, customer service and access to store services can provide great insight into how customers view your store. Comparing empirical data with customer comments will provide insight into customer responses. Whether or not the majority of customers responded in the same way, their comments will provide insight into their response as well as identify what changes they would like to see in your store.

When the same survey is used with multiple customer and prospect groups, comparing survey results can be very helpful. Often you can gain a better understanding of why certain people are good customers and others remain only prospects. With a careful review of the survey results, you can set a plan for converting the prospects to customers.

3. Make sales calls. Asking for the opportunity to provide a product or service can be one of the best ways to identify customer objections and set about overcoming them. It opens the door for your customer or prospect to speak directly to why they have not given you this opportunity before and what it will take for you to win their business. To truly hear your customer or prospect, it’s important to engage her at an opportune time for her and be prepared to overcome any possible objections she may have.

One of the best times to engage church customers is when responding to an expressed need or delivering products they ordered. This may be something as simple as delivering a box of Communion cups needed for Sunday services. Connecting with the right person, demonstrating your commitment to serve and providing an opportunity to discover what matters most to church leadership can all flow out of this simple act. It is important to learn about the congregation through its website or other means, and be prepared to match pricing and service to win their business.

4. Host focus groups. Meeting with a small group for an hour or two provides the best opportunity to gain in-depth information from a group of current or prospective customers. It provides a time to probe beyond the initial findings of a survey and discover the why behind the responses.

Although important questions can be addressed such as a future store location, a major shift in store focus or how to best respond to a changing marketplace, being able to probe the thoughts of individuals in a focus group and interpret their responses is critical. Solid research should precede the meeting, so you can gain deeper understanding of information through direct interaction. It is critical that an experienced moderator—and not the retailer—lead the discussion to avoid going down rabbit trails and coming up with false conclusions based on dominant voices in the group.

5. Engage your customers through social media. This method of listening is quite different than the others. Although social media provide the opportunity to listen to customer or prospect feedback, in most cases, you can only respond one on one.

For instance, you should make it a practice to respond to each individual who has a concern about your store and has noted it in a forum such as Facebook and Twitter. Unhappy experiences often make their way to Facebook, Google and other such forums in much greater numbers than positive comments. Do your best to correct the specific issues your customers raise, and encourage them to update their postings to reflect your response. On the positive side, watch for what customers like about your store as well and build on it where you can.

Today’s consumers are tech savvy and socially engaged. They have a great deal of information but little time. Technology is quickly evolving, helping consumers get more of what they are looking for more quickly. And their ability to influence fellow consumers is much greater than in earlier generations.

Overall, you can learn a great deal from customer feedback, and the more you listen, the better. Always pay attention to how the feedback can get you closer to your goals, and be sure to give a look to every idea customers send your way.

Customers are shopping 24/7 and want an authentic experience designed with them in mind, whether in store, on the phone or online—all of which you can provide. Ask them what they want and pursue a path to provide it. They will be grateful you listened, and so will you as the results show in sales at your store.

Set a plan to hear from your customers

In setting a plan for listening to your customers, you may recognize the same challenges the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs did when he said: “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” The Silicon Valley entrepreneur understood it is important to hear what customers mean rather than just what they say. Customers tell us what they want in the context of what they know today, expecting we know ways to give them even more than they ask for based on what we know.

Some of us are more gifted at listening than others, but when it comes to our customers, we all need to find ways we can listen and they can articulate what they want us to hear. These are the people we serve. They know what they need, and we need to meet those needs. One of their needs is to be heard. Sometimes a customer prefers to chat in person, sometimes they just want to give simple responses to a survey and other times they want to tell their story by sending a quick email and get a reply later. This is part of learning how to listen—by listening in the ways customers want you to listen.

Ask for input from those who know your store best

Success for Christian retailers, as with all retailers, requires customer traffic and sales. While reducing expenses and growing margins are important, customer traffic and sales are critical. Most of us are focused on price, promotions and product presentation as tools for driving traffic and sales, as well we should. However, all of these things depend on giving customers what they want in order for them to respond.

By doing so, we create value for them. When we communicate this value, showing that we have listened and value them not only as customers but also as people, they are more likely to shop our store and recommend us to their friends.

In caring for customers, we work hard to be heard. We can easily forget it is just as important for us to hear our customers as it is for them to hear us. We are often asking questions primarily for the purpose of recommending and selling products. If we are not careful, we easily miss our customers’ clear messages of what they value and how we can increase value for them.

As we consider listening to our customers to find ways they can help us, we want to first establish a commitment to listen. James shares some practical advice on listening when he writes, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19). He goes on to address anger as well, which can easily overcome us when customers tell us about things they would change in our store. Our commitment to listen, act and not grow frustrated is essential as we embark on a journey of listening.

 Larry E. Haege is founder of Innovative Inc. ( in Greensboro, North Carolina, a market leader in providing the Christian community with integrated traditional and new media marketing tools. He also was a co-owner of the Christian Book & Gift stores in Kansas and a founding member of