Retail Hack: Asking Customers "Why?" Can Lead To Vital Intel


One of the most vital aspects of a successful marketing plan is customer feedback.

While most companies offer some sort of survey option with a (small) incentive, these typically yield skewed results for a variety of reasons:

  • Self-selection bias. Even if the survey is distributed to a random sample of customers, those most likely to take the time to complete it are customers who have had an exceptionally great or, more often, poor experience.
  • Response bias. When customers complete the survey only to get a 10% off coupon, they are not likely to take the time to provide thorough and honest answers.
  • Missing information. Any survey that is set up with multiple-choice or scaled response is leaving out a lot of details.

These surveys may get you a high-level sense of how customers view your brand, but as a manager you can learn a lot more from your customers in person on a daily basis. Being involved on the sales floor and asking customers for feedback regularly is not only efficient, but it can be extremely beneficial to your store’s results. Understanding your customers’ needs and problems, and how your product is or is not solving them, is huge in retail sales.

This doesn't need to be a formal interaction — in fact, I have found it’s better-received as an informal dialogue. What I’m suggesting is, once a customer has expressed interest in your product/service but ends up declining the transaction, take a moment to ask what influenced their decision. When asked face-to-face after having interacted with you, most customers will be willing to provide an honest answer (though I'm not saying it won't be a shortened version of the issue). This not only affords you a final opportunity to find a solution to the issue and turn that shopper into a customer, but it can also give you insight into issues you may not have considered, allowing you to apply the information later and improve your future sales.

Don't count on every customer to give you deep insight; the answers they give could be the simple and obvious, like size in the apparel industry. And, of course, customers who don't care to continue chatting (or being sold to) for whatever reason may just give a vague response like, "I just didn't like the way it looked on" — in some cases the truth may be that they really can't afford said product/service and are embarrassed to say so.

Just look at this as the same rejections you get in any other aspect of sales: accept that you will get these responses and move on. Do NOT hound shoppers who don't volunteer an explanation. This will only irritate them and prevent them from possibly shopping with your company in the future, which negates the purpose of this technique.

The idea is to approach this mini-survey with the customer’s interests in mind. While they may provide you valuable intel, the most important thing is that you are attempting to offer another solution to the customer’s problem. Show genuine concern for why they are walking away from your product/service offering and make sure to also ask if there’s anything else you can do to change their mind. When someone hands me back a pair of shoes she had tried on and simply says, “thanks,” I don’t take it as a loss, but an opportunity to get feedback — particularly if she had expressed strong interest and no objections earlier in the interaction. I’ll simply ask her, “was there something you didn’t like about the shoes?”

In some cases, you may have a product you can offer in addition to the initial offering in order to solve the problem, or be able to offer relevant information about the product or service that you had left out before. But at the very least, you will usually hear an honest perspective on your product or service and possibly your sales person’s approach from which you can learn and grow in the future. And here's another tip: if you simply can’t offer the customer a solution with your company’s available offerings, recommending a competitor can leave them with a positive image of your brand, as it shows that you are truly there to help them and will likely compel them to consider your brand for future needs.

So the next time you notice a customer bowing out of a sale with little or no explanation to the sales associate, take the initiative to follow up with them. They may feel they owe you something after taking up your time, and the least they can give you is their honest feedback. Ask, “Why?” and really listen. But most importantly, show genuine concern in offering another solution. This approach has proved successful in my experience and I hope it will for you, too.