Communication, especially small talk, is something that has changed substantially over the last decade. It’s not just verbal any longer — communication takes place via emails, texts, print and, especially in today’s world, social media. (Even my 78-year-old father is now a master at social media!)

But what about the old-fashioned way of speaking? When was the last time you stopped to train your staff not just on product knowledge, but also on how to really speak to your customer? 

Experts have found that when it comes to talking to someone we don’t know, 75 percent of us default to discussing the weather. I too am guilty of this sometimes, but I try to avoid it when possible — if I hear it slip across my tongue, I quickly find some other common ground to talk about.

The weather certainly can be a convenient, fruitful source of conversation for us since our main products are swimming pools. But talking about the weather does not help build your brand, sell more products and cement a relationship with the consumer.

Using verbal communication, especially in a brick-and-mortar store, is paramount. Shopping today is about more than buying things we need — it has become a very social experience. This is the time we get away from our homes and workplaces to interact with products we are looking to purchase, and make some small talk with friends and people in the process.

I love to talk to groups of people about “situational training.” This training has nothing to do with products and everything to do with the customer and finding common ground so we can relate to each other. Aside from the weather, the easiest way to do that is by picking up on context clues.

Us guys often default to sports. (Especially ones who cheer on the SEC college teams, right?) So let’s say you’re from Louisiana; it would not be out of the ordinary for you to see someone wearing an LSU shirt or jersey every day, right? You probably wouldn’t go come up to people on the street in New Orleans and talk about how you are from Louisiana and how wonderful it is to live there and how you love the sports teams. People might think you’re a little strange.

But what if you were in Paris on vacation and spotted someone wearing your favorite team’s jersey? How fast do you start asking questions like, “Are you from New Orleans? Oh, where do you live? My brother lives there,” and so on. You found the common ground that opens up a complete dialogue with someone, and at that moment you start to build the relationship.

Maybe it’s someone wearing a shirt that says “Pebble Beach” — that’s a clue that person might be a golfer. Or if someone is wearing the new LeBron 15’s, that may indicate they are a basketball fan.

These clues may not be found on the surface; you may have to dig a little to find out what someone is passionate about. Maybe you both have children around the same age? Maybe you both like to go hiking?

Whatever it is, once you find that passion, you can start to find common ground — and that’s when the magic happens.

Ok, so what if you are not a social butterfly and just aren’t good at this? Your next step, then, is to focus on how to be a “tour guide” for your company. You see, tour guides are extremely knowledgeable and are often experts in their field. And all good tour guides know they need give you bits of information and then allow you to discover things on your own.

In the specialty retail setting, for example, that may unfold by greeting a customer with a quick 20-second informational “tour” about the store. It would go something like this:

You: Welcome to ABC Pools, what brings you in today? 

Customer: I am just looking.

You: Well take your time looking around. Just to let you know, we just got a ton of new toys, games and floats, and they are on your left. All of our 2017 inventory is 25 percent off, pool start-up supplies are in the back of the store and we have a $12 off coupon when you buy a 25-lb. sanitizer when you couple that with a liquid accessory. Robotic pool cleaners that make your life easy start at $999 and are in the center of the store. And here is a flyer for the rest of today’s specials. My name is Ted, if you need anything at all please ask. I have water, coffee and iced tea — which would you prefer to drink while you shop?

This type of communication is informative and friendly. It’s like inviting a guest into your home for the first time. The tour guide style of communication is also a great way to learn more about your customer and discover common ground, which can help you develop rapport.

The tour guide also communicates at the end of a store visit, whether the customer makes a purchase or not. For example: “Thanks so much from stopping by! Have you heard about our customer appreciation event next month? We hold monthly events in our store; all you have to do is like us on Facebook or sign up for weekly emails and we will keep you informed about everything that is going on. Do you have a quick second to sign up?”

We as consumers always have this fear of missing out. Keeping informed is the No. 1 reason people like a product or company on Facebook. They want to know what goes on — an event, a sale, a hot new product — and certainly do not want to miss out on anything, so play that in your favor.

Communication training should also address difficult questions and situations your employees may encounter, like:
-“Do you match prices?”
-“Do you install items that were bought online or at another retailer?”
-How to handle an angry customer
-What do to do when a customer is clearly showrooming
-How to handle a customer that always drops by for a free water test, but never makes a purchase
-What to do when the phone is ringing: answer it, or keep helping the person in front of you?

I bet if I asked each of your employees how they would handle these situations, I would get different answers each time. The answers may seem simple to you, but it's imperative that you and your employees are all on the same page, especially when it comes to company policies.

At the end of the day, fill your employees with information and make sure they are talking with customers. And not just "talking," but using conversation to find common ground and make customers feel welcome. It may just be small talk, but it's the first step to creating a positive in-store experience.


Ted Lawrence is AQUA Contributor of AQUA Magazine.