The Fine Line Between Socializing and Customer Relations

Is the time your employees spend yakking it up with customers promoting the good of the business, or simply being abused?

The Fine Line Between Socializing and Customer Relations

Photo credit: John Hafner

Much of what made standing behind a gun counter enjoyable during the time I worked in outdoor retail were the relationships I developed with a handful of loyal customers. These were usually retired gentlemen with time and disposable income to burn (though not necessarily a universal trait), with a keen sense of and profound insight into the shooting sports borne of extensive trial-and-error experience. I began handloading centerfire cartridges, tinkering with rifles and obsessively sniping burrowing rodents before puberty took a firm hold. Yet I’m not fool enough to believe I have all the answers, nor do I buy into the notion that anything worthwhile in cartridge and rifle development has occurred in my lifetime. The insufferable blowhards and know-it-alls that gun counters naturally attract set well aside, I was intensely interested in new (or old-but-proven) perspectives from like-minded shooting enthusiasts.

That said; I quickly differentiated between those using a sporting-goods venue as cheap entertainment and actual customers. An easy example: I recall a customer who arrived every Sunday as if on cue, requesting to handle this firearm and that, running their actions thoroughly and shouldering or sighting them repeatedly before requesting another to examine. This typically went on for about an hour. He would then politely thank me for my time and disappear. In nearly two and a half years he never purchased so much as a box of .22LR that I am aware of. This was apparently his weekend entertainment, instead of, say, catching a movie. When things were slow, as they often were on Sundays, I played along happily. When presented with other customers, I quickly learned to ignore him. I never caught his name, and I doubt it was ever offered.

I also remember Melvin. A seemingly lonely widower, Melvin dropped in frequently, mostly just to chat, offering some of that handloading/firearms history and angles I found so interesting. The big difference is Melvin occasionally made a purchase. We might be chatting about spring ground squirrel shooting when I would ask if he’d seen the new .17 Winchester Super Mag, just as an easy example. An inquisitive fellow, Melvin would ask to see a rifle so chambered while I extolled the virtues of the zippier and farther-reaching rimfire incarnation. When something sparked his fancy, he’d invariably say, “Well, I need another rifle like I need a hole in the head, but I think I need to try this one out.” The rifle purchase then necessitated a new scope and rings and, of course, ammo. Melvin was a valuable customer. As such, I indulged him on those days when he only needed someone to stave off loneliness or pure-and-simple boredom — though I genuinely enjoyed our conversations. I had a dozen “Melvins” who arrived regularly to chew the fat — but again, periodically making a purchase.

Despite the perception that working in a sporting goods atmosphere is all fun and games, surrounded by all those sexy toys most incessantly dream about, it is, after all, a job just like any other. The gear excitement wears thin, and salesman go through periods of burnout or simply have days when they’re just not feeling it. But the time clock must be punched to keep that paycheck coming. Since your job description includes chatting up customers, it becomes all too easy to turn organic business interaction into time-burning socializing.

I was making commissions and was there to earn money to keep the wolves off the porch.”

As an eventual manager, I was flabbergasted that employees had to be reminded that employment isn’t a social service and they’re present to help a business turn a profit. To that end, there is a fine line between wasting an employer’s time and promoting sales via customer relations. Making friends with customers can certainly lead to repeat business, but using customer interactions as a way to avoid work means other customers — those genuinely looking to transfer cash into a store’s coffers — are being neglected.

Put another way, as much as I enjoyed talking to Melvin, had he not been making the occasional purchase, I would’ve been forced to cut conversations short. As a sporting goods employee, I certainly got visits from close friends and social associates during work hours. Most did understand I was working. If they arrived just to chat, I would have to excuse myself should a real customer arrive. More commonly, they arrived with a specific item in mind, knowing I would provide the straight dope due to our established relationship, allowing me to shortcut the salesmanship routine and get right down to business. None of the friends who’d only arrived to say howdy were offended if I put them off or scooted off to wait on another customer. I was on the clock. I was making commissions and was there to earn money to keep the wolves off the porch.

One of my problem children, after being promoted to a low-level manager, spent conspicuously more time chatting than selling — a reality not lost on fellow employees. He had to be persistently harassed into restocking empty pegs and shelves and tidying up his assigned department. Yet he seemed to have plenty of time to chitchat with a steady stream of friends and casual acquaintances. I always imagined him encouraging work-hour visits from these folks to stave off boredom. His sales numbers (tracked closely due to employee sales incentives) reflected this lack of conviction. He was dead wood in every sense of the term, but he was a family friend of the manager and immune to firing or ordinary disciplinary action.

Talking to customers, and doing so effectively, is an important portion of any retail position. But a big part of your employee contract, the ability to sell effectively and earn a potential promotion or commission, is applying chit-chat efficiently and selectively. Ask yourself this question: Is the time you spend yakking it up with customers or friends promoting the good of the business you work for, or simply being abused because you just don’t feel like doing your job? There’s a fine line involved, but given a modicum of thought, the answer should be quite obvious.


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