By Stephanie Finnegan

When you open up your shop in the morning, you are doing more than just turning the key for a day of business transactions. You’re swinging open the door to several hours of person-to-person dialogue and interactions.

Unless you work alone, you will be communicating with staff, delivery people, other retail neighbors, and customers. Beyond what merchandise you order for inventory, how you greet and deal with your customers can make or break your business’s reputation.

The long-held mantra that “the customers are always right” can be downright galling and annoying—especially when you know deep down that they are wrong in a contentious situation. Still, how you manage to conduct yourself in a potentially heated circumstance says a lot about how your customers perceive you and if they want to continue to shop and buy at your store.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when you are dealing with familiar customers and brand-new shoppers. Whether the person is a polite, hesitant stranger or an unhappy, outspoken regular, you’ll find that taking a deep breath and remembering these half-dozen basic strategies will help you get through the day!

The 6 Retail Rules

Don’t battle with a disgruntled customer. Instead, channel a world-class diplomat. Think about how you’d act if you were employed at the UN or at an embassy. Listen to the complaints. Then make sure you tell the customer that you will work on resolving the issue –either immediately or when it can best be handled. Don’t just pay lip service. Really work at resolving the issue, because it might be a matter that will pop up again down the road.

Put on a Happy Face. The old tried-and-true sayings always have a kernel of truth to them. “Misery may love company, but company does not love misery.” The same holds for your customers. They want to see a smiling shop owner or shop staff. Surly, disconnected people who are talking on a cell phone while ringing up a transaction are a huge no-no. A customer wants to feel valued and appreciated while he or she is handing over his hard-earned money to you and your staff. Keep in mind that how you communicate is every bit as important as what you are communicating.

Reward Loyalty. Many businesses—especially hair salons—will advertise big specials for first-time customers. This makes a loyal customer feel used and abused. A newbie is getting the same services for potentially 50% less! There should be some perks for shopping somewhere on a regular basis. To that end, create a customer focus group. Invite a dozen loyal customers to meet regularly and discuss feedback about your shop and your staff’s interaction with them. Pick their brains on how your shop can serve them and other customers better. Is there something you should add to your inventory? Is there an area where your service is lagging behind? Your customer base will give you the truth. Reward them with healthy thank-you discounts, or with a free product, or with a gift certificate to your store.

Feedback Never Hurts. Every person who enters your store has his or her own story to tell. A person who shows up once might never pass your threshold again, or he might end up becoming a lifelong customer. One never knows. To that end, don’t be afraid to solicit feedback from all your patrons. Make up and print out survey questions that you can place in the bags with the merchandise. Nicely ask if a customer will fill out the survey and drop it off next time they return. Or, in this cyber world, ask that they e-mail you their thoughts. Have your e-mail address printed on the survey so they can write to you personally. You can learn a lot from an objective shopper. He or she might give you insight into why you will be gaining a frequent shopper or have alienated a onetime purchaser.

Help Customers. You don’t have to become a “helicopter parent,” but if you see that a customer looks lost or ill at ease, offer to assist. A lot of shoppers—especially if they are new to a retail outlet—don’t know where things are located and don’t know what you have in stock. Keep an eye on a customer and see if he or she is busily engaging with your displays or if she looks like she needs some guidance. Male customers are especially reticent and won’t ask for help voluntarily. Step in and make the offer to assist. Don’t act as if you are trying to make a sale, but rather that you are offering help and advice. After all, you and your staff know your shop better than anyone else. Let your knowledge shine! Converse, make suggestions, and aim to please.

Manners Matter. You learned them in kindergarten, perfected them in elementary school, and somehow they may have gotten lost over the ensuing years. Make sure your staff understands that proper etiquette is essential. The world has certainly grown more informal over time, but manners still rank high on a customer’s scorecard. Make sure “please,” “thank you,” “you’re welcome,” and “may I help you?” become part of your and your staff’s working vocabulary. Also, it’s always nice to say “hello” when customers enter your retail space and to bid them “good-bye” when they depart. Many junior staffers are in a world of their own and have become reliant on texting, instant messaging, and social media posting. The face-to-face encounters are being replaced by Facebook encounters. Emphasize to your staff that politeness gains points. If they appear friendly and concerned, customers might buy and return. Do the math for them: more customers equal more money, which equals more hours for them to work. It’s a win-win situation.

Stephanie Finnegan is a senior contributor at JP Media LLC. A former editor of THE CRAFTS REPORT and SMART RETAILER, she is well versed in how commerce and creativity intersect. A contributor to HANDMADE BUSINESS and SUNSHINE ARTIST, Stephanie loves to showcase how artists rise to the challenge of being enterprising and entrepreneurial in today’s competitive climate. An author of several books on collectibles and American artists, she has also written a time-travel book and a series of short stories. Stephanie can be reached at