3 Ways to Adapt to Your Customers’ Shopping Styles

UPDATED: August 12, 2014
PUBLISHED: August 12, 2014

“Can you text me your best price on that car?”

The salesperson on the phone probably thought I was crazy. Did I really want him to text me the price of a new car I had seen on his website and was thinking about buying? (Uh, yes. That’s why I asked for it.) I also asked whether he could send a few pictures of the car—and maybe a short video showing the interior lights turned on so I can see how the dash looks when driving at night. I’m sure the guy thought I was off my rocker or was high-maintenance (or both), but what he absolutely didn’t realize was that I was calling to secret-shop him.

And he failed the test. Miserably.

My team is assigned to secret-shop companies large and small around the world. We experience every step of the sales cycle just as a customer would. We make calls and send emails asking for information. We walk into stores without appointments and sometimes haul our friends along, too. We might even bring a dog! And our secret shoppers have been delighted, ignored, flirted with and even offended—and sometimes all at the same store.

When we analyze the data, what we find is striking: A salesperson may do extremely well delighting one set of customers but bomb with another. The differences in satisfaction and in closing sales are almost always tied to customer age, diversity and gender. This means that if salespeople sell the same way with every customer, they turn off half of all their potential customers.

And in the sales world, the failure to adapt is becoming a crisis as millennials flood the market, because they shop while staring at their phones, expect diversity as the new normal and understand that their gender roles have shifted. (All my friends know I don’t own a toolbox, but my wife has two of them and a drill.)

What does this mean for you and me? It means that the winners and losers in your market will be decided based on those who best adapt to this new set of customer needs and expectations. This sounds like common sense, but it’s not. You know it, too.

If you’ve ever been treated poorly at a restaurant, hotel or car dealership, or when buying insurance, then you have seen this firsthand. You want an email with information, but instead they call. You want to meet in person, and they want to do a webinar. Or the worst, they treat you like a number—they don’t make eye contact, they don’t ask how they can help you, or they tell you to look online and come back when you can be more specific about your shopping goal.

The key is that customers have zero incentive to change how they buy based on how you like to sell. Whoever is first to adapt to the customer’s preference will win—and someone will adapt. I want that someone to be you.

Here are three quick ways to adapt so you keep your current customers and steal others from your competitors:

1. Create three pie charts visually showing your customer base. One chart shows your customers by generation, one shows the ethnic diversity of your customers, and the last shows the percentages of males and females. Visually seeing these differences almost always shocks a sales team and creates a great foundation for discussions on how you can adapt to be more effective.

2. Put yourself in your customers’ flip-flops, literally. Secret-shop your business by phone, email and as a walk-in customer—you would not believe how many things you’ll uncover when you go through the front door dressed as someone else. Even better, ask five friends to shop your salespeople and ask questions. The key is to have some of your friends ask smart questions and others ask naïve questions. How your salespeople respond reveals a lot about the customer experience and what you can do right away to improve it.

3. Create clear expectations with customers upfront. We found the best way to get people of every generation, background and aspiration on the same page is to literally show them what to expect in advance. You can do this with a short video on your website, in-store signage, or, if possible, by sending an email or text with what customers should expect when they walk through your doors. When you deliver on that upfront promise, your customers’ confidence in you goes up, their satisfaction increases, and they are primed to buy—and be glad they did (picture a thank-you post featuring your business that goes out to their entire network).

Adapting doesn’t have to be hard or expensive. Sometimes it’s literally as easy as sending a text message. That’s exactly how I bought my last car. The salesperson who adapted to my buying preferences received a quick one-word reply: “Sold!”

Growing a business is all about sales—and lacking an effective plan to acquire new customers is one reason a business struggles. Find out how to make sales your top priority.

Jessica Krampe is the digital managing editor for SUCCESS.com. A graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, Jessica has worked for news, entertainment, business and lifestyle publications. Outside of the daily grind, she enjoys happy hours, live music and traveling.