A customer enters your store and you immediately approach with your standard “Welcome to blah blah blah, how can I help you today?” The customer veers to the left or the right, placing end caps or floor displays in your direct path, “serpentine, serpentine” echoing through their subconscious.

Your greeting has been mistaken for (or, recognized as) an attempt to begin a sale and has forced the customer to exhibit evasion tactics similar to those in a predator/prey encounter. Quickly, they state “No thank you, I am just looking.”

The customer did come in to purchase something. No one comes into your brick-and-mortar location to browse anymore. Why would they, browsing is done on the Internet with a cup of coffee and fuzzy bunny slippers while sitting at the kitchen table in pajamas.

Pull into a car lot and step out of your vehicle. Within a few moments, the parking lot will begin to mimic a scene from AMC’s The Walking Dead as the sales people begin to approach from what seems to be every angle. As the hoard approaches, the glazed undead look of commission checks in their eyes, it is easy to find oneself intimidated by the situation.

My career in the pool business has taken me through many facets of the industry, including ten years of high-volume retail pool supply sales. In that time, I have learned that providing a relaxed, low-pressure atmosphere lays the groundwork for a higher volume of sales and more repeat business. The old adage “Nobody wants to be sold” comes to mind. The second a customer feels that you are going to attempt to try to sell them something, a physical change takes place. Their heart begins to race slightly as they enter a “fight or flight mode.” Following avoidance, instinctively, their defense will be to say no.

When a customer enters your store, acknowledge that they have arrived. Smile, give a welcoming nod or a friendly wave. Give them some room to breathe when they first walk in. When I was in retail, I always preferred the morning shift. I would arrive before the store opened, physically ready the store for the day, mentally prepare myself, and allow the day to build from there. On days that I did take a later shift, arriving to a store filled with customers and employees filled with questions, I would face that initial shock of jumping into the middle of something. Similar to the anxiety one feels before diving into a swimming pool for the first time, testing the temperature with your toe, dreading the full body immersion of the cold shock to your system as you take the plunge. Any anticipated drastic change will cause hesitation, the goal is to eliminate this sensation from the act of entering your store.

Now that we have established a low-key greeting, it is important to pay attention. Allow the customer a few moments, let them look around, then approach. Ask non-threatening questions. “How can I help you today?” indicates that you are looking to immediately take control of the customer's shopping experience. I will help you; I will guide you; I will sell you something that you don’t want. If a customer feels that you are attempting to take control, then the customer feels that they are losing control.

Quite often I have heard sales people ask “How can I help you?” and quickly receive the automatic “I’m just looking” response, followed by “Excuse me” as soon as the sales person has turned their back to walk away. The customer did have a question, they did need help, but they wanted to retain control of the interaction. By waiting a moment after dismissing the sales person, the customer was able to reestablish control by insuring that it was them – the customer – that was initiating the conversation.

Instead of asking “How can I help you today?,” ask “Are you finding everything O.K.?” This question is asked in a manner that validates that your customer is still in charge of the interaction and is therefore less threatening. “Are you finding everything O.K.?” It is also difficult to respond with “No thank you, I am just looking.” The customer will either say no and follow with a description of their needs, or respond with yes, giving you the opportunity for a follow-up question, such as “Great, what were we looking at?”

Asking an open-ended question at this point would be difficult not to answer. Even if the customer had said yes because they wanted you to go away, they will most likely tell you at this point what they were interested in purchasing.

Here we accomplished two things: The customer has said “Yes” to the first question, breaking the ice, and we have attempted to share control of the sales interaction. “Yes” is a positive response and will set a trend. Saying “Yes” a second time is easier and will be given more freely as a response. Also, our follow-up question asks, “What were we looking at?” Using the word “we” in our questions after breaking the ice and establishing a comfort level creates involvement without threatening control. Do not attempt to insert “we” into a question until your customer has said “yes” at least once to something. We equals: You and Me; We are a Team; We will find solutions; We will find what you are looking for; We will do this together.

Ask your customer open-ended questions, continue to use “we” instead of “you” or “I”, then shut up and listen. The goal is to gather information so that we can match a solution to our customer’s needs. If you allow the customer to speak and feel a sense of control during the sales interaction, they will tell you exactly what it is that they came to purchase. Attempting to immediately take control of a customer’s shopping experience will typically result in a large amount of product returns – that is, if you actually get as far as the cash wrap.

Rudy Stankowitz is the owner of Aqua-Caribbean, LLC, a pool service firm in Gainesville, Fla.