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Answer the Questions Your Customers Didn't Ask

I gave a talk today for REI employees about engaging with their customers and the point was simple but important for every business to ask (relative to their industry). Why do people shop here? Why do people shop in retail stores at all? It's a valid question seeing as you can shop on Amazon for less and have it delivered to your door in two days...

Customers will keep coming back to REI time and time again and pay higher prices because their sales associates are similar to health coaches but for the outdoors. While it's true that they are there to help answer questions like "which flashlight has higher lumens?" or "What's the waterproof rating on my new GPS watch?" the real magic is in the questions that the customers don't know they should ask.

I've been hiking and backpacking enough to know what I should bring camping but I still stop into REI to meet with my "outdoor coaches" before I go on new adventures. I want to see if they have anything interesting that will make my trip an even better experience. Last weekend when I asked Zack, an REI sales associate, about the best dehydrated vegan dinner he didn't just point to all of the options on the shelf that were labeled "vegan". He asked, "how many people are you trying to feed?" I looked a little puzzled. He proceeded to tell me that a great way to feet a bunch of campers is to hit the grocery store and pick up instant mashed potatoes. That way I would only have to buy one main dish for every two people and I could use mashed potatoes as a side dish. They are much cheaper, lighter weight, and quicker to make. What a game changer!

When most campers prepare for a trip they think about the gear they will need to survive in the wilderness and how to fit it all into a backpack. What about the fun factor? What about experiencing tears of joy and laughter? How much fun could we help them stuff into their packs? One tip I gave the associates was to suggest that campers bring the game "Face Coasters". It's a lightweight way to bring a lot of fun into their experience and it shows the customers that REI associates are there to help them with all aspects of a fun trip to the outdoors, not just gear selection.

Most REI employees are already great at being outdoor coaches because they are frequently on new adventures themselves but what if a customer asks a question about mountain biking and they are only familliar with backpacking? Swap stories! They may not have been through every activity but chances are that other associates in the store HAVE been.

A great team training activity for any company is to swap funny stories about things that went terribly wrong with other clients and how they fixed it. Associates don't have to use stories of their own to engage with the customers on a personal level. We went through a few questions to get their creative stories flowing like "What's the weirdest thing you've done to stay warm?" or "Tell the team about an adventure where you were missing something and had to improvise." By sharing funny stories or similar struggles REI associates are able to impact each customer's outdoor experience in a personalized way.

How can your employees come up with answers to un-asked questions? What techniques do you use to help coach your customers through specific industry issues? People are willing to pay more for expert information that will save them time and money by avoiding simple mistakes. If you coach your customers and help them find success, they will be customers for a lifetime!

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