Ask INVISION: May 2015

My staff always seem to give too much information when someone calls for a staff member who isn’t around. I don’t like it. But they say it’s only polite. What’s your take?

Rick Segel, consultant and author of the best-selling business book Retail Kit for Dummies, agrees: Customers do not want to hear the gruesome details as to why the person they’re trying to reach is unavailable. Telling a customer that a co-worker is having his gall bladder removed is unnecessary, insensitive and unprofessional. Segel’s phrases to avoid? “Nan hasn’t come in yet today.” (This statement infers that Nan is late.) “I don’t know where Nan is; she was here a minute ago.” (This suggests that Nan is a loose cannon and we can’t keep tabs on her.) “Nan had an emergency and isn’t here” or “Nan is out sick.” (These may prompt the customer to ask Nan personal questions when she returns the call.) Best answers, according to Segel: “Nan isn’t available at the moment,” “Nan stepped away from her desk,” “Nan is out of the office today” or “Nan is in a meeting.”

What’s the secret to a good thank-you note?

That’s easy: be yourself. Avoid formulaic language and just try to write as you speak. Instead of “Dear John,” say “Hello John.” Instead of “Yours truly,” write “Regards” or “All my best” followed by your name. Before you put pen to paper, type out a draft to compose your thoughts. Using cursive for the actual note can make you less sloppy than print, since its slows you down. Keep the paper neat: Smudges make your note look like an afterthought, so avoid fountain pens and glossy paper. If you really want to wow your customer, order correspondence cards, personalized with your store name and address, or use eyewear themed cards. (See this month's Eye Pro Gear for a smart stationery style from Crane & Co.)

I’ve tried sending news releases about my business to my local media, but with no luck. What am I doing wrong?

It’s probably a lack of research. It’s so easy now for anyone to bombard a newsroom with blind press releases, which inevitably get trashed by the first gatekeeper. You need to do your homework on the Internet, advises Jeff Crilley, the author of Free Publicity. Find out which reporter covers health or fashion or small business or whatever your angle is and pitch that person directly. Use the press-release basics: Short catchy headline, engaging first paragraph and then the brief “who, what, where, when and how” details. Make it newsworthy and cut any public relations-style puffery. “As you write that first sentence, you should be able to imagine your favorite TV anchor reading it word for word,” says Crilley, an Emmy Award-winning TV reporter.

A competitor used our name in one of their ads. Can we sue?

A competitor used our name in one of their ads. Can we sue? Not so fast. If they are just asking the consumer to compare your services or goods, then you don’t have much of a case. In fact, the law actually encourages it. The Federal Trade Commission, for example, has specifically sanctioned comparative advertising, because of the benefits it yields to the consumer by assisting purchasing decisions. Of course, they can’t make false statements about you or confuse potential customers by piggybacking on your goodwill and reputation to the extent that customers are confused about which company is the source of the good or service. As for a strategic approach to such situations, the general rule is never respond to a challenge from a competitor smaller than you, since doing so merely draws attention to them and makes them look larger in the eyes of the public. But if a bigger competitor is foolish enough to shine its spotlight on you? Dance in it!

What’s the first thing to teach a new salesperson?

That they don’t have to give away the farm to close the sale, says Hal Becker, co-author of Can I Have Five Minutes of Your Time? Drum into their heads that once they’re fighting on price, they’ve lost the bigger battle. Becker offers these tips to help your rookie sales associate: Listen to the customer and do not interrupt. People love a good listener. Besides, what you blurt out could hurt you.

Ask questions. Any question. It gives you control and makes the customer feel heard. (See Point 1.)

Learn to love silence. Sometimes you say more when you don’t talk, and you give the customer a chance to say “yes.”

Learn to paraphrase. Restating what the customer said shows you’re listening, and gives you an extra moment to think.

Have great eye contact and smile. A pleasant demeanor shows sincerity, and people like to deal with people they like. Direct eye contact shows you have an interest in the customer.

Speak clearly and slow down your speech. It’s human nature to distrust a fast talker.

Do your homework. Good intelligence helps you deliver a more targeted pitch.

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 edition of INVISION.