Eye Don’t Think I Contact is Always Eye-Deal

As a rule, you should always greet your customers with a smile, be readily available to help, and make eye contact, right? As a rule, yes. But not always. Sometimes, these normally-admirable behaviors are actually an impediment to sales, and you need the judgment to discern when breaking a rule will increase your customer’s likelihood to buy.


When I shop for a car, sometimes I want to be greeted and accompanied by a salesperson, but most of the time I want to be left alone to wander the lot. I might even drive past the lot once or twice to gauge the likelihood that I might be able to sneak in unseen, and I make my decision about whether to stop or not on that basis. If I see employees lurking in their glass box ready to pounce, I keep driving because I dread seeing the smiling salesperson emerge from the showroom with an extended handshake and a ready business card. After all, what if I decide within thirty seconds there’s nothing on the lot that interests me, but Mr. Chatty-pants engages me in a pointless fifteen-minute conversation? Rather than putting myself in the awkward position of having to rudely extract myself from such a predicament or to politely participate in such a waste of my precious time, I just head for the next lot. [My heart actually leaps with joy when I pass a showroom that’s closed for the day. I can then wander in unmolested, peek through windows, and write down the joint’s phone number if I see something I like.] If, on the other hand, I see no one at all (or the sales staff seems preoccupied with helping other customers or chatting on the phone at their desks) I might stop in for a better look. When I dare to venture onto a busy car lot, I consciously try to give off a vibe to communicate my antisocial attitude to the vultures waiting within.  When I want to be left alone, I tend to stay at the corners of the lot and I avoid lifting my gaze toward their nest. I dare not wander up to the cars closest the front door; I just squint and examine them from afar. I take out my smartphone and try to zoom in on the price tag. When I desire help, however, I look intently in the direction of the showroom and that is the time the salesperson should make eye contact and come out to greet me.


But there is another situation in which eye contact should be avoided: when the customer may be shopping for something they deem intensely personal. When an elderly man wanders into Walgreens in search of adult diapers, he doesn’t want any help. He may wander from aisle to aisle for fifteen minutes in search of the desired item alone, but if offered any help by a smiling clerk, he’ll say, “No thanks, just looking.” If I have a severe case of (fill in your favorite disgusting bowel ailment) I don’t even want the cashier to make eye contact when I place my items on the counter. I want my anonymity, or at least the illusion of it. I want to preserve my privacy and my dignity. The last thing I want to hear is, “Thanks for shopping with us, Mr. Riggs! By the way, we’re running a special on Imodium next week! Hope things dry up soon!”

In a recent series of field tests described in the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Carol Esmark revealed that eye contact made with customers can reduce sales up to 37%. Invading their personal space shrinks business by up to 25%. The general rule is this: mirror the customer. If the customer seeks eye contact, match it with a happy smile. If they avoid eye contact, you should do the same. Watch their body language from a distance to determine if they want to be assisted or left alone. Get too close to a dark-haired woman shopping for hair dye that claims to “Cling to stubbornly gray hair,” and she’ll abandon the purchase and go to another store to buy the same item. Customer service, it turns out, is as much and art as it is a science. You should know the rules, but have the sensitivity to know when those rules should be broken.

Written by Billy Riggs