By Gordon Hecht

Remember your first date? Whether it was with someone you knew or arranged blindly, the feeling was the same — a combination of nervousness and excitement that resulted in anxiety.

You thought about where you would go and what you would talk about as you prepared your best outfit for the occasion. Then you’d drive to the destination or wait for your date to arrive, being sure to be ready on time. You popped a couple of Tic Tacks and looked in the mirror just to be sure … and then the moment arrived!

Many of us born in the 1950s and ’60s have had the experience of first dates twice in our lives. For me it was in my teens and then again in my 30s. There’s a difference in dating at those ages. In our teens we are more concerned with impressing our date with our smokin’ hot car, groovy threads, and being extra cool. A mature 30-something is more concerned with learning about their companion — their likes and dislikes, what they do for work and fun, and where they are headed in life.

First dates also apply to business and, unlike our personal experience, there are at least four different kinds for retailers.

Customer First Dates

Retail is filled with first dates. The obvious example is a shopper who walks into your store. Your sales team is charged with meeting a stranger and creating a positive impression in 20 seconds. Some call that speed dating. Too often your customer is greeted by a retail sales associate (RSA) who acts like an 18-year-old kid hoping to make an impression by using “dig me” methods. Greetings like, “Our biggest sale ends today”; “Everything is 63 percent off”; or “We have 72-month financing” are closing statements, not greetings. They are a sure turn off. They have no meaning until your shopper gets to know your store and its offerings.

Simply put, RSAs often want to jump to the goodnight kiss (i.e., closing the sale) before dinner and a movie (discovery questions and demonstration). But RSAs who date like they are in their 30s, 40s or older know that one of the best parts of dating is learning about the other person’s experiences, dreams and desires. They ask questions like “When was the last time you shopped for a mattress?”; “Have you seen anything on TV or online that you like?”; or “Who else will be using your new purchase?” They find out what turns on and motivates shoppers and they dance to the music that’s being played, tailoring the shopping experience to their date.

Employee First Dates

Chances are you have other first dates daily in your business life. Onboarding a new associate is also a first date. New hire orientation often includes information about your company history, HR policies and how training is conducted. All important information, but the part about getting to know the person you just hired is equally valuable.

Imagine what you will gain when you ask, “What kind of things are you really good at?”; “What frustrated you at your last job”; “What did your friends say when you told them you are coming to work here”; or “What do you consider your greatest day at work?” The answers you get will offer insight into how you can maximize your investment and your employee’s work experience. Just by assigning them things they enjoy and do well, and minimizing the tasks that drive them crazy, will make every day their best day at work!

Vendor First Dates

Think about a first date with your vendor reps. By asking the right questions you can determine if your reps are 18-year-olds who want to jump in the back seat, or 30-year-old adults looking for a happy, long-term relationship. Do they want to just sell you a product or help you to build your business and profitability?

Ask your reps how they improved another retailer’s operation; what skills they excel at; or how they feel about pitching in and helping your sales team on holiday weekends. Will they leave you for a prettier or more handsome store if things get rough, or are they with you for better or worse?

Product First Dates

Training on new products and services needs to be a first date for your sales and operations team. While the products can’t speak for themselves, make sure there is information available for everyone. Ask questions like:

  • “How long will you be around?” (durability);
  • “If I call you on Monday, will you be at my store on Friday?” (delivery time);
  • “Where do you like to go? (in the room);
  • “Do you love pets?” (cleaning instructions); and
  •  “Tell me about your friends” (which accessories make you look great).

Some people look to meet dates at bars, others at church. Dates are also arranged by friends and co-workers. In the 21st century more first dates originate online than ever before. eharmony, Farmers Only, Christian Mingle, JDate and others are becoming the way to view and communicate with people. Chances are your store has an online dating site also. It’s your website! Properly placed and promoted, your website should draw hundreds or even thousands of potential suitors daily. They click on your profile, see what you look like and what you have to offer, and decide if they want to get to know you and join you for coffee, dinner or more!

Is your website a good first date? To find out, ask some of your single friends (not employees) to visit your online store and look at it as if it were a dating website. Is the initial impression intriguing, friendly or exciting? Does your site move to the same groove as the viewer? Can your website ask the right questions, and does it move too slow or too fast? The feedback you get will help you change your website from a disappointing Mystery Date dud” to romance, love and marriage!

Second and third dates are great too. We get there because of mutual trust and affection. Likewise, working with repeat buyers is more fun and less nerve racking.

Unfortunately, many relations don’t get past the first date and many be-backs never return. You can’t control the actions of your date or your shopper, but you can train your RSAs to be caring gentlemen and ladies who are interested in your shopper’s interests and well-being.

Do so and there may be many wedding bells and honeymoons in your future!

Gordon Hecht is a business growth and development consultant to the retail home furnishings industry. You can reach him at Gordon.Hecht@aol.com.