In last week's column we addressed a question from a bookseller who was wondering how to handle a chatty customer who, while a frequent and presumably welcome visitor to the store’s booksellers, would occasionally try to chat up other customers, whether they welcomed the attention or not. Dear NAIBA thought it might be useful as bookstores head into the busy holiday season to provide some resources regarding handling customers that range from friendly-but-overly talkative to more challenging so you can create a welcoming and safe space for all of your customers.
First, if you are a manager or supervisor, we encourage you to check in with your staff regarding any regular customers that might be on their and/or your radar. Make sure that they know it is their safety that comes first and should be prioritized. It’s also important for them to know that they do not have to handle uncomfortable customer interactions alone and can always call you to help manage the situation with respect and grace. Consider creating a code word or phrase that staff can use to subtly request help.
If you do find yourself in a situation with an angry customer that feels inappropriate or unsafe here are a few suggestions to de-escalate the situation:
- Most times a customer just wants to vent their frustration and be heard. Active listening can sometimes be enough.
- Remain calm, but remember that neither you, nor your staff should be their punching bag.
- Try to move a disruptive customer to a location in the store that is least disruptive to the other customers. Use phrases like, "Why don't we step over here so we can talk."
- Try to find common ground by using phrases such as, “I understand your frustration. Let me find a solution.”
- If it is appropriate, acknowledge and apologize for any mistakes that were made.
- Thank the customer for their patience.
- If necessary, call in reinforcements.
- Let senior staff know about the situation.
One de-escalation technique that might be simple to remember goes by the name of GOMBLIN. It stands for:
Get to “we” – Create a sense of unity with the person
Offer Alternatives – Give them choices so they feel they aren’t being forced
Match and lead to step down – Match the vocal intensity of the person and slowly lower your voice
Broken record – Repeat the same phrase over and over until the person corrects their behavior or leaves
Lose to win – Proactively make compromises to protect yourself or other people
“I” statements – Speak from your own position and perspective to voice your feelings without expressing judgment
Name the behavior – Focus on what someone is doing instead of passing judgment
The ABA is also a good resource to use for finding other de-escalation techniques that work for your particular store. You can find one such article here, but there are quite a few others.
The idea of a community space, as bookstores often are, is for all parties to feel safe & welcome. For some people that may mean being left alone and for others it might mean making a connection with fellow shoppers. Helping customers realize boundaries will help reinforce that your store wants everyone to feel welcome, safe, and comfortable.
Yours In Books,
We have a customer who comes in now and then and spends at least an hour talking with a bookseller about whatever's on his mind. The other day, he tried to engage another customer, who clearly felt uncomfortable about it and left the store without making a purchase. What can we do to discourage the garrulous customer from approaching other customers and scaring them off?
Comfortable Space Curator
Dear Comfortable Space Curator,
Ah, the delicate dance of engaging with a chatty customer. These customers can be delightful moments of sunshine that break up your day. Or, if it’s a busy day in a crowded store with a small staff, they can make things a bit more complicated. Based on your question and the fact that you periodically spend an hour speaking with this customer, we are going to assume for the purposes of this answer that, in general, this is a customer whose company you enjoy and isn’t a thorn in the side of you and your staff or isn’t someone who makes you feel unsafe when he enters the store. That’s good news! The unfortunate news is that he might have some difficulty reading cues from other customers and that he perhaps cost you a sale or a regular customer. You want the store to be a space where everyone feels comfortable shopping and if one customer is disrupting that experience for another customer, no matter how pleasant or well-meaning they are, it needs to be addressed.
First, let us say that chatting with a customer for an hour about whatever is on the customer’s mind is extraordinarily generous. Booksellers and bookstore owners are busy people, and while these conversations with customers are a highlight of the job, they also take time. So our first piece of advice would be to start setting some boundaries with this customer. After chatting with him for a few minutes, try saying something along the lines of, “It’s been so wonderful talking with you but I really do need to finish up a few things before the day gets away from me.” In saying this, you are reminding the customer that while the bookstore is warm and welcoming to him, it is still a place of business and you and your fellow booksellers are in the middle of a work day. Of course, if you enjoy spending an hour with this customer and it doesn’t interrupt the flow of your day, we fully and wholeheartedly support that!
So what to do after you’ve set that boundary and gone back to work only to see out of the corner of your eye that he has directed his chatty attention on a fellow customer who looks none too pleased? This is a situation where you might need to intervene and shift the chatty customer’s attention away from the quietly browsing customer. (As an aside: Sometimes customers like to chat with one another and we love to see it! It warms our hearts. However, this does not seem like one of those situations.) First, you should let the staff know that they do not have to handle this tricky situation alone and that they should always feel comfortable asking their manager to assist or intervene. Keep things friendly, but book-related; distract your chatty customer with a book recommendation as you gently and surreptitiously guide him away from the other customer. Maybe set the customer up at a table with a few recommendations you chose especially for him. This will, hopefully, subtly indicate to the browsing customer that you recognized their discomfort and attempted to adjust the situation while also making your chatty customer feel welcome - only in a different part of the store.
Yours In Books,
I’m in a pickle: I find myself in…a reading slump. I know, right??!? How does a bookseller handsell to customers when they are feeling so uninspired?
Desperately Seeking Some-Kind-Of-Guidance
First of all, cut yourself some slack. It happens to the best of us. And by the best of us we mean, quite literally, every single one of us. One minute you’re blazing through multiple books a week and the next you can barely read your horoscope. Nothing appeals to you. Every book you pick up feels the same. “Didn’t I read this already?,” you ask yourself. No, you did not. It just feels that way, as if you’ll never find a book that will make your heart sing again; as if every book is the same.
But you will read again! We promise. It might not happen overnight but you’ll get out of your slump eventually. And listen, even if you do spend a few months reading only your horoscope while watching Law & Order there’s nothing wrong with that even for a bookseller. However, you have come to NAIBA seeking practical advice and practical advice we shall give. So let’s address the first dilemma: Getting you out of your reading slump.
A few lightning-round suggestions to jump-start your reading all accompanied by exclamation points because we enthusiastically endorse these methods:
- Pick up a novella or short story collection! There’s nothing like finishing a short story on your lunch break to make you feel like a reader extraordinaire.
- Re-read a book you find comforting and cozy as a reminder that reading is pleasurable and joyous, not just a component of your job!
- Try something new and read a top-selling book in your store in a genre you've never read.
- Treat yourself and read a novel from or about a country that you’ve always wanted to visit.
- Become a customer and ask another bookseller for a recommendation. (in person, or on our NAIBAhood Discord server in the book recommendations channel)
While it might seem that being a bookseller in a reading slump makes it impossible to handsell, we assure you it isn’t. Even if you’re just not feeling it right now you aren’t some kind of bookselling phony-baloney. You have years of reading experience and lists of book suggestions to fall back on; you have coworkers ready and willing to help, and you have the curiosity and knowledge to ask your customer the right questions that will help you lead them to the right book. Plus, you have the added benefit of being deeply empathetic to your customer’s search for a good book that grabs their hand and won’t let go because you are looking for the same thing.
In fact, being a bookseller in a reading slump who is required to handsell might just be the perfect position to be in right now. No, really…Hey wait! Come back here! As we were saying, you are in an enviable position because inspiration for your next great read could be right in front of you in the form of your customer. Something really special happens when the customer becomes the bookseller. It’s magical. It’s kismet. And we highly recommend embracing these moments.
Yours In Reading, NAIBA
I’m a new bookseller about to experience my first holiday rush. I’m excited! But also...nervous. Do you have any tips for making it through the end of December with faculties and love of books intact?
Buddy The Elf
Congratulations! You’ve made it to the big-time! The holiday season looms large in the imagination of booksellers because it is large. Bookselling amplified. To the max. But it is also a very fun, festive, joyous time that allows you to bond with your co-workers and customers in the spirit of giving. Ideally. Here are a few suggestions, tips and tricks (in no particular order) to make this the best and most fun holiday season EVER!
If you are a store that offers gift wrapping and you don’t feel so confident about your skills-- practice! This doesn’t even need to happen on the floor with real-life customers just grab a few galleys and wrap ‘em up over the course of a week. You'll feel like a pro in no time. Once the rush is in full swing don’t be afraid to ask your co-workers for help with wrapping if you...just can’t...wrap...another gift.
Make sure you know the last date customers can special order books so that they arrive in time for (more-often-than-not) Christmas. If you are a store that offers shipping, there will probably be two separate dates: One for in-store pickup and one for shipping. Logistics are important!
Have a few titles to suggest to customers if you are sold out of THE book of the season, especially toward the end of the shopping season, when shipping sometimes slows down.
In that spirit, consider suggesting to your coworkers that you create a gift-guide with various titles, including but not limited to children’s books separated by age-group, to keep behind the counter as a reference. Or you can create one just for you as a way of having some suggestions right at your fingertips.
Hydrate! Be mindful of your physical and mental well-being. Stretch. Take a walk around the block if you need to. Maybe enjoy a little dance party if that’s appropriate. But also don’t forget to have some fun and enjoy the hustle and bustle.
Lean on your coworkers! Get to know their staff picks and recommendations so when asked to recommend something that might be outside your comfort zone you have a few titles to fall back on. Let your fellow booksellers be your personal bookseller.
One thing to remember when the phone is ringing off the hook, you’ve wrapped your hundredth gift, and heard “Holly Jolly Christmas” for what feels to be the millionth time that day: Every little extra bit of effort you make for a customer this time of year is appreciated tenfold and remembered for a very long time after.
Yours In Reading, NAIBA
What advice do you have for a new bookseller in a general interest store who is occasionally...stumped when asked to give children’s book recommendations? The stakes seem so high! I really want to put the perfect book in the perfect little hands as often as possible!
Alice In Wonderland
First, let us start by saying: You are not alone. Children’s bookselling is a wild, wonderful, rollercoaster ride of experiences. It’s literacy in action! It’s last-minute birthday party gifts! It’s proud grandparents! It’s impromptu read-alouds! And it can also be kind of nerve-wracking precisely for the reason you stated: You really want to get it right for these new and emerging readers.
Deep breath in and deep breath out. You’ve got this. You’re a professional bookseller with enthusiasm and expertise to spare. Our first bit of advice is to take the lay of the land. If the child is present, don’t be afraid to direct the conversation to them. Ask them about the last book they read that they really, really loved. And then ask them why they loved it! This will give you a sense of both their reading level and what they are interested in. Smaller bookworms might need some help from their grown-up expressing their likes and dislikes, but we guarantee they will be able to name a few of their favorite books and favorite things. Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions! Do they like realistic fiction or sci-fi/fantasy? Do they like laugh-out-loud books or ones on the more serious side? Once you have a few pieces of information, select some titles, give an overview of what the book is about, and then encourage the child to take time to look the books over themselves. It’s important that they know you want to help them find a book they love and that they can always say, “Hey, this isn’t my cup of tea!” and you won’t be offended. (Do children use that phrase? Do children drink tea that often? Probably not but you catch our drift.)
If you are assisting an adult who is buying a book for a child, they might start discussing lexile scores or tell you where the child is on the reading scale of the school they are attending. This can be confusing and while we are not saying to completely disregard these data points, we are saying don’t stress out if it sounds like they are speaking a foreign language. Instead, ask what grade the child is in and some of the books they know the child likes so you can puzzle out their reading level and interests. Some other questions to ask might be: Are you looking for a book to read together or will the child be reading independently? For picture books, are you looking for books that have more of a linear story or ones that are a bit more impressionistic? If these questions still yield few dividends and the grown-up still seems to be at a complete loss (though this happens very rarely!) you still have options! Two beautiful words: Graphic. Novel. Most kids like graphic novels and they are AWESOME. However, if possible, try to avoid the more popular titles (Dog Man, Wimpy Kid, Raina Telgemeier) as the child may have already read them. And if that still has you stumped take a trip down memory lane and ask the adult what they liked to read as a child and use that as a jumping-off point to make suggestions.
A gentle note about YA: Sometimes you’ll encounter a young reader who has blazed through all of the middle-grade selections and might be ready to move on to YA. As we all know, there are a wide-range of experiences expressed on the YA shelf and you want to make sure what you’re recommending is appropriate to both the reading and the emotional level of the young customer. This also might be the time to go into a bit more detail about the books you are recommending.
Can we be corny for a minute? Children’s bookselling, whether it is something you do full-time or periodically, is, and we don’t use this word lightly, magical. Stressful? Yes. Overwhelming at times? Of course. But to think that you might be recommending what will become a child’s favorite book? That makes us giddy just thinking about it and we hope this helps even a tiny bit.
Yours In Reading,
Interested in learning about leveled readers from an expert? Join us for Noon With NAIBA: Level Up https://www.naiba.com/events/noon-with-naiba-level-up