Waiting in LineHere I am at a local bookstore. Book in hand. Money in hand. Ready to trade one for the other. Simple, right?

Not so much. Here is the conversation I ended up having:

Me: Hi, I’d like to buy these books.
Them: Can I have your phone number for your store membership?
Me: I’m not a member.
Them: Can we interest you in a membership?
Me: No thanks.
Them: How about our branded credit card, for a 25% discount?
Me: No thanks.
Them: I’m surprised you’re not a member. You look familiar.
Me: I do come here sometimes.
Them: Really, it seems like you come here a lot. (Note: I’ve written more books on the shelf of this store than I’ve bought there this year.)
Me: (Silently enduring more questions until she finally rings up my books.)

It struck me later that the last time I traveled overseas, going through customs was easier and less hassle than purchasing these books. Even though I really want to support bricks-and-mortar businesses nowadays, a lot of their problems are self-inflicted wounds.

So you may be thinking, “So what. I’m not a big bookstore. I am a small business. I’m not that bad.”

Good point – I agree. You aren’t that bad. Often, you are much, much worse.

A bookstore clerk is probably only following orders. Add in the challenging cash flow, tight profit margins, and personal stake that many small businesses have, and often they turn into a full-blown customer prevention squad. Here are some of my experiences:

  • Sales people who can’t let it rest when it comes to selling expensive add-ons.
  • Boutique clothing stores where salespeople hover over me like Dracula and constantly do suggestive selling.
  • And don’t get me started on my experiences with car dealers. I am convinced that if we had to buy food the way we purchase automobiles, many of us would voluntarily starve to death.

Hassling your customers to buy things is very effective – at driving them away. They are the business equivalent of a principle known as the tragedy of the commons, where farmers collectively graze land into ruin as long as their cows get there first. Except in this case, you are driving your customers online, or to larger competitors.

My advice? First, start thinking in terms lowering customer barriers instead of raising them.

Second, change your mindset. There is a subtle but important difference between trying to help us versus browbeating us to make a sale – learn it.

Third, ask the golden question: did I treat this customer in a way that he or she would be raring to come back to my business?

I realize that I am swimming upstream against a world of advice that preaches upselling, adding value, and quote-unquote “consultative selling.” Fineall of this may have its place. Just remember what the most powerful sales coach of all, your customer, would teach you: if you make a pain in the ass of yourself instead of serving us, we will move on.

Happy selling!