Heidi Sax left her store manager position at a luxury intimates brand more than two years ago, but she still keeps in touch with some of her best customers.
She recalls an angry woman had come into the store to complain that her favourite bra was discontinued. Instead of trying to steer her toward something else, Sax told her she wouldn’t waste her time. Instead, she took her number, and when a similar version of the bra popped up in a collection two seasons later, Sax pre-ordered dozens of them. The woman remained a regular customer, and the two remained friends even after Sax left the brand.
“Our relationship was never really transactional,” Sax said. “Clienteling isn’t about selling every single time. It’s a long-term view.”
Clienteling — the industry term for developing one-on-one relationships with customers — has become a top priority for many retailers, which are scrambling to hold onto customers who stopped visiting stores during the pandemic. Some brands have armed sales associates with apps and other technology that makes it easier to reach consumers and tell them what they want to hear. But many stick with tried-and-true tactics, whether it’s sending a text when an item is back in stock or calling a favourite customer just to check in. And though it’s typically luxury labels using the personal touch to court their biggest spenders, mass-market brands are also finding ways to convert casual customers into lifetime shoppers.
Clienteling isn’t about selling every single time. It’s a long-term view.
“There’s a fear sometimes that clienteling is this lofty thing,” said Adam Levene, co-founder of Hero, a virtual shopping app used by retailers and brands that allows sales associates to communicate with shoppers via text, video or online chat. “But being able to stay in touch with customers even in small ways...can go a long way.”
Still, clienteling can be a tricky undertaking. Especially for first-time sales associates, the prospect of reaching out to a customer is daunting. The boundary between an eager stylist and an annoying one can be hard to navigate. Below, BoF outlines eight best practice guidelines for building customer relationships, from the importance of inventory visibility to the power of a simple “Thank You” note.
Give store employees autonomy
The most essential part of clienteling is the retail workforce: sales associates, store managers and the everyday service staff that either greet and help consumers in stores or online via customer service. These employees are essentially brand ambassadors — and they need to be given the power to manage relationships with customers.
You want to allow store associates to sell when they’re not in front of the customer.
“You want to allow store associates to sell when they’re not in front of the customer,” said Stephan Schambach, chief executive of NewStore, another retailer service that allows store employees to access customer data and message customers in one interface, whether at the store or at home.
Levene’s Hero app includes a chat function that pairs live online shoppers with sales associates in their local stores. Online-only brands can clientele too through the live chat function, no store necessary.
Sales associates also require access to more data so they can easily check whether an item is available and have product photos to send to their customers.
Inventory visibility comes in handy when a customer in New York is interested in a dress but her size isn’t in stock at her local store. With the ability to see everything in stock in every brand location, the sales associate should be able to search the item, ship it from wherever it is, and then complete the purchase right there.
“When you’re promising a client, ‘Hey, I can get you this pair of shoes,’ then immediately the sales associate should know where they have it in stock today,” whether that’s in a warehouse or a flagship in Chicago, said Zornitza Stefanova, founder of BSPK, another customer relationship management app for brands and retailers.
When messaging customers via SMS or social media channels, associates also need photos of products to make personalised recommendations. At boutique Elysewalker, stylists are encouraged to take their own photos of merchandise for instance and share on Instagram, while BSPK allows store employees direct access to product images from brands’ internal libraries and use them in threads with customers, or create their own content to share.
Avoid transactional language
While store associates may be ultimately incentivised by driving sales to develop relationships, the most effective forms of outreach begin with asking consumers about themselves: what they do, where they live, whether they have kids.
It’s not a loss if a customer walks out of the store empty-handed as long as you’ve listened to them.
“It’s not a loss if a customer walks out of the store empty-handed as long as you’ve listened to them and know when you can reach out to them next and why,” said Sax.
Elyse Walker, founder of her namesake chain of boutiques, said she encourages her team to be honest with customers when they’re trying on an unflattering product.
“One thing I tell every stylist is if you tell a client ‘I’ve seen you look better, I think we can do better than that,’ you’re not losing a sale, you’re building a relationship of trust,” Walker said.
A ‘Thank You’ goes a long way
Often, the easiest way to begin a conversation with a customer is after they make their first purchase. Walker, for instance, asks all of her stylists to send a ‘thank you’ text to their customers every time they make a purchase. It’s also an opportunity to let shoppers know a brand’s specialised offerings, Walker added, pointing to her store’s subscription box service, Memo.
“You should always follow up on a purchase and see if you can get a response,” said Sax. “People appreciate being reached out by an actual person, and it doesn’t happen very often. "
Stefanova said she was inspired to start BSPK after visiting a store in Las Vegas. She didn’t buy anything, but a sales associate followed up later with a text including a photo of her in a dress that she had tried on.
“Two days later, I bought the dress, had a fantastic experience and ended up buying a lot more stuff from the same sales associate,” Stefanova said.
Keep an organised customer database
In order to fully personalise customer outreach, a brand must have a comprehensive view of shoppers’ purchase history and the ability to sort this data by category, such as the top 100 customers by sales volume, and what they purchased.
Customers who bought a pair of shoes last year could then be contacted when a new version is released, for instance. But a poorly organised database can lead to problems, such as having multiple entries for the same customer, which gives sales associates an incomplete and confusing view of the customer’s purchase history. It could also lead to mistakes such as sending repeat messages to the same shopper.
Different customers require different strategies
Clothing line Rails homed in on clienteling this summer when the pandemic delayed the launch of its stores and disrupted its wholesale business. Early on, the brand identified its top 100 customers and sent them custom sweatshirts with their names embroidered on them. Average order volume among these customers jumped 400 percent afterward, said founder Jeff Abrams.
Brands should have different communication strategies for different groups of customers, such as first-time shoppers, all-around VIPs, customers with birthdays approaching, and repeat customers who like to shop around the holidays. When messaging a customer in the holiday category, for instance, sales associates know when to make contact (November) and what to say (gift guide recommendations).
Use automation sparingly
Automated messaging may be emerging as another popular marketing tactic for brands, but clienteling experts say it is can be the antithesis to what they do.
“If a message is sent by a machine, I think it’s an intrusion,” said Schambach.
One-to-one texting, on the other hand, allows the opportunity for customers to text back, and when that happens, conversions will likely follow.
“When it’s not a mass message and it’s personal, people are more likely to buy,” said Levene. “That element of personalisation and being able to do it at scale, that’s more powerful than automated blasts.”
When it’s not a mass message and it’s personal, people are more likely to buy.
Even if the nature of the text message can be automated, such as in the case of notifying customers of a big sale or when an item they expressed interest in comes back in stock, it’s still better when it’s personal.
Hero’s Levene points to beauty brands as one example where average order volume tends to be low but replenishment is always needed, providing an opportunity to text customers three or four months after their purchase about making a repeat purchase.
Emphasise the human touch
If bots are to be avoided, then sales associates should come off as personal as they can when they get in touch with customers. It could be as easy as adding a headshot in the signature of an email to a customer or brands giving sales associates individual business cards to hand out to customers.
Quotas should also be approached with caution, according to Stefanova, because shoppers can clearly discern a blasted mass message from a personal one.
“Customers want to be recognised, they want to be applauded for buying their merchandise, as long as you’re assuring them that you won’t spam them,” Sax said. “That part of it, they’ll get annoyed with.”