Justin Tunstall of Town Mill Cheesemonger shares the highs and lows of life as a cheese seller

“Allow me to introduce myself”

We stood by the board in the restaurant, which requested “Please wait here to be seated”. Eventually a waiter came up (several had passed us by) and said: “You alright there?” Clearly, we were not, as service was unlikely to be as forthcoming as the easel. Nonetheless, meekly, I asked for a table

When a different waiter came to take our order, he prefaced his spiel with “You alright there?” Again I let it pass, but over the next five minutes or so, I heard the phrase being used again and again, by different waiting staff all around the restaurant. What I might have taken as a cheery informal greeting, had it been a one-off, was clearly the tiresome cliché of the day. In a service role, it’s very easy to slip into saying things by rote, and when this happens it can be counter-productive.

The first lesson in the sales training that I undertook in the 1970s was that “You never have a second chance to make a first impression”. Getting visitors into a positive frame of mind, ready to shop, can be a nuanced process. It’s obvious that they should be welcomed, made to feel valued and given the information they need to have a pleasant shopping experience.

Some outlets enshrine the welcome as part of their brand: “Have you been to a Harvester before?” Short, simple and immortalised in a TV campaign from the 80s. Of course, it doesn’t work in quite the same way in a noncorporate environment. Regular customers don’t expect to be greeted as though they are first-timers, but may be difficult to identify.

In my shop many of my ‘regulars’ were actually annual visitors, popping in during their yearly holidays. Having upset some who expected to be recognised from a fleeting visit over 12 months before, my stock greeting became: “Hello! You’ve been here before, haven’t you?” Those customers who in fact had never ventured into the cheesemonger before would happily correct my assumption, while the ‘regulars’ felt valued and recognised.

Recently I visited a friend’s large food outlet. He issues his sizeable platoon of floor staff with the instruction that they should stop whatever they are doing, welcome the shopper and ask if they might be of assistance. It works well in his environment. In a smaller, owner-operated enterprise, it may not always be as easy. If I’m at a cuttingboard, already serving another customer, I try to make eye contact and offer a welcome to new entrants to the shop – I’ll offer the newcomer a taste of whatever cheese I’m working on. If I’m tending to a cheese – stripping its cloth, trimming or wrapping it, I seek to engage the new customer with the process. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sold Red Leicester after offering them a smell of the cheesecloth.

Customers do not want to be addressed by an automaton. Human interaction and warmth will always succeed in winning their custom; trite clichés will not.

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