Making The Most of Every “How Do You Do?”

Customer Service is Marketing. We’ve been hammering that home for years. I’m not going to try to convince you this is true; instead, for the next few paragraphs, I’d love to share some tips I’ve learned about how to turn the most basic greetings into opportunities to win over loyal customers.

“Hi! How are you?”

“How are you doing today?”

“How do you do?”

We hear some variation of this greeting in stores, restaurants, the workplace and essentially anywhere humans gather several times per day. The most common response: “Fine.” Or, if you’ve encountered someone with manners, “Fine, thanks.”

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We’ve let the mundaneness of the exchange sap its words of any real value, care or concern. This is precisely why fine tuning your approach to this phrase can unlock tons of potential for you and your business!

When I was in college, I waited tables and tended bar. My typical course load each semester involved at least two literature classes. Being the nerd that I was, I started paying attention to how language affected my interactions–and even my prosperity–in the workplace. As I was trained, “Hi! How are you doing today?” was a perfectly warm, hospitable greeting for a customer. I didn’t necessarily care about the response; it was just part of the routine to make sure you greeted everyone with the chance to tell you how they were doing. The vast majority of people were always doing, “Fine.”

I began to wonder how I might inquire about my customers’ well-being without feeling so rote. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that what I learned from that experiment rings true many years later. Here are my not-so-ground-breaking secrets for turning “How do you do?” into an opportunity for success.

Tip #1: Listen & Respond

Because we’ve heard, “How are you doing?” so many gosh darn times in our lives, we tend to react to the question and give a response without thinking much about it. Imagine if we responded–that is, we took in the data, reviewed it and then proceeded based on the data. What might that do?

Well, for starters, it shocks the pants off of the other party in the verbal exchange, and gets them to start paying attention. Let’s assume the conversation begins with you asking “How are you doing?” and the customer responding, “Good.” What are some ways you might respond?

I’m happy to hear that. What’s got you feeling so good today?

Instead of jumping right into the next part of your conversation rhythm, letting the customer know that you’re happy to hear they’re doing well implicitly shows that you regard their well-being. By following-up with a question about why they’re doing “Good,” you initiate rapport building that can give you cues for how to proceed with the rest of the interaction.

Are they feeling good because it’s a nice day out? Great! Chat about the weather with them and tie that back to your business. What from your menu or services do you recommend on a day with weather like you’re observing? Let the customer know!

Are they feeling good because of a previous interaction? Wonderful! Get the customer talking about that interaction to give you clues on how they like to be treated so that you can win them over with a similar approach.

Are they simply routinely dispositioned to be having a good day? Well, at least you’ve got a pleasant customer on your hands!

Oh, wow. That’s, like, a B- on a report card. How can we get you to an A+ today?

This is one of my favorites. Any way that you indicate it’s your job to make the customer’s day better is a way to set a bar for your own performance, and to show you care about the customer experience. It also opens the door for feedback about your business (especially if you’re a customer service rep responding to an inbound customer inquiry) or opportunities to set yourself apart from other average-performing businesses around you.

The general idea here is that if a customer replies that they are doing anything less than AMAZING, you should identify that there’s room for improvement in their day and that you want to partner with them to make things even better than they are.

Variations on this include:

  • Would a free sample of [insert product] take you from Good to Awesome?

  • I’m pleased to hear that. I hope you don’t mind if we try to take things from Good to Outstanding today!

A quick aside: When you are the customer, you actually have a lot of power here, too. Few things get a waiter, bartender, retail associate, customer service rep, et. al. to pay more attention than if you surprise them with your response. My favorite? When someone asks me, “How are you doing today?” I almost always respond, “I’m living the dream!” It’s uncommon enough to disrupt the routine of a greeting, and almost always gets a chuckle. I’d rather work with someone who is smiling and pleasantly surprised–wouldn’t you?

Tip #2: Switch it up for repeat customers

I love repeat customers–they tend to know what they want, they’ll let you know how you’re doing and you can usually figure out a topic for conversation with them pretty easily. A few ways to engage repeat customers in a way that keeps them interested in doing business with you:

What’s the latest on [topic from last time]?

This is basically the rote sales tactic where you make sure you know your customers’ kids’ names, what sports they play, what room in their house they’re renovating, where they’re going on vacation next, etc. The basic premise: Who doesn’t love talking about themselves?

This one obviously worked especially well when I was busy on the other side of the bar. I could listen to the customer while making drinks for someone else and indicate my active listening with the occasional, “Oh wow. That’s great!”

I once had a customer come in about 30 minutes before closing every night when I tended bar in New York City, and he would tell me the latest about his new novel. I’d ask about whether this character survived a situation or ask for reminders on who was related to whom in the latest draft of his book–all while cleaning up my bar area.

I had always been concerned that striking down the bar and doing work that wasn’t 100% devoted to getting my customers drinks might be considered rude, but this guy never seemed to mind. We’d chat for 30 minutes–him enjoying his scotch and me wiping down surfaces and putting away bottles for the night (note: I did NOT spray sanitizer on the bar or in the area of the customer; that would just be a health hazard!)–all while chatting about his latest project. Without fail, he was my biggest tipper of the night every time he came in, which I take as testament to the power of actually listening to and engaging the familiar faces for your business.

Okay . . . but what if I forget my repeat customer’s name or their interests? I’m out of luck, right? Not to worry! This actually happens all the time. And it’s solved with one key phrase:

How have you been?

No need for a name. No need for specificity of topic or interest. Just a simple acknowledgement that you’ve seen them before, time has elapsed since you last saw them, and now you’d like to know how they’ve been in the interim.

You may get a response similar to if you ask, “How are you doing?” but I found that the slight alteration of syntax and indication of familiarity provides a springboard into deeper conversation. Instead of asking someone how they are doing right now (to which they react), the change in syntax when you ask, “How have you been?” is often enough to get the customer to pause, think about the time since you last saw them, and then answer (that is, they respond). As often as possible, you should strive to get your customers to respond rather than react so that they are more mentally present to you as a customer. Of course, if they do simply react with a “Good” or “Fine,” you can refer to Tip #1 above.

As the customer responds to your question, a great follow on is, “Oh really? Tell me more.” The key here is to indicate you are invested in this person and their experience, and that you value them enough to go beyond the programmatic How are you/I’m fine exchange.

Tip #3: Use all available data

This is a fancy way of saying stop, look and listen before you speak. Why? Sometimes you can jump passed “how are you doing?” into a conversation starter. Some cues:

  • Parents with a young child: “How’s my little buddy doing today?”

    • Works because: Parents love talking about their kids and “little buddy” is gender neutral enough to avoid identifying someone’s precious baby girl as a boy; if a parent feels especially harangued by their day (usually if they find themselves responsible for multiple kids), they’re grateful to have the attention taken off of them for a spell

  • Couple arm-in-arm or sitting next to each other at their table: “Are we celebrating a special occasion today?”

    • Works because: Even if the answer is “No,” you’re letting them feel that you sense something special. Of course, if the answer is, “Yes,” you’ve got your lead to say congratulations, etc., and make recommendations on how to celebrate

  • An entire family together: “Is this the whole the family?”

    • Works because: You get to remark how rare it is for entire families to get together, which should make your customers feel special. Also opens the door to chat about your family traditions . . . which may or may not include specials on your menu, goods in your store, etc.

  • Someone coming in from ridiculous weather (heat/rain/snow): “Well, I’m glad you made in here and out of that heat/rain/snow. What’s it like out there?”

    • Works because: It’s a more specific version of the, “How can we make this day better for you?” prompt in Tip #1 above. After the customer has a chance to vent about the weather, you have a chance to make a recommendation on how to improve their experience

The moral of the story is that each one of us has an opportunity to hijack a commonplace, expected verbal exchange and make it into something more. By listening, responding, remembering and customizing how you ask your customers how they’re doing, you can strike up rapport, tailor customer solutions and make very happy, very loyal customers.

So, faithful readers, how HAVE you been? Sound off in the comments below.

See you out there!

Discuss This Article

Comments: 1

  • Cheyserr says:

    This article is amazing. Simple greetings but definitely catchy and engaging. Customers are always delighted when you pay attention to them, a perfect customer centric approach.

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