For the past month or so I’ve been helping out some friends three days a week at the stand they have at Lancaster Central Market. It’s the oldest, continuously running farmer’s market in the country, dating back to the 1700′s, with the current building dating back into the 19th century.

The stand has been in the family for decades, and the folks I work for have owned it for about three years now. In fact, if you hear me talking about the #WorldsBestBacon, well, this is the stand it comes from. As I help them, I love watching them engage with the people who come by, both regulars who are there almost every time the market is open, to tourists who are visiting market for the first time. I love watching how the more than 60 standholders interact with each other as well, visiting one another’s stands, and talking across the aisles, even purchasing one another’s goods. It’s something you don’t really see in malls or other facilities where multiple businesses are sharing space.

During my time there I’ve learned a lot about how relationships are formed, and know that I’ll be learning a lot more in the months to come. The fact is, there is no quick and easy way to build relationships, either online or offline. I’ve gotten to know some of the customers, but to varying degrees. So as you build your online presence, here are a few lessons on what it really takes to build relationships, no matter where they exist:

Listen

Listening is almost always the first thing you should do. As people approach the market stand, I not only listen to them, but I listen to hear how my more experienced coworkers speak with them. This gives me a feel for protocol, as well as for what it is that draws people in. I get to hear their questions, and see how they are answered. In short, it helps me learn. A lot.

Engage

Once I’ve listened, and the learning curve kicks in, I can be a bit more bold in engaging them. This might include asking them a question as simple as, “May I help you?” or if they just seem to be browsing, say something like, “Let me know if you have any questions.” It let’s them know I’m there and ready to help. Throughout the entire transaction, engagement and regular communication is important, in order to make sure they get what they want and need.

Take the initiative

This can be difficult for some people, but sometimes engagement means me reaching out first and making sure they know I’ve recognized their presence. This is a tricky one, because we’ve all been in that situation at a store where pushy salespeople seem to be everywhere and in our face. A little bit of boldness, and the right measure of initiative can go a long way.

Ask Questions

Asking questions is one of the best ways to get to know your customers and build a deeper understanding of who they are. We have regular customers who come nearly every day the stand is open. Each time, I learn a little bit more about them, but if I take the initiative, and ask them questions, I can speed up the process. For instance, there’s a young couple that stops by regularly, and we joke around a bit. But I was curious as to their story. Do they live nearby, work nearby, or both? By asking them, I discovered that the guy has a journalism degree from UNC and the woman has undergraduate and graduate degrees in Russian. Neither of them are working in their chosen field at the moment, but it gave me greater insight into them, and opened the door for deeper conversations. Sometimes if I can tell that someone is a tourist, I’ll ask them where they are from, often sparking another great conversation.

Asking questions opens doors, and each open door leads you deeper into a customer/business relationship.

Provide Great Customer Service

This should be a no-brainer, but providing great customer service is a great way of building and deepening relationships. No one wants to be in a relationship of any sort with someone who isn’t helpful. But if you are helpful and accommodating, people are attracted to you. They want to talk to you and about you. They want to tell others, and they want to come back to experience this over and over again.

Know when to go for the sale

At one end of the stand is the area where we display the bacon. It is shown in three forms: slab, thick cut, and regular cut. And it’s funny to watch people walk by and get whiplash from rubbernecking. People see the bacon and stop. And stare. Any bacon lover will understand this. It’s a beautiful thing. When I see this happening, I’ll often engage the person with perhaps the hardest sell I know:

“It’s the World’s Best Bacon, you know…”

And more often than not, it draws them in. I tell them about the bacon, explain that I’ve been a fan for more than a year, much longer than the short time I’ve worked there, and I extol the virtues of this bacon. And while I’m not sure of my success rate, quite a few sales have come from those people who were just planning on walking right by. I convince them of their “need” for this bacon, and they are always happy. I’ve never had anyone come back and tell me otherwise, though a number of those folks have become regular customers. For the bacon.

Tell stories

When I talk to the customers, I’ll often tell them stories about the products. Just a week or so ago, a man came up and said:

“I have a confession to make. I cheated on you. I bought bacon from the grocery store.”

He then went on to tell us that when he served it up for his young kids, they looked at him and told him in no uncertain terms that what he had put in front of them was definitely NOT bacon. And now here he was, returning like the prodigal son to make it right.

I have told that story to a number of customers, and it’s amazing how many of them agree. They understand. And as I hear what they have to say, they are giving me more stories to tell other customers. So I’m not just telling my stories, I’m telling their stories. And it makes my conversations more personal and personable.

Know your products

This is so you can speak intelligently about them, and answer questions when your customers ask them. I get all sorts of questions about the taste and texture of various cheeses, and it helps when I’ve actually tasted the products and can describe them. If they ask about something I haven’t tried, I can turn to my coworkers and have them weigh in with their expertise. Being knowledgeable about your business is important.

But if someone asks a question which you can’t answer, there is a level of magic in admitting that you just don’t know. People love that, especially if you promise to get an answer for them.

Truly, there is no quick and easy way to build relationships; it takes time. But with the right amount of effort, you can speed up the process a little bit and cultivate those relationships, rather than just waiting for them to happen on their own. Those same offline methods that you see and use everyday work just as well online.

Oh, and bacon helps. A lot. So if you’re ever in Lancaster, stop on by Riverbound Deli, say “Hi,” and grab a pound or two of bacon.

Have you had difficulty building relationships with your customers online? What methods have you found that work?