Being Assertively Friendly

by Jeff Kober, contributing writer

What does it mean to be assertively friendly? Disney's been using that expression off and on for years. It's shown up in a variety of places over the years. Of course, no one questions that Disney has been known for years as being friendly. But assertively friendly?

At face value, one might be concerned that being assertively friendly means "in your face" courtesy. Of course, there's a problem with that. Such an approach can be received poorly at times, or even "weird." Too much of it, and suddenly Disney seems more "Stepford" or "Animatronic." Neither would be appropriate. So what does assertive mean?

I rather prefer thinking of assertive as being "proactive" or "forward-thinking." My daughter in college thinks of a door being pushed open.

Speaking of my daughter, I asked her what assertive friendliness looked like, and she described protocol required of employees at the counter service restaurant where she works. There, every employee is required to greet their customers when they walk into the place with a "Welcome to [name of store]". Every day, every customer. You should greet the customers with "Welcome to [name of the store]".

You've had this experience—it's common to many different shops and restaurants where they greet you with a rote expression. But that's the problem, and how it plays out for my daughter and so many others. It becomes rote after a while. Any excitement wears out when you're asked to do the exact same thing day in/day out. And then when boredom sits in, mischievous workers start utilizing other creative catch phrases to endure the mundane activity.

My partner and I worked with a major hotelier on a customer service/leadership project. The client said that many of the more international locations of their hotels wanted "scripted" greetings as well as responses. "Just tell us what to say and we'll get them to say it." And some hotels have defined themselves over the years for having provided certain scripted greetings.

But little of that works well with customers in today's world. If anything—it's ruining the customer experience in the end. Which brings up an important question: Why do we even bother greeting or talking to customers? The answer is that we want to build Guest loyalty through great (not good) customer service. We want our customers and guests to continue visiting our business and utilizing our products and services. How do we do this? We do this through creating relationships and providing service that meets—or better yet—exceeds their expectations.

So let's suppose we're a cast member at Uptown Jewelers on Main Street USA at The Magic Kingdom. How do we start a conversation? There are several ways, and all of them can succeed if applied appropriately. Let's look at each:

1. Open-ended questions – These are great because they provide wider opportunities for understanding your guests. The following are examples of open-ended questions you may want to ask those you meet:

  • What other parks or attractions have you visited?
  • What Disney friends do you most enjoy visiting when you come here?
  • How are you planning on spending your time today?

Open-ended questions are great. That's because they are the fastest way to better understanding our customers. And understanding our customers is critical if you are to provide great, tailored service that exceeds expectations. But there are other ways to kick-start a conversation.

2. Closed-ended questions –The next are closed-ended questions. What are some examples of closed-ended questions:

  • Where are you from?
  • Have you ever collected or traded pins?

Closed-ended questions are often those that are answered with a short response, or a “yes” or “no.” There is nothing wrong with this. It can be a starting place if it helps you to clarify their needs, but they are best used, when there is an open-ended question following. Alone, they are not very useful, unless the Guest takes the question and elaborates. For instance, asking: "How are you?" is typically going to foster the response "Fine." Where do you go from there? While that may break the ice, it doesn't go any where. You want to ask closed-ended questions that can help you go some where. In other words, you want to think through where you want to go with response that will take you to a better place. For example:

Is this your first time at the park?

  • If so – “What do you think? How are you enjoying your time?:
  • If not, – “What are your favorite attractions when you visit?”

3. Finding commonalities– Finding something in common makes conversation much easier to direct. Clothing, accessories, articles of possession, hometowns, even shared names are places where people find something in common.

  • "From your cap and T-shirt I can tell you’re a Magic fan. Did you see last Friday’s game?"
  • "You have twins. My sister has twins as well. What are their ages?"

4. Directing their attention – Focusing your conversation toward something other than the two of you is another way to create conversation. An animal on display, a particular store item, or simply flowers in bloom and be a great way to direct the conversation and get it started. What are some examples of directing their attention?

  • "I like the Tinkerbell shirt you have on. We just got a new set of Tinkerbell and her friends."
  • "I see you're newlyweds. Congratulations, did you get an honorary pin for you to wear?"

5. Offering compliments– Complimenting an individual or members of their party makes for a great opportunity to build relationships. But make the compliment is specific and genuine. Let's look at some examples:

  • "That looks like a great stroller? Does it fold up easy?"
  • "That's a great looking hairstyle. Is it easy to keep up?"
  • "So you’re a veteran? Which branch did you serve in? Well thank you for your service."

6. Talking weather– Discussing the weather is an often-used topic, but it’s disarming, and gets the customer talking about something where anyone can be the expert. The opportunity is to use the topic as a transition to better meeting their needs. What are some examples of discussing the weather?

  • "Your jacket looks warm. Where did you buy it?"
  • "Well, at least you’re in from out of the heat now. What brings you in aside from the hot weather?"

In summary, small talk and simple questions serve an important purpose when they help us to build relationships, and to deliver exemplary service. What are some do's and don'ts about initiating conversations.

Let's start with the do nots:

  • Don’t talk only about yourself.
  • Say anything that sounds rote or canned. We talked about that earlier with my daughter's work.
  • Drill with questions. The intent is not to know everything about the person, or even to keep the conversation going as long as possible. The purpose is to build relationships, find opportunities to serve others, and inspire others, naturally.
  • Invade their personal space. Be especially aware of this when it comes to dealing with other cultures.
  • Avoid topics that are too c ontroversial or political.

Here are some dos:

  • Provide eye contact.
  • Smile.
  • Listen.
  • Acknowledge immediately.
  • Keep up and refer to current events—especially about what’s going on at the zoo.
  • Use their name whenever available or known.
  • Individualize whenever possible.
  • Find subjects they may know something about.
  • Get on the same level with smaller children.

Most importantly, learn something about them so that you can better serve them.

We'll share some simple, yet essential ways to read your customers next time. Until then, here's to the magic in your own business.