Please Hang Up So I Can Serve You! Serving the Smartphone-Distracted Customer

Please Hang Up So I Can Serve You! Serving the Smartphone-Distracted Customer

When you think about mobile devices and their impact on the in-person customer experience, have you considered that nearly 2 billion people will have Smartphones by 2017?

Consider how your employees serve distracted customers.  

  • Do your retail associates stand awkwardly while a distracted cell phone talker holds up the line?
  • Do your restaurant servers wait for diners to look up from their cell phones?
  • Do your new accounts personnel approach waiting customers, only to find them with their heads down, texting away?   

From restaurants to banks to retail stores and beyond, busy associates encounter the same challenge – customers who multi -task with cell phone conversations, texting or using an Ipad.  In response to this growing phenomenon, we wanted to take a closer look at the ways that distracted customers impact customer experience in these industries. 

Mobile-crazed Diners   

Rather than embracing mobile trends, some restaurants simply ask customers not to use their cell phones inside their locations.  For example, George Aiken's restaurant in Pittsburgh posts a sign asking diners to stay off their cell phones while ordering their meals. Other restaurant strategies accommodate mobile diners.  Here are some examples of strategies that work with mobile diners as opposed to against them:

  1. Large chain restaurants now train their employees to size up the dining situation and then customize the customer interaction accordingly.  Servers learn how to “read” the situation at each table.  If the customer is using a cell phone or is deep in conversation, the employee lays a hand on the table to gain the diners’ attention.  Rather than delivering the same suggestive selling scripts, servers tailor what they say and do based on the situation at each table.  Diners who share a laptop, for example, may not be interested in appetizers that can be shared, because they would need to pass the food over the laptop. So, the employee would not recommend shared appetizers in this situation. 

  2. Some restaurants welcome diners who are mobile-distracted, because it allows for the restaurant to interact and connect more with customers through social media. For example, a diner, while at the table, may look up a Yelp review and order an item that was recommended in the review.  Restaurant managers may learn that a favorite customer has checked in through Foursquare, and then know to look for the customer and greet them. 

  3. Offering small plates to guests with cell phones takes the strategy one step further. The plates protect cell phones from food and drink spills and the gesture tells the customers that their mobile devices are welcome there!

 Distracted Bank Customers

 Years ago, some banks viewed customers on cell phones not as customer service challenges, but as security concerns.  A bank in Chicago even banned customer cell phone usage at five of its branches, because they feared that robbers would use them to communicate with a designated lookout person outside.  Now, with many more customers using mobile devices everywhere including inside the branch, banks are more accommodating.   As banking becomes more commoditized, bankers know that one of the few ways that they can differentiate their financial institution is with top-notch service. They train employees on how to best handle interactions with cell phone users who tie up teller lines, or customers who talk loudly on their cell phones in the bank lobby.  The better banks go beyond offering mobile banking to using the right etiquette with mobile customers when they meet them face to face.

For many banks, referrals generate a significant number of new customers.   To keep referrals coming, banks need to provide all customers, especially distracted ones, with great service.  It’s no surprise that banks realize the payoffs for training employees on how to graciously interrupt texting customers as well as how to encourage a new customer to sign up for text alerts.  They know that if bank employees do not interact well with distracted customers, customers won’t hesitate to post their negative thoughts about the bank on Twitter or other social media platforms.  They also know that if this same customer has an excellent experience, they may post a great compliment online.

Busy Retail Customers

Restaurants and banks are not alone. Retailers face challenges in serving customers who text, browse or talk while shopping.   Whether the customer is trying on shoes, waiting for an espresso or waiting to pay for a purchase in the checkout line; retail managers need to train employees on how to best interact with distracted consumers.    

For retailers, mobile-bound customers offer the following challenges for employees:

  • Feeling Insignificant:  Some employees struggle with an appropriate response when a customer’s behavior, including lack of eye contact, makes them feel insignificant.  Despite the fact that the customer’s behavior is rude, employees need to move beyond their feelings and find a way to engage the customer.  They must gain the customer’s attention in a positive manner, in order to make the sale and to assist other customers who may be waiting.

  • Mobile Price Shopping:   When the customer tells the store associate that they have just looked up a competitor’s price or offer online, what is the best way for the associates to respond? Retailers need to train employees to be prepared for these questions from mobile savvy customers.

  • Under Staffing:  With almost unlimited information and options available to the consumer through mobile devices, some retail companies feel that they need to spend dollars on strategies including NBOs (next best offers, or personalized, online offers delivered to customers quickly) rather than on staffing their stores.  Store associates to feel more pressure in understaffed stores, and their attitudes may reflect their frustration.  They may not provide a high level of services because they are more pressed for time, and may feel frustrated with long lines. The result is less than perfect customer service.

  • Need for More Knowledge:  With information instantly available at their fingertips, mobile users are knowledgeable about competitor products and pricing. Employees need to know their own products very well, their unique benefits and competitive details to converse intelligently with mobile distracted customers.

Here are some possible solutions for any industry:


To face these challenges, retail stores, restaurants and banks need a combination of attractive online offers and sufficient staffing at retail locations.  Managers should train store staff on how to interact with distracted customers, because this customer group will only grow in numbers over the coming years.  When customers receive a mobile offer, they expect it to be timely and relevant. Likewise, when they visit in person, they expect the associate to communicate with them, on their terms and at their pace, even if the mobile device poses a distraction. 

 High Quality Personnel

The in-person experience still has a huge influence on whether or not the customer decides to buy. Many times, customers call or visit the website and have a negative experience. Customers cannot find the information that they need, or they are not satisfied with the information that they learned through either channel, which prompts them to visit the store, branch or restaurant. 

Take the example of a customer researching an internet/cable TV service provider.  He calls the customer care center about a new offer, and receives two different answers about the services and pricing from two different employees.  Because the customer feels that the only way to get a “straight answer” about the service is to visit in person, he goes to the store, receives clear answers and a good deal; and signs up for the new internet service.  In these situations, the face to face interaction will make or break the sale.  Companies need to continue to train employees on how to best interact with all types of customers, including those who are constantly tied to their mobile devices.

 Distractions as Objections

A distracted customer is similar to an objection that the salesperson needs to overcome.  The employee can use basics for overcoming any objection, and apply them to the engrossed customer: 

  1. Clarify the objection. “I can see you are busy, so I will get this information quickly for you.”
  2. State their own product’s unique benefits. “You mentioned that you received a mobile offer from ABC Company. Let me tell you how our offer differs from theirs.”
  3. Check for agreement.
  4. Close the sale.

 Regardless of the industry, a customized service approach allows companies to step ahead of the competition in serving increasingly busy and distracted customers.   There are many opinions on the right approach.  Confero recently received some insightful comments on Facebook when we linked to the article, “How do you deal with customers and their digital devices?Take a look and see if you agree or disagree with the comments.

In thinking about your own business, what should the associate do next in these situations?  What is the best etiquette for employees to use with these customers? How do you craft your strategy so that it is more effective than the competition’s? What’s your company philosophy? Are your service standards too rigid to serve customers? Post your comments here – we would love to know your thoughts!


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