Clara was a great bookseller and she was my mentor. For my entire first year as a Christian bookseller, I had the privilege of watching her work and learning the art and science of highly effective bookselling. One of the first clues that she was so effective was in seeing how customers treated her and at first I was offended. They would come into the store and walk right past me and anyone else that was available to help. Without thinking twice, they would always ask the same question, “Where is Clara?” or if they saw her in the store the would go right up to her and begin their conversation. It did not seem to matter how much I learned about books or wanted to help, they wanted Clara. After a while, I began to understand, Clara was much more than a worker in a bookstore, she was their friend, their consultant and very importantly their personal book recommender. What she said mattered and quite often they would leave the store with more than one book or Bible to read and share with others.
Some years later, I was standing in the same store and a customer came in looking for me. They ignored all the people at the front counter and made a beeline for where I was standing in the store. Even though they could see that I was busy, they were willing to wait. As I finished up what I was working on and looked at them, I could not help but think back to that first year with Clara and that I was now wearing her mantle. With that in mind, I want to share seven secrets of highly effective bookselling that she shared with me.
- Great booksellers are avid readers. Clara could smell a fake reader from a mile away. She would ask me about the books I was reading and suggest books that would broaden my horizon. After I was finished we would discuss them and she could tell if I had actually read the book all the way through or not. While I had always loved to read, I now learned to read books outside of my personal preferences and that were more in line with the needs of our customers and a wider audience. She taught me that book recommendations were serious business and that people were more interesting in know how a book had impacted me or someone else than just what the book was about.
- Great bookseller are curious. Not satisfied with just making book reading suggestions, Clara showed me how to do research in finding books our customers were looking for or might be in the future. At that time, it meant reading publishers catalogs, reading book reviews in magazines and yes even looking things up on microfiche. Today, it means reading blogs, doing on-line research and paying attention to book review websites. I learned that my curiosity was directly connected to customer satisfaction with my recommendations.
- Great bookseller are good listeners. Early on, Clara taught me the power of being a good listener. She would often let the customer talk for so long that I wondered if she could remember everything they were saying. Inevitably, after this period of listening, Clara and the customer would begin walking through the store together and she would be headed to a particular book section. It was amazing how often I would hear customers say, “Thank you so much, that is just what I needed.”
- Great bookseller ask good questions. Clara taught me how to ask good questions. I stopped asking people if they needed any help and began asking what brought them to the bookstore that day. I learned that Bible purchasing was a complex process and that asking what translation people wanted was the wrong first question. Instead, I began asking if the Bible was being purchased for themselves or someone else and how they planned to use the Bible if it was for themselves. This process of asking the right questions yielded far better results and many happier customers.
- Great booksellers pay attention to people and their emotions. I remember the first time that Clara’s opening question was not, “What brought you to the store today?”, but “Are you doing OK?” She could tell by the person’s demeanor that something was not right and that they needed more than just a book. How often I watched Clara listen, ask questions, pray with people and then and only then did she recommend a book. Clara was far more than a bookseller to these people, she was a minister of the gospel. Our store had become a sacred space for the time period that they were together. For a few short moments of their day, it was holy ground and God met them in those moments.
- Great booksellers find solutions. It was amazing to me how many people came in asking for books or Christian resources that I had never heard about. Without batting an eye, Clara would ask good questions and quickly determine if we had the item or not. If we did not have it, Clara would recommend a store that did and even call ahead for the customer if they wanted her to. If nobody had it in stock, Clara would call the publisher or manufacturer to see how quickly we could get it. Special orders were the lifeblood of our store. People knew that even if we did not have something, we would hunt it down and get it for them quickly. They didn’t mind a second trip to the store and looked forward to seeing Clara again.
- Great booksellers anticipate needs and desires. At first I thought it was some type of magic trick. Clara would often greet a customer and recommend a book before even listening to them or asking questions. How could she do this? Was she being presumptuous or was she just clairvoyant? Of course, the truth was that she knew her customers. She remembered more than just their names, she learned about their favorite authors and books they had previously purchased. Unlike Amazon, however, her next recommendation was not based on an algorithm, it was based on her deep knowledge of that person and Clara’s own extensive reading habits. I loved hear people say, “How did you know I would like that?” or “That is exactly what I need”.
In training new booksellers, it is my greatest joy to experience that first customer who ignores me at the front counter and asked for them by name. They have now graduated from the training class and are joining the ranks of professional booksellers all over the world who are making reading suggestions that just might change someone’s life.