How To Handle Customer Service When Kids Are Involved?

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Brick-and-mortar retailers have to put up with a lot of bad customer behavior. But how should you deal with difficult consumer behavior when their kids accompany them?

My mom used to tell stories about my middle brother. He was so rambunctious that when the phone rang, which was just out of sight of the kitchen, he would run in, open all the cupboard doors, and pull all the pots and pans onto the floor... and laugh.

When they went to the store, he wanted to run so much that she eventually fashioned a bit of a harness leash to keep track of him. Back in the 50s, other moms were initially appalled at the sight but applauded her ingenuity.

It's tough to take small children into new places and expect them to behave like adults when they naturally want to explore. But it is also tough for retailers to deal with parents with no boundaries for their children's curiosity. A run-amok kid ruins everyone's day.

I polled my Facebook followers to ask for their tips about dealing with kids in their stores and the effects of. On one side, a few retailers offered stories that to me, didn't build bonds but drew battle lines.

One owner of a tiny shop told a woman spanking her child this past weekend, "I'm sorry to ask this, but perhaps you can return at a time when the kids are having a better day.".

This retailer has ZERO tolerance and feels parents should know better; her decision-making process has concluded that her shop is a place of business, not a daycare, and she wants to manage customer expectations from the start.

And let’s be honest; some parents use a retail store as a place to park the kids while they do other shopping or have services performed.

But how should you deal with kids who could disrupt your business?

ABT Electronics in Las Vegas has a huge atrium with various diversions to satisfy everyone in the family when someone makes a trip to their store. One of their customers' favorite attractions is a giant bubble machine. Children and parents stand in the center and carefully pull a cord to envelop themselves in a giant bubble.

At another area in the atrium is a digital display that encourages interaction from young viewers. Visitors step into the spotlight and watch as their shadow is cast on the wall and into a world filled with wild butterflies. When you stay still enough, virtual butterflies will warm up to you, landing on the shadow of your head, shoulders, or even an outstretched palm.

Those are good ideas to engage the mind and service the child, but not many of you will be installing a 100,000-square-foot atrium in your stores…

Remember, you always have a choice.

Here are six ways you might respond to bad customer behavior:

1. The Teacher. Using psychology and forethought, you try to find a way to distract the child toward something else. One local retailer has two play tables to keep kids occupied...and from being destructive. This is hard to pull off for some stores because they don’t have room or staff to devote to a table and kids' area. For stores that can do this, it can work magic.

2. The Crabby Uncle. This can be anything from giving the parents, the children, or both a stink eye of disapproval to outright telling the parents they’ll have to leave.  If this is your main way to deal with it, your judgmental looks and words will lose all your former customers with kids...and you cannot afford that.

3. The Shadow. You stand next to the child - parents and kids don't like that. But this goes against everything you want to do in your store, which is for the shopper to relax and enjoy the space.

4. The Hall Monitor.  Some believe you should caution parents when their kids are out of control by saying, "We wouldn't want your child to get hurt if they fall into one of our shelves." If the kids aren't staying with their parents and touching breakables, the associate might say to the parents, “Oh, that is very fragile and could hurt your child if broken.” While it may seem like a gentle nudge, it can still create an experience of being judged.

5. The Grandmother. Engaging a child can work wonders to build their trust; when you get their trust, you get the parents. Many toy stores recommend getting on the floor and playing with a child, but for a photography store or almost anyone but a toy store, this could be a time suck for your regular employees.

6. Pollyanna. While a positive outlook is great, ignoring bad behavior in a store and acting like nothing is wrong can affect everyone else's shopping satisfaction in your store. Then, your let-it-be attitude becomes one of the reasons customers don't return. Even worse, it becomes fodder for a social media post about how your brand doesn't care about giving poor customer service.

Most of these types of responses come from frustration. The key is for you and your associates to always remain in control of customer engagement.

No matter the demeanor of the parent or the behavior of the kids when they first come in, doing these three things will help you get ahead of any bratty behavior and make sales to parents:

1. Engage. When you greet every shopper who comes in with an open heart and try to make a connection with not only the parents but the kids, you proactively keep the child from being bored, as most of the items in your store aren’t going to appeal to them.

2. Ask the parent for permission.  Before giving a gift to a child, always ask the parent for permission so they see you as an ally.

3. Give the child a distraction. While picture books, coloring books, or toys are good, bubble wrap might be the most fun experience and free distraction you can give any kid. Plus, kids can be entertained with bubble wrap on their own. Vicki Shoemaker added, "It keeps their hands busy. Busy hands are good!"

By forming a relationship with the parent first and asking permission, you can help them enjoy shopping in your store. By heading off boredom with a free gift of bubble wrap, you show you want the child to have fun, too. If you have the money and inclination to give each child a small, age-appropriate gift, that can do even more good than bubble wrap. The key is after you get permission, you tell the child you're glad they are in your store - after all, they'll remember a great customer experience too later as customers - and ask if they would like a gift now.

If you can wait on the parent while engaging the child, ask them questions about things they like.

The key is planning how to deal with children, training your employees exactly how to ask for permission from a parent, and where to have pieces of bubble wrap. Don't let employees get frustrated and try to deal with kids; that never works and costs you loyal customers.

I've heard of retailers giving children small helium balloons with the bonus of letting them know where they are in your store. However, needing helium and fetching balloons off your ceiling can distract your existing customers more than the children.

See also, 10 Easily Overlooked Customer Service Tips

In Sum

Jenn Sullivan said it best, “If we don’t want families shopping online from the safety of their homes to avoid stink eyes and such - then we better figure out how to embrace all our customers.”

So true. Sell the kids, and you sell the parents. And make no mistake, proactively involving the kids is part of customer service and making the sale. But it also cements customer loyalty and customer retention. Remember it costs a fraction as much to keep a good customer as to attract a new one.

Will this three-part method work for all kids? Of course not.

But unless you give thought now to how you want parents to feel when they come into your store, your associates, more often than not, can give off an unwelcoming attitude and a feeling at the start that they will receive bad customer service which could give your store, your street, and even your town a bad reputation when it comes to parents with children.