Spring 2004
Body Language

Some call it a sixth sense, or intuition, or gut feeling. In reality, it’s the messages people send out—without even realizing it—and others receive and translate, also without even realizing it. These are powerful non-verbal, subliminal messages, or “hidden persuaders,” the term Vance Packard coined in his 1957 landmark book of the same name. It’s all in your body language. As a specialty retailer, you can harness the power of body language—your personal hidden persuaders—to make the sale.

Body language at work

You talk; customer listens. Then customer decides to buy or not buy. The customer thinks he’s making a rational decision based on what you say. But in reality, it often has less to do with how good your product or your information is, and a great deal to do with your non-verbal signals. Like love or anger, it’s purely emotional.

And as with love or anger, it takes two to communicate, even non-verbally. The fact is, within a society—in this case, mainstream American—body language is a common language. Most people interpret body-language signals the same way. An obvious example is that just about everyone interprets raised eyebrows to mean a question. But people can also read tinier, subtler gestures.

This isn’t just speculation or wild theory. It isn’t even new. Actors have known and used it for eons. Scientists, psychologists, linguists and other specialists have known it, too, and the research continues, especially as body language (also known as “non-verbal communications,” “semiotics,” and other terms) relates to marketing and sales. Recent studies at the Center for Neural Science at New York University show that even before shoppers have had time to process a rational thought about a product, they’re already opening their wallets or walking away.

So how do you get them to open their wallets? What non-verbal factors go into a customer’s “buy” or “don’t buy” decision? And how can you control those factors to your advantage? Start by recognizing that these are your primary goals:

  • Bring the customer to you.
  • Make the customer feel good about you.
  • Make the customer believe you care about him.
  • Make the customer feel she can trust you.

You already gear everything you say toward that. Now make every little movement do the same thing. Think of your face and body as a 24-hour broadcasting station that sends out highly personal information to anyone within sight of you. Every smile and frown, every gesture, every move will either pull someone toward you or propel her away from you (and toward the competition). Every visible inch of you must give a command performance that conveys an “I care about you” attitude effectively.

Five techniques

Remember, your customer subconsciously reviews the countless signals you send. Use these five techniques to ensure that your expressions and movements send positive messages right to the hearts of your customers.

Slow smile. Top salespeople know that their smile is one of their most powerful weapons, so they’ve fine-tuned theirs for maximum impact. They’ve mastered
the slow or “flooding” smile that says “You’re special.”

What not to do: Don’t flash a grin the second you spot your customer. It’s too pat.

What to do: Make the customer feel your smile is especially for her by using a split-second delay. Look at your customer’s face for a moment, then—as if you’re recognizing an old friend—let a big, warm smile flood over your face and into your eyes. That smile will convince your customers that it’s genuine—and just for them.

Baby step. When a four-year-old feels shy, he slumps, lowers his chin, steps back, and tries to hide. But when that little one sees someone he knows and loves, he smiles, his eyes get wide, and he runs up with open arms. When that same kid at 30 or 50 feels unsure, he slumps, lowers his chin, and folds his arms to “hide” or protect himself.

What not to do: Don’t turn away and close yourself off with body signals that put distance between you and the customer.

What to do: Make customers welcome with your stance. Go over to them as soon as they come in. Then point your body in their direction when you’re talking together. The subliminal message it sends: “You’re someone special.”

No barriers. How near or far away you stand from your customer sends a message. So does how you stand. And so does the presence of a physical barrier between you.

What not to do: Don’t be “closed up.” Don’t stand too far from the customer. Don’t position yourself behind a “barricade” (a counter, a display, merchandise—anything that’s in the physical space between you). Don’t fold your arms, cross your ankles, frown…

What to do: Keep your body “open”—smile, uncross your arms and legs, don’t stand behind things. You want to be “belly to belly” with potential buyers. An added touch: put your weight on your forward foot, then take a tiny step toward your customer. If he steps back, don’t move forward: he’s not ready. If your customer moves toward you, don’t step back: let him choose the distance.

Sticky eyes. You know eye contact is important, but probably much more so than people realize. A profound gaze creates an emotional reaction, which has a biological base: being looked at intently increases the heart rate. A Boston study based on counting eye blinks demonstrated that strong eye contact packs a powerful wallop. Other research reveals that increased eye contact and maintaining a strong gaze (“sticky eyes”) gives the impression that you’re an intelligent, abstract thinker—the type that can keep looking into someone’s eyes even during the silences.

What not to do: While you’re talking to a customer, don’t avoid making eye contact, don’t look away frequently, and don’t look down at merchandise, displays or the cash drawer.

What to do: Pretend your eyes are glued to your customer’s, and keep your gaze there a second longer after she finishes speaking. If you must look away, do so very slowly. The extra split second speaks volumes.

Limited fidgets. Anyone who interviews people and has to get the truth—police are the obvious example—knows the specific signals to look for. Most of the rest of us have to depend on a sixth sense to tell when someone’s untruthful. We instinctively “know” that when people arenervous, they fidget, and we assume something fishy’s going on—or being said.

So if a salesperson is nervous with a customer—maybe he’s new, or the situation is new, or the boss is watching—he’s likely to fidget. But so is someone who isn’t nervous at all—maybe it’s too warm in the mall… or maybe she’s waiting for a call from the doctor… or maybe her blouse is itchy. It could be anything, but the customer doesn’t know that. All the customer knows is that the sales staffer is fidgeting while talking to the customer. The customer’s reaction? He doesn’t trust the salesperson. No sale.

What not to do: It’s not easy, but do as your mom said: Don’t fidget!

What to do: Be aware of your movements. That includes touching your face, rubbing your eyes, adjusting your glasses, smoothing your hair, jiggling your foot when you’re sitting—countless little things you’re not even conscious of. Then stop them. To prevent fidgets caused by external elements, control those elements as best you can: if it’s hot, turn on a fan.

It pays to practice and refine these five techniques. Remember, you want to do all you can to put your customers at ease, make them feel you care about them, and gain their trust. You now have five techniques for harnessing the power of body language, your personal hidden persuaders.

Leil Lowndes

Lowndes is an internationally acclaimed writer, motivational speaker, and corporate trainer. She has spoken, consulted, and conducted training programs in every major city in the US and many abroad. Leil has written 7 books and 6 audio programs on all types of interpersonal communicating. Her books have been translated into 18 languages, and she has received testimonials from dozens of top communicators.
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