In industries with a high proportion of one-to-many direct customer contacts, not enough attention is paid to training people to observe and interpret non-verbal customer cues.

To explain, here is a scene. You are in an upmarket restaurant with five friends and family. You have enjoyed the glass of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc with the big bowl of mussels in white wine sauce you all ordered to share. It is obvious from the discussion at the table that everybody loves mussels, especially you.

There are a few plump, delicious mussels left, and as you ordered your wine by the glass, you look around for a waiter to order another glass to go with those last few tasty mussels.

Waiters pass by, but you fail to catch their eye. You wait a moment more; not wanting to call, “Waiter!” as you think this is a bit demeaning for the waiter.

In the meantime your friends and family enquire as to why you are not eating. They have deliberately left the remaining mussels for you, knowing it is one of your favourite dishes.

At last you attract a waiter’s attention and order another glass.

Not wanting to upset your friends and family, you begin to eat the few remaining mussels. The glass of wine arrives some ten minutes later. As much as you try though, you cannot eat slowly enough to enjoy the wine with the food, completing the entrée well before the wine arrives.

You have not completed your glass of Sauvignon Blanc before main course arrives; rib eye steak, medium-rare. You drink the remaining half glass with your main course before attempting to order the sommelier’s pick of Cabernet Sauvignon “by the glass”. Again your attempts to catch a waiter’s eye are fruitless until the rib-eye is almost bare.

What’s wrong with this scene?

The obvious is poor table service by the wait staff. The less obvious is why the service was poor. In most cases like this, it is the inability of the wait staff to read customer cues that causes the poor service.

The waiters missed:

  • The collective enthusiasm from the table for the food – a natural occasion to sell wine rather than wait for people to buy
  • Your sauvignon blanc glass being empty
  • You stopping eating
  • You looking around
  • You eating the last few mussels
  • Your main course deserving a red wine accompaniment
  • You stopping eating for a second time
  • You looking around for a second time

What is the result of such a scene unfolding? A less enjoyable eating experience than you would have had if customer cues were observed. Also, the loss of income from selling two glasses of wine for the restaurant.

People in professions with a high level of customer interaction receive customer cues all the time. However, many only consider verbal cues. The customer cues they tend to miss include:

  • Avoiding eye contact – the customer is not ready to buy
  • Standing in the middle of a restaurant looking around – they want to know where the wash room is
  • Putting on coats and jackets at a restaurant table – the air conditioning is too cold or they are in a big hurry to leave
  • Spending time looking at one product only – they need advice or want to buy
  • Making eye contact – they want help
  • Moving about and peering towards the front of a queue – they are worried about how much time they are spending in the queue
  • Looking at their watch repeatedly – they are in a hurry
  • Stopping eating in a restaurant – they want some attention
  • Menus are closed – they want to order

Giving good service is about meeting the customer’s needs. Great customer service is about exceeding them. When customers only give us non-verbal cues to those needs, it is our job to observe and interpret the non-verbal clues so that we may know their needs.

Observing non-verbal customer clues is reliant on our peripheral vision.

Humans process vision through the receptors on their retina. There are more receptors in the centre of the eye than there are at the periphery. This means your vision is better when you are looking directly at an object than when you are using your peripheral vision.

The human eye contains two different types of receptors: rods and cones. Cones can distinguish colour and detail well and are concentrated in the centre of the retina. Rods tend to only be able to distinguish shape and motion and work much better in low light. Rods are distributed almost evenly across the retina.

This means that you are able to process objects in your peripheral vision very differently to objects in the centre of your field of view.

The easiest thing to detect in your peripheral vision is motion. Rod receptors are able to distinguish motion fairly easily, which leads to the phenomenon many people experience of seeing something “out of the corner of your eye”.

The next easiest thing to detect is colour and shape, which is detected by a combination of rod and cone receptors.

The hardest thing to detect by far is letters and numbers, which can only be distinguished by cone receptors.

So what does this all mean for business owners, managers and supervisors in industries requiring a high degree of one-to-many direct customer contacts?

Test the peripheral vision of your staff. At least then they will know if they need to deliberately look (central vision) to observe non-verbal cues.

Teach your staff about the non-verbal cues particular to your industry. Coach them and give them feedback when they observe and interpret the cues well or badly. Make it something you care about. Make it something your people know you care about.

The result will be higher customer satisfaction and sales.