Which of these do you like?” “Have you ever tried this one?” “What’s your favorite product?”
If you’ve spent any time on the sales floor, you’ve probably had a customer ask you one of these questions. And you might even have given them an answer. A lot of sales staff share personal information with customers for different reasons. I think it’s time to reconsider that.
Let’s not forget that some customers will deliberately ask these kinds of personal questions as a way to harass your staff. This is especially likely to happen to employees who are young women, though it can happen to anyone.
I can understand why it might seem like a good idea to use personal disclosure in customer interactions. It can normalize sexuality and create an opportunity to be a sex-positive role model. If you don’t think there’s anything wrong with sex, then why keep it secret? And how is it any different from asking a restaurant server what they like from the menu?
But there are some really compelling reasons to not give customers the details about your personal life. First, simply by being available to talk with them about their sexual desires and interests, you’re modeling sex-positivity. You don’t need to get into the specifics of what you like. And while there’s nothing wrong with anyone’s sexuality or sexual practices, as long as everyone’s consent, pleasure, and well-being are respected, it’s important for us to model privacy. There’s a big difference between privacy and secrecy. Sex-positivity has room for privacy, as well as boundaries, and we’re of more service to our customers when we demonstrate that.
Besides, what I like or don’t like isn’t really relevant to what you or a customer might enjoy. We’re all a little different when it comes to sex and I’ve seen what happens when a customer is disappointed because their experience isn’t what they’d hoped for. It gets even more tricky when their expectations are heightened because a sales staffer said that they like a specific product.
On top of that, not all of your sales staff will be comfortable sharing the details of their sex lives with customers, and you certainly can’t require them to. But if I talk about my favorite lubricant or dildo with a customer, that person will probably think that any of my co-workers are just as willing to do the same. So when they end up talking with someone who prefers to keep things private, that customer will be confused at the inconsistency and might even demand the same level of disclosure. That creates some very messy situations that could easily be avoided.
As if that wasn’t enough, let’s not forget that some customers will deliberately ask these kinds of personal questions as a way to harass your staff. This is especially likely to happen to employees who are young women, though it can happen to anyone. The line between a genuine request for information and sexual harassment isn’t always clear. But if you train your staff to not disclose personal details, it becomes easier to keep them safe. A real request for information can be met with general information about the products and the customer will almost always be grateful for that. Sexual harassment will lead to testing or pushing your staffer’s boundaries through repeated questions or escalation and it requires a very different response.
So if employees sharing the specifics of their sex lives with customers isn’t necessary, what are some good ways to answer those questions? It depends on the situation, but here are some good guidelines.
One easy way is to reply with a generality. “A lot of customers like this one.” “That product has been a bestseller for years.” “Some women come back for this one over and over.” These responses work well because most people who ask for a personal recommendation are really just trying to make a decision. Knowing what’s popular or a bestseller can be even more helpful than knowing what one person happens to like. Answering the implicit question rather than the explicit one can is often the most effective way to go.
If a customer gets insistent, I like to tell them something like, “What I like isn’t really important since everyone has their own personal tastes. But I can tell you that this one has been getting great reviews.” It’s a more gentle way of setting a boundary and gives them a little sex-positive education at the same time. If someone is really interested in the products rather than annoying or harassing the staff, that will almost always work.
Occasionally, I’ve had people tell me that I should share the specifics of my sex life with them because they shared theirs with me. Clearly, that’s an attempt to cross a line. One good way to respond is to explain that the nature of the interaction makes it fine for them to give me whatever information they want to so that I can help them make a decision. But the staffer/customer relationship goes one way and there’s no reason for mutual disclosure.
And for those hopefully rare times when someone is harassing the staff, that’s when you need to have clear guidelines for asking them to leave the store. Obviously, that’s a last resort, but it’s a far better option than having your staff feel unsafe at work.
Having said all that, there are situations when it can be useful to let personal experience inform what you tell a customer. For example, suppose I’ve discovered that the shape of a particular vibrator makes it really well for me during intercourse. I might not want to make a general statement like “this toy does the trick” because it might not work for other people. All I know is that it worked for me. So what can I do?
Those are the moments when I like to say, “One person who used this said…” The customer won’t know whether I’m talking about me, a friend, another customer, or anyone else. That’s not important because I’ve offered useful info without overstating the case. All I’ve said is that one person had this experience.
But that’s very much the exception that proves the rule. In general, I think it’s important for staff to be empowered to keep their sex lives private. Personal disclosure isn’t really necessary in a retail setting, and it can have unintended consequences that are easily avoided.
Charlie Glickman PhD is a sexuality speaker, trainer, writer, blogger, and coach. He’s an AASECT-certified sex educator and has been working in this field for over 20 years. Charlie is the co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Prostate Pleasure: Erotic Exploration for Men and Their Partners. Find out more about him at www.charlieglickman.com or on Twitter and Facebook.