Man Taking a Woman's Order at Deli CounterThe other day I was having breakfast with my family at a restaurant, and the waitress came to take our order. She was very nice and polite, but her method of taking our order was very, well, ordinary – she just kind of stood there with a notepad and wrote down our order without really asking us any questions about what we were hungry for or helping us decide. The waitress could have helped us by asking questions, suggesting popular items from the menu, and offering ideas for food and beverages that we might enjoy – and she probably would have earned a bigger ticket for the restaurant and a bigger tip for herself.

Whether you’re a restaurant server, salesperson or small business owner, being an “order taker” might be perfectly polite, but it’s a missed opportunity to help the customer and make more money for the business. When you’re an entrepreneur trying to market your business, don’t just be an “order taker” who waits for customers to tell you what they want. To really add value for your customers and drive better results for your business, you need to help your customers figure out what they want.

Here are a few ways that your small business marketing can go beyond simply taking orders

Suggestive selling: One of the oldest sales techniques is exemplified by a good restaurant server who knows how to suggest items on the menu. “Do you want fries with that?” is the classic line from a fast food restaurant, but suggestive selling is often a lot more sophisticated. If you’re a consultant, you might say to a client, “Based on your situation and what we’ve discussed so far, here is what I think you might need.” If you run a retail business, and your customers have been browsing a particular item on the shelves, “If you like that piece of merchandise, I think you’d really love this one too.” Suggestive selling doesn’t have to mean forcing things on people or pressuring people into making a purchase. Suggestive selling doesn’t have to be about suggesting a more expensive choice. Instead, it’s about offering up a broader array of choices than the customer might have known about. Good marketing can help educate the customer and make them aware of better choices that can leave them in better condition.

Listening to the customer’s unstated needs: Customers rarely come to you and say, “This is exactly what I want to buy and this is exactly how much I want to spend – and not a penny more.” The big missed opportunity of being nothing more than an “order taker” is that you never get to delve deeper into the customer’s needs and identify bigger opportunities to help the customer. Many customers are flexible on how much they are willing to spend. Many customers have bigger needs that are lying under the surface. If you can earn the customer’s trust and get them to open up to you in conversation, you might find many more lucrative needs that the customer was waiting to be asked about. For example, a customer who comes in to an auto shop asking for an oil change might have another car at home that needs a new transmission – but if the business owner never talks to the customer about “What other cars do you drive,” that opportunity would never come up. A client who comes to a graphic designer for a simple brochure project might mention in passing that they’re feeling really swamped and don’t have enough people on staff – and this could lead to the designer asking to take on more freelance projects to help lessen the burden. It’s important to “read between the lines” in your conversations with customers. These unstated needs often represent big opportunities waiting to be discovered.

Empathizing with the customer’s situation to better identify exactly what they need: Many customers don’t know how to articulate or ask for exactly what they need. A web developer might meet with some new prospective clients who have a general idea of what they want their website or software app to look like, or how they want it to function, but they don’t know how to get it done. A retail customer might go Christmas shopping for “the perfect gift” for their daughter, but might not have a clear conception of what that gift looks like. This is where your small business marketing and sales techniques need to help the customer clarify what they need. Say to the customer, “Based on what you’re saying, it sounds like this is what you need,” or, “What I’m hearing you say is that you want X, Y and Z. We can deliver X, Y and Z, but it’s going to look a bit different than what you described – let’s talk more about what you can expect if we decide to move forward.”

Small business sales and marketing doesn’t have to be complicated. Making bigger profits for your company is often just a simple matter of learning how to ask good questions, listen closely to what people say, and look for ways to deepen your conversations and build deeper relationships with your customers. But it does require a spirit of generosity, conscientiousness and attentiveness that goes beyond simply “taking orders.”