The ‘Serve, Not Sell’ Approach


One of the most common questions in the retail industry has always been on how to increase sales? No matter the product, operating a physical retail store is costly, highly competitive, and a struggle to ensure profitability. Add technological advancements into the mix, and we now have a whole new twist in an already challenging landscape.

Online shopping has allowed customers to shop with convenience and businesses to no longer have to worry about high startup costs, manpower issues, and stocking up on inventory. Online stores can be set-up in mere hours with minimal fees, and be operated from the comforts of home. Orders placed by customers can be directed to suppliers almost instantly for fulfilment, thus eliminating the need to keep stocks. All that is needed is a computer and a connection to the internet, and one can operate an online store from anywhere in the world.

As a result, traditional retail businesses have seen a dip in traffic and revenue. Brick and mortar retail outlets close down as fast as the pop-up because of the inability to generate enough revenue to cover costs, let alone be profitable. While it may seem like the future is bleak for those in the traditional retail space, there are companies who still thrive despite these challenges.

Take Apple as an example. Have you ever seen an Apple store that is empty? I’m talking about the Apple stores worldwide that are operated by Apple themselves instead of the privately owned resellers who are authorised by Apple to sell their products. How is it that no matter which Apple store you go to around the globe, there is always a full house of people at any given time of the day? Struggling retail owners cringe when they see this as it is the opposite of what their store is experiencing and it defies their belief that the retail industry is dying.

But how is this so? What is Apple doing differently? How are they thriving in the traditional retail space when most others aren’t? How do they generate a high volume of sales on a daily basis without getting into a price war with competitors or emphasising on pushing products (and up-selling) to the customer? What is Apple’s secret to retail success?

The answer is simple; Apple stores focus on serving the customer instead of selling to them. Just make a trip to an Apple store and take a closer look at the experience a customer receives from the moment they walk in until the time they leave. Observe the role of the retail staff there. 

What you’ll discover is that the retail staff at the Apple store have a singular focus, and that is to create the best experience for the customer. Instead of pushing products, they’ll listen and recommend the best solutions that suit the needs of the customer. Instead of talking down to the customer and showing signs of impatience, they spend as much time as needed to answer questions to genuinely educate the customer. Instead of looking at the customer as someone with a sign on their forehead indicating their potential spending power, they proactively set out to make a new friend and treat the customer like family. 

The Apple store has never been a place to sell products; they have the online store for that. The Apple store is instead a place for people to experience the human touch, a place for them to learn and get questions answered, and above all, a place for people to make a friend and feel good. In my opinion, this is the secret to Apple’s retail success.

The Apple store is just one example of the ‘Serve, Not Sell’ approach in action. Many other retail businesses use this same approach, and the results are the same; a positive customer experience for the customer that leads to higher sales.

So what is your approach when it comes to your customers? What do you choose to focus on? Do you, like most struggling retail outlets, focus purely on selling to the customer to increase sales, leaving the customer with a bitter aftertaste? Or are you a market leader who concentrates on delivering a positive customer experience that will generate higher sales while building fierce customer loyalty?

Here are three actionable ideas to ensure a positive experience for your customers.


Serve the customer the same way you would like to be served if you visited a retail store. See the customer as a family member or a close friend whom you’d genuinely want to help to the best of your ability. Smile, be patient, and treat them with respect. Go the extra mile to make them feel welcomed and comfortable while they’re there. Remember, people buy people first, products and services come second. Focus on building the relationship first and the sale will follow.


Remember that time when you had to run out a store as fast as you could only because you couldn’t shake off the annoying retail staff who stuck to you like lint on clothes? What you wanted was the space to browse, an expert to give you advice and recommendations, and the option to exercise free will. What you got instead was an overly aggressive salesperson breathing down your neck trying to sell you everything he could. Remember, people who choose to walk into a retail store instead of shopping online means they’re looking for the human touch. Give them the experience they seek, or they will look for it elsewhere. Position yourself as a consultant rather than a salesperson by listening to the customers needs and offer expert advice and solutions.


One of the best ways to send your customer packing to your competitors is to talk down and treat them like an idiot. Yes, they may have an arsenal of fundamental questions about what you offer and how it works. Yes, it may be the same questions you’ve answered countless times before to others. Yes, the answers can be found online if they only searched. However, they wouldn't be asking you these questions if they knew the answers, would they? The moment you channel your frustration towards the customer, you’ve slowly begun the process of losing the customer. Instead, take up the mantle of an educator and be open to questions. Expertly provide answers and build a bond of trust with the customer. Never make the mistake of making the customer feel stupid for asking questions. In fact, the more questions they ask, the higher your chances of getting the sale.

This article first appeared in the Singapore Optometric Association's March 2018 quarterly newsletter.