The Dance


I saw the two of them square off – the salesperson and the customer, the adversary and their opponent.  Even though I have seen this subtle encounter many times before, I never pass up a chance to watch.  For the Dance was about to begin.

What is the Dance?  It is the name that I gave to the movement that salespeople and their customers go through trying to find a comfortable place and distance to interact.

Typically when two people talk,  they stand approximately an arms distance away from one another.  If they are close friends, they may stand closer.  If there is a power differential between them, the person with less power may stand a bit further away.  The distance is never discussed by the talkers but rather it is set as the two talkers position themselves.

The distance between the two people is based on finding a distance that makes both people comfortable.  It is finding this distance that is the Dance.

In this case, the salesperson was a rather diminutive female in her mid twenties.  The customer was a tall, stocky man in his mid forties.  From what I observed, the sales person wanted more than an arm’s length between her and the customer.  It may have been because of the differences in age, size and gender that caused this or she may just be the type of person that likes a bit more personal space.

However, he wanted to stand closer.  It did not seem an effort to intimidate the associate, he just appeared to be one of those people who is a “close talker”, a term I believe was coined on Jerry Sienfeld’s TV show, or someone who prefers less space.

As the salesperson positioned herself to talk to the customer, the customer stepped forward.  Feeling uncomfortable with the closeness, she stepped back and he once again stepped forward. He again moved forward and she moved back.

In customer service training, I warn new employees that a manipulative customer could maneuver a timid sales person out the front door of the store and down through the mall.  The key to remember in this situation is that the comfortable distance is based on the customer’s comfort.

In this case, she continued to back away until she was up against a counter, where she continued to serve the customer with a near panicked look on her face.  After a brief interaction, she was able to send the customer on his way.  As he walked away, you could see a look of relief come over the salesperson’s face.

Teachable Moment

When training and coaching sales staffs on positioning themselves for service, I offer the following guidance:

  • Always remember that the customer determines the comfortable distance not you.
  • If a customer steps towards you or away from you, stand your ground.  They are just adjusting the distance.
  • Remember to face the customer and not the product when interacting with customers.
  • If you are very uncomfortable with the distance, grab some product, a hanger, a fixture component or anything and hold it in front of you. (Be careful not to brandish it like a weapon!)  The customer will stand the appropriate distance away from the item now and not you.
  • Step behind a counter or a fixture if need be for you to be comfortable enough to continue the sale.
  • If a customer is acting in a menacing manner, do not hesitate to get help from your manager.  They are here for your safety.
  • Be aware of how gender, age, size or other factors may influence the distance.

Remember these tips and avoid dancing with your customers.


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