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Learning names is worth the effort

A restaurateur recently approached me and asked, “How can I fake that I know a customer’s name? I have a thousand regulars in my restaurant each week and can’t possibly remember all of their names.”

She was asking the wrong question. Any objective that involves faking out customers (or any form of deception) is destined to fail. Why not make a sincere effort to learn customers’ names instead?

I recognize that remembering names is not always easy. I’ll be the first to admit that I often forget a name just seconds after hearing it—especially if I’m being introduced to a group of people. Recalling names takes real effort and, for many of us, if we’re not intentional about it, we’ll miss opportunities to greet others by name.

We already know that people love hearing the sound of their own name. And when they are greeted by name, especially in a setting where they are customers, this affirms their importance as customers—and the value they bring to the business through personal spending, referrals, and loyalty.

My response to the restaurateur was this: “Rather than mislead customers by faking that you know their names, why not make the effort instead to learn them?”

I then shared with her some advice I had given to my 10-year-old son, Cole, while he was attending a tennis camp with a dozen or so peers after school. On the drive home from camp one evening, I asked Cole the name of the boy he’d been hitting with during the final drill. To my surprise, he had no idea what the boy’s name was.

When I reminded Cole that learning and using others’ names conveys respect and affirms their personal importance, he complained that there were a lot of kids and that learning all their names would be difficult.

So, together, we devised some strategies that he could use to help remember the names of all the other players at camp. We started with the names of players he already knew. There were two: Paris and Rachel. (Mmm…)

I asked him to describe Paris and he said she was tall. Then I asked him what came to mind when he thought of the name “Paris.” He said, “Paris, France.”

Next, I asked him if there was anything tall in Paris, France. He said, “The Eiffel Tower.”

Then Cole said, “I get it! To help remember her name, I will think of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.”

Exactly! (I mentioned that this is an example of a mnemonic—or memory aid—but Cole was already thinking of a way to help remember Rachel’s name…)

Cole said, “When I see Rachel again, I’ll remember that her name is the same as my cousin Rachel in Sioux Falls!”

“That’s great Cole!” I said, “You’re using an association you’re very familiar with to help remember the name of someone you’ve recently met.”

The last suggestion I gave to Cole was to repeat the name of the person he was meeting several times during the initial introduction. For example: “Rachel? I have a cousin named Rachel. My name is Cole. Nice to meet you Rachel!”

There is no easy way to remember the names of all your customers. It takes genuine effort. But it is possible to facilitate learning names by using mnemonics (e.g., Paris is tall like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.), associations (e.g., Rachel has the same name as my cousin Rachel.), and repetition (i.e., Try to use the name three times during your initial introduction.).

Invest the time and effort to learn customers’ names and if you draw a blank, don’t try to fake it—be honest. Chances are that your customer may not readily recall your name either. This re-introduction will give you both a chance to reinforce each other’s names while strengthening the relationship.

How about you? What techniques help you to remember names?

Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.
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