The Art of Handselling

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Key customer service strategies, handselling tips, and valuable resources were the focus of "Handselling: Customer Service With Results," an ABA Day of Education session presented by Joe Drabyak of Chester County Book & Music Company in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and Avin Mark Domnitz, then ABA CEO, at last month's BookExpo America.

Drabyak began the session with a review of some of the basics. "We are the filter," he told booksellers. "So start off by reading all that you can." Helpful resources include the top book review sites, the Indie Next Lists (a "collection of like-minded booksellers across the country looking at the same materials you are and making recommendations"), the Indie Bestseller Lists, BTW's Media Guide, industry trade publications, including Bookselling This Week, Publishers Weekly, and Shelf Awareness, and bookseller blogs.

Handselling, Drabyak noted, extends beyond one-to-one interaction between a bookseller and a customer. It also includes the store newsletter, website, shelf-talkers, and representation on social media sites. And, for this content to be effective, it has to catch the reader's imagination. As an example, Drabyak pointed to a shelf-talker he created for William Lashner's Hostile Witness that stated, not only was Lashner better than John Grisham, he, Drabyak, would personally hand over a $50 bill to anyone who didn't like the book. (He never did have to pay up.) After selling more than 4,200 copies of Hostile Witness, Chester County fine-tuned its handselling pitch: Drabyak did a little calculating and discovered the store could announce that it had sold literally more than a ton of the Lashner title.

Another proven handselling strategy, Drabyak said, is posting staff picks shelves in every section of the store. This has the dual benefit of helping narrow the selection for customers and helping staff members suggest books in categories in which they aren't particularly knowledgeable. The better booksellers are at creating relationships, either in person, or via shelf-talkers, Twitter, Facebook, or the store blog, the more customers will trust the bookstore's picks, Draybak stressed.

To help familiarize everyone on the staff with as many titles as possible, Domnitz and Drabyak recommended having booksellers handsell new titles they have read to their colleagues during staff meetings.

Noting the high sales potential of children's literature, a category that might not be every bookseller's strong suit, Domnitz suggested that staff be given some on-the-clock time for catching up on kids' books.

Paying attention to customers is key to successful handselling. "How will you know what the customer wants?" Drabyak queried. "Ask them, what do you like? What don't you like? What book did you hate?

"Good salesmanship is good listening."

Ensuring store staff has good sales skills begins with an employment interview, said Domnitz. "You want to hire people who love books and love people."

Booksellers at the session also viewed video clips of 10 potential customer service scenarios, featuring dramatizations by the "ABA (very) Amateur Players." Best and worst practices were presented in five key areas, including upselling, what to do when a requested title is out of stock, how to stay nonjudgmental in possibly inflammatory situations, and more.

Two weeks post BEA, new bookseller Amy VandenPlas told BTW that she'd already put the handselling session to work at Butterfly Books in De Pere, Wisconsin, which she bought in January. Upon returning from the show, she immediately re-instituted the use of shelf-talkers throughout the store. "It's just something we haven't been doing lately, and it was good to be reminded," VandenPlas said. "They make it much easier to sell the book if you haven't read it."

For additional handselling resources, see's Handselling: Customer Service With Results Handout, Workforce Development Checklist, Handselling Vignettes, Autographed Copy Shelf-Talker, Local Author Shelf-Talker, and Staff Picks Shelf-Talker. --Karen Schechner