The birdbath principle: Attracting customers by reducing fear


If you’ve noticed customers baulking at the entrance to your store, abandoning your online process, or avoiding contract discussions, it could be due to the birdbath principle.

Birdbath positioning

Birdbaths serve two purposes in a garden. They can be used as a structural element to attract the eye, and they can be used to attract birds that like to drink and bathe. It is this second, more functional purpose, where I see things break down because, much like engaging customers, there’s a right and wrong way to position your birdbath.

The right way is to nestle your birdbath amongst the foliage. The wrong way is to place it in the middle of a barren landscape.

Why? Birds need to feel safe. They are very vulnerable when taking a drink or bath, so it’s important they feel protected and have an escape. When a birdbath is stuck out on its own, birds are too scared to approach.

The birdbath principle

Poorly placed birdbaths remind me of retail outlets where customers are anxious about entering the store for fear of being pounced on by a predator (you). In short, they haven’t been provided with enough ‘cover’ to feel safe to come in. As a result, many shoppers bypass stores that are empty of customers in favour of those where others have dared to enter.

I call this the ‘birdbath principle’. When people feel exposed, they will avoid you. It not only happens in retail. The same goes for:

  • Restaurants, where people will feel awkward about entering an empty space;
  • Online, where customers will feel very vulnerable if you ask them personal or sensitive questions (such as date of birth or credit card details) without assurances;
  • Networking events, where people (particularly those who are introverted) don’t know where to stand or what to do with their hands; and
  • Contract discussions, where they feel the pressure of being the decision-maker.

How to make customers feel safe

Your role is to make customers (and staff) feel safe to proceed. Like the birdbath nestled among the plants, look for opportunities to give customers a safe environment to enter, and an easy path to exit.

In retail, have sufficient stock just inside the entrance to give them a sense of protection, and try to look busy when they come in so they don’t feel all eyes are on them. Acknowledge them, but keep it brief and wait for them to loiter over something before actively engaging with prompts.

In hospitality, if your customers are first to arrive (someone has to be), they’ll probably be feeling a little weird. Greeting them like being first is no big deal is important, so keep it low key. Seating them and offering water will help to anchor them. Having background music playing, possibly a little louder than later on, will help fill the void until other diners arrive.

Online, whenever you request sensitive information, be sure to explain why you need it (and get rid of any that you really don’t need). For example, when asking for an email, let them know it’s so their confirmation can be sent to them straight away. Also, make sure you confirm any important action, providing an order number or thank you page, for example.

At networking events, the registration desk is a good place to make them feel comfortable and get their bearings. Consider pointing out people they know, or where they can get a drink. A small information card can be a helpful device for them to hold and give them something to read when not in conversation (and keep them off their phones). Provide plenty of physical anchor points, such as bar tables, where they can plant themselves.

In contract discussions, give them ways to save face to colleagues if they need to recant on a decision or make a concession. Diminish their sense of risk if they proceed with you, while making them feel nervous if they don’t.

NOW READ: Abandoned online shopping carts: Why being cagey about pricing is harming your business

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