There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “Don’t open a shop if you don’t like to smile.”
    And that’s what the bridal business is all about. But these days, smiles are being suppressed, to some degree, by technology, as brides are expecting retailers to allow them to book appointments online, and communicate largely via e-mail, social media and text.
    “The challenge is that buying a wedding dress is a very personal experience and it’s harder to be personal and personable on e-mail or text,” says Natalie Bauer, an owner of Bella Bianca Bridal Couture in Chicago.
    But where is the line between using technology to advance your business, and maintaining that crucial personal connection with customers? Indeed, it’s a challenge many bridal retailers are facing.
    Here are four ways to cultivate meaningful relationships with customers in the increasingly digital age.

1. Schedule face time. This is crucial. Fortunately, most bridal retailers work hard at connecting with customers.
    “We really try to make sure all staff members remember they are not just selling a dress,” says Celina Vasquez, general manager of The Bridal Connection in Ankeny, Iowa, and Impress Bridal in Newton, Iowa.
    These two stores do use technology as a base for connecting with their customers. However, it’s used to enhance, not replace, the shopping experience. Before a bride comes to the store, an employee asks for her Pinterest link so the appointment can be completely tailored to her.
    “We then sit down and talk to her and ask about her wedding so we can share her vision and get an idea for style and what she’s after,” Vasquez says. “You can see that better when she’s there and you’re watching her face.”
    They don’t stop there. Employees also gather details on where the bride is getting married, so they have a better overall picture of her and not just her wedding day.
    “It gives her the belief that this is about her and it’s her day; it’s not about what we want,” Vasquez explains.
    Not surprisingly, this first appointment lasts for two hours. This extended getting-to-know-you is helpful later on in the process, too.
    “When a bride’s standing there and has two favorite dresses and you can paint her a picture and say ‘Remember when you told me. . .’ we’re reminding her at the end what’s important to her and wouldn’t have been able to do that if we’d not spent that time upfront with her,” Vasquez says.
    This is different from how it used to be at the stores Vasquez runs. That first meeting used to be a very structured process with a form brides filled in.
    “It was more like an interview, so we decided to take a step back and ask what the bride would remember when she left this shop,” Vasquez says.
    Indeed, face-to-face interaction is still a make-or-break opportunity for bridal retailers, says Steve Smith, partner at Firehouse, an advertising agency in Dallas.
    “And making the most of it is all about old-fashioned customer service,” Smith says. “Make each interaction as personal as appropriate, and as experiential as possible. [For a bride], planning her event should be as enjoyable as the event itself. Think of the little extras that can make your time with your customer feel special, eventful and joyous.”
    And it all starts with how the bride is greeted.
    “A warm welcome is the beginning of an emotional connection with customers,” says Steve Rigell, CEO of Preemptis, Inc., a consulting firm in Poulsbo, Wash. “That’s because we need to realize business is based on relationships; it’s where an emotional connection takes place.”

2. The importance of employees. Having the right employees will take any bridal store a long way toward personally connecting with customers.
    Vasquez tries to have the same stylist work with brides from day one until their wedding day. And if that’s impossible, it’s Vasquez herself who fills in “because they’ve seen me through each step of their process and are familiar with me.”
    In fact, because of this, Vasquez tries to remain very visible to all customers.
    But the connection starts earlier than that – it starts with hiring.
    “You can’t successfully fake your way through a bridal experience,” Vasquez says. “It’s not going to be genuine if you’re not going to get some satisfaction out of this. I have to hire carefully and one in three girls doesn’t make it through the first six months. My employees have to care.”
    If you’ve already hired all your employees and are not getting the most out of them, all is not lost, says Lior Arussy, CEO of Strativity, a customer- experience strategy firm in Hackensack, N.J. He suggests talking to underperforming employees and finding out why they aren’t delighting customers. Ask them what will help them do their job better, he says.
    The most important factor, however, is to be a role model.
    “If your employees see you simply sincerely telling a customer ‘Thank you for your business,’ they are likely to copy it,” he says.
    Roberta Rushing, owner of Sposabella in Feasterville, Pa., makes a deliberate attempt to draw her employees into the joy of marriage. Brides sometimes hire Rushing and her employees to be with them on their wedding day to help and bustle them.
    “It’s important for my employees to see the wedding and get involved in the emotion of it,” Rushing says.
    She’s also careful about who she hires and looks for employees with customer-service experience.
    “Waitresses are perfect because they can multi-task and can handle all kinds of customers and have a big smile on their face and be patient,” she says. “I really look for the special girl who has those qualities – someone who is a people’s person.”

3. Don’t underestimate the phone. When a bride e-mails L&H Bridal in Philadelphia, if she includes a phone number, the store will call her prior to e-mailing her back.
    “It’s more personable,” says business manager Anthony Ciotti. “Making that phone call is just starting that connection.”
    But not all phone calls are created equal.
    Ciotti spent months searching for the right employee for this job “and we got someone with a great personality and she shines on the phone,” he says. “She has brides’ e-mail addresses and could contact them 10 times faster online, but it’s not the same; it’s just not personal. If a bride gets a phone call, she knows we took the time and called her.”
    The worst-case scenario, he says, is the store leaves the bride with good feelings about it, even if she goes elsewhere for her gown.
    Anyone working in a bridal store has to always keep forefront in his or her mind that this is the bride’s big moment.
    “Even for people who aren’t into weddings, they’re hoping this is the only time in their life they’re going to get married, and it should be all about them,” Ciotti says. “They should feel special.”
    And that’s why he searched for months for the right person for his phone calls (she’s a jack-of-all-trades in the store really). This employee is also usually the first person customers meet as they enter L&H Bridal.
    “It’s a very important job,” Ciotti says. “It was a very specific person we were looking for and we’ll never let her go.”
    Bridget Nussie Moore, owner of K&B Bridals in Bel Air, Md., also prefers to use the phone in lieu of e-mail.
    “We like to say congratulations by phone and thank you for reaching out and we’re excited to help you out and how can we work with you?” Moore says. “I feel like e-mails just inundate women’s inboxes so phone calls are much more personal.”
    If no one answers, someone from the store leaves a voice mail, she says, which is less likely to be deleted than an e-mail.
    Pick your employees carefully, says Debbie Williams, co-founder and chief content officer at Sprout Content in Denver, a marketing agency that helps businesses create more meaningful connections with their customers.
    Since you’re working in the bridal industry with clients mostly in their 20s and 30s, try to have employees of the same generation. This way, she says, customers feel they are well understood by someone who may have been in their shoes fairly recently. And, she adds, the employee can also make recommendations based on her recent experiences.
    “People don’t want to be sold to; they want to be helped,” she says.

4. Don’t forget others in the bridal party. A bride may be the axis around which a wedding spins, but other people are involved too. Most notably, the groom.
    In general (grooms) are not as emotional, says Bridal Connections’ Vasquez, though she and her employees do try to draw grooms into conversation about their experience and their role, especially the honeymoon, which the groom often takes care of.
    “Connecting with him reinforces their combined experience,” Vasquez says.
    Rushing says she welcomes as many family members as a bride chooses to bring with her to the store.
    “We immediately ask everyone what their name is and what their role is going to be at the wedding,” she says. “We make them part of the process and ask constantly for their opinions.”
    Humor is also a handy tool to connect to fathers, who can become very emotional seeing their little girl grown up in a wedding dress. Rushing will use lines like “Come on dad, let’s go shopping. I’m sure your your daughter brought you here because you have the wallet right?’
    “That’s when they get more comfortable,” she says, “that’s how we connect with dad.”
    It doesn’t stop there, either. Many fathers stop by to pick up gowns before a wedding, she says, and at that point she or an employee will give him a pep talk for the big day
    And being there on the wedding day also means she and her employees can help parents and other members of the bridal party, all of whom – especially the parents – may be feeling nervous.
    “These are life moments I don’t take for granted,” she says. “I often escort parents to the wedding and tell them what a great achievement it is to walk your kids down the aisle. We really become part of their big day and we love it; it never gets old.”


Technology: The Upside

Technology’s not all bad. In fact, it has some key benefits.
    For starters, it’s convenient and helps you quickly communicate important messages. That’s crucial because customers needs to know you’re a resource for and are vested in them, and that you don’t just view them as a sales opportunity, says Debbie Williams, co-founder and chief content officer of Sprout Content in Denver.
    So, even though it entails technology, offer to send brides some resources before they come into your store, Williams suggests. You can e-mail them useful links or e-books about planning a wedding or trends in rings.
    Researching the customer beforehand – checking out her Pinterest page for example – and then sending advice tailored to her is another effective way to show you care.
    “It means the store is becoming a resource,” Williams says. “No one wants to be sold to; they want to feel like they’re working with an expert in the industry.”
    It also behooves retailers, she adds, to have plenty of relationships with others in the industry who can be recommend to brides.
    Also “don’t discount e-mail; it can be a powerful connection builder,” says Steve Smith, partner at Firehouse, an advertising agency in Dallas. “But, you really have to think about your content strategy. Brides-to-be are overwhelmed with information. Think about the role you play in her planning and her event, and provide content that will make some part of that easier or better.”
    Conversely, he says, don’t inundate a bride with content she’s getting elsewhere and will not value. For example, if you’re a dress shop, content might be sharing trends in accessorizing, or tips on transporting or storing dresses. Relevance and utility creates value and builds relationships.
    And don’t forget about online reviews. L&H Bridal in Philadelphia is careful to respond to every single review, the good and the bad “because it makes the person who reviewed you feel better,” Ciotti says.
    “And don’t give the same answer every time,” he says. “Take the extra minute – say hello and use the person’s name and thank her for her message.”
    When Ciotti or his employees respond, they try to refer back to something from the client’s appointment, if they remember it, and if not, they refer directly to the review.
    “You can make it personal that way,” he says. “Even with technology you have to make it personal.”