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You’re going to come across a variety of customers while running a cannabis dispensary. While many people may come in with specific knowledge of what they want, others may not even have a general idea of what they’re going for. Budtenders must be good at assisting all kinds of people, including those who are new to cannabis and don’t have much experience to rely on when shopping.

Reactions to shopping in a dispensary vary between new customers. Some people are in awe that they are legally surrounded by people selling cannabis, while others just want to get in and out as fast as they can.

A good first impression may make the difference between a repeat customer and someone who decides to never return. “How we introduce new guests to the industry may permanently shape their experience and influence whether they have a positive and safe long-term relationship with cannabis,” said Jim Taschetta, Head of Retail at Perfect Union dispensary in California.

According to Taschetta, to assist new customers you should “make them feel welcome and comfortable so they can articulate their needs; focus on understanding their specific needs; educate, don’t sell; guide them to the best product(s) to meet their needs, and inform them about safe usage.”

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Asking the right questions to new customers is crucial. “It is easy for a new customer to be intimidated or embarrassed when interacting with a highly experienced cannabis user,” said Taschetta. There is a right way to go about it that won’t leave your customers feeling alienated.

“What are you hoping to achieve?” or “what brings you here?”

The answer to this question will provide you with a lot of insight. If someone is looking to get lit for the experience, you can guide them towards choices that will get the job done. Others may need more in-depth help depending on what they’re trying to achieve. Gauge the way customers are engaging with you to determine how hands-on your assistance should be.

Some people need a guide to answer every question that pops up, while other customers just want to look around and know someone is there to clarify if questions pop up. “Listening is the biggest skill and something I focus on training my employees on is to be observant of customer's verbal, and non-verbal communication,” said Joan Webley, president of Itopia Life, a medical dispensary in Jamaica.

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“New users tend to have a lot of questions, and may have some degree of anxiety and discomfort in even talking about a product that was so prohibited and stigmatized.” Customers new to cannabis may display non-verbal cues of discomfort and anxiety. Address this by providing a safe environment free of judgment. A guiding question like, “what do you want to achieve?” may help get the ball rolling.

“What have you tried in the past?”

New to cannabis can have a lot of meanings. For some people, it’s “I haven’t smoked since college and now I’m retired” while others may have absolutely no context for the plant. Once you know what they’re looking to achieve, finding out what they have used in the past can be a good guiding question.

Maybe they tried CBD but it wasn’t strong enough, which could lead you to guide them towards a product with both THC and CBD for more synergistic results. Or maybe they’ll throw out other things they’ve tried, like ibuprofen for pain or sleep medication for insomnia.

The key here is to not respond with medical claims. Guiding questions will help you understand the customer better, but it’s not going to make you an expert on them. Don’t make medical assertions. “Our employees are not doctors and are unable to make a direct linkage between products and medical conditions,” said Dr. John Oram, CEO and Founder of NUG dispensaries.

“Employees are educated to speak about the wellness aspects of products and can speak of the effects. But employees can not make claims that a product will treat or cure a medical condition. This will change over time as clinical trials are developed and product manufacturers begin to better understand the medical efficacy of their products.” Getting to know what a customer has tried in the past can help guide you towards the right product without overwhelming them with new information.

“What consumption methods are you willing to try?”

This is a crucial question and will show you care about the individual. If you’re assisting someone for a while and end up trying to give them flower to smoke when they are not comfortable inhaling anything, they might get overwhelmed or frustrated. Ask the important questions first so they don’t have to sift through their cannabis knowledge, which may be limited, to tell you what they need.

“It's important that patients have a good understanding of how long a specific consumption method might take for a patient to feel it's effectiveness,” said Hillary Peckham of Etain Health. “A capsule, for example, can take up to 2 hours to feel effects where a vaporizer might take 15 minutes. This way patients can adjust their expectations so that they do not consume too much cannabis at one time.”

If someone new to cannabis feels duped by a product that kicked in way stronger and way later than they expected, they’re likely to blame the budtender who failed to disclose the important information. “We suggest that patients try our products at home 1-3 hours before sleep and after a light meal. This way we can help patients have a positive experience because they often are fearful of consumption if their first attempt does not go well.

The mantra in the industry is ‘start low go slow,’” said Peckham. Even if the new customer is looking for recreation, it’s important to be upfront about the details of each method. New customers may get ahead of themselves and turn a fun time into a paranoid mess.

“Do you have other questions about cannabis?”

This one is pretty generic but sometimes keeping it generalized can be useful. If you’re helping someone new to the plant, they probably have a ton of questions buzzing around. The best thing you can do is continue displaying openness to help. If you’ve already been assisting someone for a while but they don’t seem ready to take the plunge, keep offering to better their understanding. Sometimes new customers feel like they’re asking too much and being annoying, but your job is to help them and it should feel sincere.

At NUG dispensary, familiarizing new customers with the ins and outs of cannabis is often an interactive process. “The associates walk the sales floor with the customer providing information on each product and building a digital order using an iPad. There are certain areas within the store where we have open products so that customers can see and smell the actual products. In some cases, with lotions, for example, the customer can even apply the product,” said Oram.

“We understand that new customers are often nervous about the products and the buying process. We try to make that experience as normal as possible.” Allowing customers to touch and handle products (within reason) can help normalize the process. If customers seem curious about something, always take the opportunity to dive deeper and educate them further if they’re receptive. Don’t overload them with extra information they haven’t asked for.

Final thoughts on assisting new customers

The bottom line is to provide a safe space for customers to explore their questions without judgment. This may mean different approaches depending on who comes through the door. Pay attention to the questions the customer asks, their non-verbal communication, and any other cues they may provide.

Your job is to best assist customers of all backgrounds, and that means asking meaningful questions and listening carefully. As Taschetta of Perfect Union dispensary stated, “All new customers should be treated in a way that will ensure they can develop a comfortable and safe relationship with cannabis that can lead to lifelong benefits.”