I recently spent a good amount of time talking to personal stylists Carol Rosenblatt, founder of Mrs. R consults, and Amanda Castro, owner of Beyond Black, about the art and science of helping consumers easily find exactly what they are looking for. It’s an issue that keeps e-commerce executives up at night -- either tossing and turning or hunting for a solution. It occurred to me that Rosenblatt and Castro are focused on a number of the most important considerations for online retailers striving to do it right. Here are seven key lessons gleaned from the collective wisdom of Rosenblatt, Castro and Beyond Black client Polly Baroco: 1) Get to know your customer: Rosenblatt and Castro both spend hours literally going through clients’ closets to discover what works, what doesn’t, what the client likes to wear, what the client never wears etc. “You try to get an idea of what they’re looking for, their expectations, what their needs are,” says Rosenblatt. “It can vary by client.” Says Castro: “Everybody’s closet tells a story.” AmandaCaption 2) Watch and listen and make sure you understand what customers are telling you, even if you have to work at understanding exactly what it is they mean by what they say. Make sure that your customers know that you know them. “My job is to get them to verbalize,” Castro says. “Why do you like something? That’s what I help them to do, get them to talk about it.” Says client Baroco: “The fact that she came to my house and got to know me; and I have dogs and she got to know the dogs: It was personal and intimate. She make you feel like it’s OK. She’s a professional and she’s done this.” 3) Give your customers the feeling that you’re a friend; not a pest. Baroco says she considers Castro a friend, someone who really got to know her and her style. It was a different feeling, she says, from when she visits a store and is greeted by a sales associate who she’s never seen before and might never see again. “When they’re like, ‘Hi. Can I help you?’ I think sometimes that’s just annoying,” Baroco says. “I don’t think that’s a personalization thing. I think it’s more of an annoyance.” 4) Learn from your customers’ choices. Every decision they make, tells you something about their preferences. Rosenblatt caption Rosenblatt and Castro usually take their clients shopping. The stylists pick out a variety of clothes that fit the profile of likes and dislikes that their clients have expressed and then they begin the process of learning more. “Everything has already been pulled,” Castro says of the trips to the store. “They just have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to these things.” She’ll take the yeses and begin to create outfits. She’ll try little things, flipping up a collar, putting it back down. “All of that gets talked about,” Castro says. 5) Make recommendations based on all you know about your customer. Don’t make customers constantly describe what it is that they want. Show them more of what they’ve expressed an interest in already. “She would think about me occasionally and send me little snippets: ‘thought you would like this brand. You should go to this store and try it out,’” Baroco says of Castro. “She really personalizes it; and she’s thinking about you even when you’re not paying.” 6) Be intimately familiar with your inventory and be able to quickly match what you have to what your customer is telling you she wants. You can’t help a shopper discover something that you don’t know you have. Rosenblatt goes out between appointments and scouts inventory at various department stores. Inventory changes and a store that was right for one client one month, might not be the right place the next month. Says Castro: “I’m super familiar, particularly with the department stores in downtown San Francisco.” 7 ) Build trust, for instance by providing personalized suggestions that are meant to help your customer; not help you eliminate unwanted inventory. “You need to lose the kind of bottom-line approach, upselling and getting these aggressive sales associates who might be lying to you about what looks good,” Castro says. Without trust, she adds, there is no point in having either a human or a machine guide you as you search for that perfect something. “There is nothing good that’s going to come of it.” Nobody said creating a memorable (in a good way) experience for online retail customers was going to be easy. And when it comes to one-to-one personalization, it’s hard to beat a personal stylist. But maybe retailers don’t have to beat Rosenblatt and Castro at their game. Maybe they just need to learn a thing or seven from them. Photo of Amanda Castro by Patrick Roddie, courtesy of Amanda Castro; photo of Carol Rosenblatt courtesy of Carol Rosenblatt, photo of women on a bench by Garry Knight published under Creative Commons license. Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Reach him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com and follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.