27 October 2020
27 October 2020
What would you say is the difference between an ok shopping experience, and a great one? More often than not, it comes down to the sales associates.
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Customers don’t find anything remarkable in just walking into a store, getting what they want, purchasing and then leaving. But they do remember the times when a sales associate has gone out of their way to help them out, be it with product recommendations, ordering out-of-stock items for them, or even just making the effort to be friendly.
And in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, impeccable customer experience is more valuable than ever. The newfound risks of shopping in-store mean that consumers need their journey to feel worthwhile, and their interactions with store employees can either make or break that experience.
A good store team is the best weapon in a retailer’s arsenal. That’s why we’ve put together the top 3 qualities we think a great sales associate should have, as well as some of the retailers we think have cracked the code.
1. Unparalleled product knowledge
It should go without saying that if you ask a sales associate a question about any product in the store, they should be able to give you an answer. That can be a tough ask - especially in areas like electronics, which require a lot of technical knowledge. But with the right learning and development tools and enough support from managers, it is possible for sales teams to have all the information they need at their fingertips.
This is especially important in 2020, when most people want to get in and out of a store as quickly as possible with very little fuss.
And it’s not just about knowing things, but about utilizing what you know in the right way. When a customer asks a sales associate a question about a product, they’re not just looking for facts. They can find all of that online, often by looking things up on their phone while they’re in the store.
Whether they say it or not, what they’re really looking for is an opinion - some kind of endorsement of the product to confirm that they’re making a good decision. So a sales associate shouldn’t just regurgitate information, they should tell customers why they think it’s worth buying.
Brand loyalty has been completely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but providing uncertain customers with the confidence to buy will drive sales and keep them coming back in the future.
2. Excellent communication skills
That leads us to our next point: the importance of communication. Being friendly and approachable should be the minimum requirement for working in retail, but a truly great sales associate takes those natural skills and hones them.
Say for example you’re in a department store buying a dress. An engaged sales associate won’t just sell you the dress. They’ll ask you what the occasion is, recommend some shoes or accessories that will match, and maybe even tell you about a lipstick in the beauty department that will go great with your new outfit.
Having been taken care of by someone looking to improve your in-store experience, chances are you’ll leave the store in a great mood, with everything you needed and more.
People come into stores for a reason, after all - to have an experience, something they wouldn’t get by just shopping online. In the post-COVID-19 era, those interactions can make a huge positive impact on someone’s day - as long as it’s socially distanced, of course.
However, it is also crucial to read the mood and adjust your approach accordingly. A smile and a ‘how are you today?’ is a much-needed social exchange for some customers, whereas others would prefer to be left alone. Reading both verbal and non-verbal cues, really listening to and understanding the customer's needs, are therefore essential to providing each customer with the right experience for them.
Anyone who’s worked in retail knows that you’re constantly being pulled in a hundred different directions. That’s the nature of the job - one minute you’re stocking shelves, the next minute helping a customer, then being called to the cash desk. Sometimes you’ll have a quiet morning and then all of a sudden three different people will want your attention at once. And of course, new products are being launched all the time, which means there’s even more to keep track of.
That kind of variety is exciting, but it can also be stressful. The ability to prioritize and multitask makes it so much easier to switch between all these different tasks without getting overwhelmed.
And with COVID-19 guidelines changing constantly, store teams have to be able to take on new information quickly and adapt to new rules and regulations.
Adapting to new in-store technology is also becoming increasingly important. Digitized store operations are becoming the norm in retail, particularly since the pandemic hit. And although for the most part this move is now being embraced by stores, there is inevitably a learning curve. Sales associates that embrace in-store technology and work with it to achieve their goals will help their stores’ conversion rates to skyrocket.
So, how do you get your sales associates to excel? By providing them with the right training!
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Sure, some people are naturally better-suited to customer-facing roles than others, but the top qualities we’ve outlined here are skills that can only be properly refined by being taught and nurtured by your employer.
Here are a few examples of the retailers that understand the importance of the sales associate and make the effort to train their teams for success:
Lush prides itself on its customer-centric approach, with sales associates who are always ready to offer advice and give product demos. To help boost their product knowledge, Lush even sends its employees on interactive training days so they can get to grips with the products.
The retail behemoth has taken the futuristic approach by rolling out a training program using 17,000 VR headsets in its stores in order to replicate the training their managers receive at the Walmart Academy.
Although there are now 474 branches of Trader Joe’s across the US, they work to maintain the “neighborhood grocery store” feel. That means going the extra mile for local customers, whether it’s delivering groceries to those who can’t pick them up themselves, stocking up on customers’ favorite items, or changing their opening hours to better suit their clientele’s schedule.
Nordstrom is synonymous with impeccable customer service. The not-so-secret formula to their success is trusting their employees to make the best decision they can. As their employee handbook famously says: ‘Rule #1: Use your good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.’ And that’s what store team training is all about - empowering your sales associates to trust their own judgement and make the right decisions.
This article was originally published in June 2019, and has since been updated for relevance and clarity.
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