BrainTrust Query: Multitasking On the Retail Sales Floor

Discussion
Jul 31, 2012
Bob Phibbs

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of an article from the Retail Doctor’s blog.

Customers aren’t willing to wait for an employee to get around to noticing them. And they shouldn’t be. It takes a lot for customers to get in a car and visit a brick & mortar store only to be given the cold shoulder because and employee could only deal with one customer at a time.

I had a business owner tell me that he had "a really great gal but she spends about 1/2 hour with each customer." I thought, that’s not a really great gal if she can only wait on 16 people in a day.

Here are five tips on how to train employees to hustle:

  • Ask permission from the first customer.
  • Greet the other customer.
  • Get back to the first person quickly and thank them for waiting.
  • Restate where they were in the sale.
  • Confirm they got it right.

… all the while not rushing anyone.

If a salesperson is with someone else when a customer comes in, they should say, "Excuse me, do you mind if I go greet that customer? I’ll be right back." They should wait for permission before they greet the new customer. If you can have the customer read something or put a product in their hands before leaving, so much the better.

When the employee returns to the original customer they must say, "Thank you for waiting," and restate where they were in the sale. For example, in a toy store it might be, "So we were looking for a toy for your son who likes art but hates clay. Is that right?"

It’s important the employee does not say to the current customer, "Hold on, I need to go greet them" or yell, "Someone will be right with you" to the new arrival.

Slow sales have led to complacency in many retailers. More employees behind the counter. More dismissive expressions — "They’re just looking." Don’t let your employees get away with being more comfortable with only one person; train now how to juggle many customers. Otherwise, that one person will buy, but the majority who try your store, especially when it’s busy, will walk out because they were ignored. And in this retail environment, never be back.

Discussion Questions: Based on your own observations/knowledge, would you say the incidence of store associates having to manage multiple customers at the same time is on the rise or decline at retail? What tips would you have for store associates who have to handle multiple customers at one time?

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26 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Multitasking On the Retail Sales Floor"


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Richard J. George, Ph.D.
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

Absolutely, it is on the rise, particularly as retailers scale back on employment expenses. The suggestions noted in the article are good ones. The key is to dignify the customer in front of you, while recognizing the presence and needs of another customer — often a delicate task. One caveat. Ask permission to answer a ringing phone from the customer in front of you. However, the face-to-face customer has precedence over the phone customer. Ask the phone customer for permission to place on hold and then return to the customer in front of you.

Frank Riso
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

Simple solution here, if we have that many customers that we cannot handle them with the staff we have, employ more staff. I think having the right tools to determine when the traffic increases and when it slows down can also help. Training does help, but not having the right amount of staff is the worst case scenario. I hate when they are using a mobile phone at work. Are they working or are they just texting a friend?

Marge Laney
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

Handling more than one customer is definitely on the upswing on both ends of the service spectrum. ‘Touch and go’ service works best in apparel, where the customer can be guided by short interactions around the sales floor and in the fitting room.

The challenge comes when we talk about the big box retailers like Best Buy. They are constantly being beat up over their lack of knowledgeable service providers compared to their online competition. To make the sale they need to spend time with the customer making that personal connection and differentiating themselves from their online rivals. ‘Touch and go’ in this situation is difficult, but necessary.

I agree with Bob; not only should the associates be trained on the products they are selling, they should also be trained and given technology tools that will help them to educate and service each customer well, which will build the kind of loyalty that only personal interaction can.

Jason Goldberg
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

Bob, I assume you are exclusively talking about multitasking among customer facing tasks.

As stores have cut back on labor, I see a lot of sales staff making poor choices when multitasking customer service with other tasks.

It’s like nails on a chalkboard when an employee restocking/merchandising inventory 3 rows away from the front door also acts as the greeter by screaming across the store without every making eye contact or approaching the customer. Or worse, when the loss-prevention employee acts as greeter (“Honey, why is that guy with the badge following us?”). Don’t have a greeter if your labor model doesn’t support it.

Or an assistant manager, running inventory reports on a an unused POS (and of course unable to serve customers), while shoppers cue up behind the one open POS. Customers shouldn’t think that any function in the store is more important than serving them.

Zel Bianco
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

I don’t think it is on the rise or fall. It has always been a problem and one that is a fact of life at best and really annoying at worst. I understand that they can only help one customer at a time, but managing expectations of the customer is what is important here. Some store associates are very good asking if it is a quick question that they can answer without putting off the customer they are currently helping and others have a real attitude that has no place in retail and customer service levels. The real issue is waiting on line to ask your question and the associate answers the phone and proceeds to take 5 minutes to answer the caller’s question while you stand there waiting.

Paul R. Schottmiller
Guest
Paul R. Schottmiller
7 years 3 months ago

With few notable exceptions, I have no expectation of an informed response beyond a “where is ___” question.

In the rare cases I look for an associate, and the even rarer cases where I find one (they always seem to be rushing somewhere), I find it rude if they stop helping me to answer a phone call or help another customer.

I am sure retailers “hope” their associates can adroitly multitask, but the reality seems to be more “we employ people to stock the shelves and run the registers (well except for self-checkout), the rest is up to you.”

Steve Montgomery
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

As has been pointed out, the way associates handle multiple customers is situational. In a clothing store, greeting and working with a second customer while the first is in trying on clothes is one thing, but it quite another when the customer is in the middle of an in-depth discussion regarding a technology-based product.

I agree with all the comments regarding the use of personal cell phones on the floor. My suggestion would be to ban store associates from using them while working. They could leave them in their lockers and retrieve them while on break or at lunch.

Rick Myers
Guest
Rick Myers
7 years 3 months ago
I don’t think anything has changed. When I was in stores, we had to handle as many as five customers at a time. I found that any more than that and I couldn’t get the timing right to make their footwear purchase a good experience for them. I agree that it is all about timing and most importantly, remembering what the customer was seeking. Another component of this is the manager and how they handle the customer service experience. If there are non-sales that need to be done, dedicating one associate to non-sales and one to sales is crucial. The “sales” associate works on non-sales until a customer enters the area. They drop what they are doing to greet the customer and determine needs and service the customer as necessary. Then go back to non-sales when they can. If the “sales” associate gets more than they can handle, it then falls on them to ask the non-sales associate to help sell and communicate who they need to help and what they are seeking. Sometimes helping… Read more »
Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

Managing multiple customers is definitely on the rise which, of itself, should be considered a good sign. It means more customers are visiting the brick & mortar locations. Even if it means staff reductions have led to fewer having to do more; it should still be seen as a good sign. Sales are sales. The issue to me is proper customer service training, no matter how the store is staffed. Courtesy should remain a constant. A bigger issue is when the staff thinks it is more important to speak with one another or put stock away when there is someone waiting to make the cash register ring.

Ian Percy
Guest
7 years 3 months ago
Really? Is the goal how many customers you can talk to or how many customers actually buy something? Bragging about how many customers you talked to is like bragging about the number of visitors on your website without mentioning how many of them do anything. What a pointless metric. Let’s explode a myth here. When we ask a customer if they mind that we go and greet another customer the answer is ALWAYS ‘no, they don’t mind’. If we really believe they mean it we need to go back to Psych 101. Of course they mind because we are clearly indicating that someone else is more important than they are. And nothing is more irritating to a customer. Suppose the customer is honest and says, “Yes, I do mind and I’d like you to answer the rest of my questions.” Now what are you going to do? Now both of you are annoyed and the chances of a sale are zero. The other day I mentioned there are only four ways to anger a customer… Read more »
Martin Mehalchin
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

It does seem to be on the rise, on the other hand I also walk into stores that are heavily overstaffed with more associates than customers. Most retailers don’t have very good tools for managing this; scheduling software has always been a weak category in the retail software landscape. Maybe there’s a business opportunity here for a vendor who can really figure it out.

Gordon Arnold
Guest
7 years 3 months ago
Thanks to the makers of short staffing and reduced wages the retail business is strangling efforts to provide courteous customer interaction on a timely basis. This problem is being managed with an assortment of programs and gimmicks which only serve to provide added frustration to the consumer base. At the present time there are no real solutions in place that serve a customers need when the facility is heavily populated at sporadic times throughout the day. Although it is difficult and often impractical today’s retail manager must clearly define what tasks have priorities throughout the day. In addition, a scheduling system designed to provide sufficient coverage at any time is a must. Any scheduling system in place needs to be constantly updated to keep optimum performance goals properly addressed. Retailers need to better understand the value of role play and practice in their training programs. Anyone giving instruction in customer interaction must be able to demonstrate a high level of skill in this type of training or the field results will be a disaster. This… Read more »
Robert DiPietro
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

I think the incidence of associates handling multiple customers is on the rise. If you think about the scheduling ratios, it is NOT 1 associate per customer; they are expected to multitask.

Once you establish rapport and answer a customer’s questions, give them some time to shop and say “I’ll check back in a few minutes.” This will free you up to greet other customers as they come in. The key is, don’t accompany the customer on the entire trip; build rapport, answer questions, then give them time and check back when appropriate. Associates need to FEEL and READ the customer’s mindset.

Warren Thayer
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

Sure, this is getting worse as more stores cut staff for “efficiency.” When I was a kid working in my dad’s little grocery store, I’d get so busy stocking shelves etc. that I’d ignore customers. He’d take me aside and say “Customers aren’t an interruption to our work, they’re the REASON for our work!” It finally sunk in, but hey, I was a teenager.

All good advice here. Only thing I could add is that those “take a number” devices in the deli could be handed out by clerks on the floor, or at the front end, so people at least have an idea of when they might get served. I’ve had jerks cut in front of me at Home Depot and other places a couple times while I waited for (and followed) a clerk around the store.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

As apparently was Ian, when I read through this I was immediately struck by one thought: what happens when the first customer says “yes, I DO mind”? The suggestions themselves aren’t bad — albeit somewhat “common sensical” — but the reality is there will always be random surges and lulls in traffic, and a retailer has to choose between (periods of) either having customers neglected or having staff with nothing to do.

David Zahn
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

Ian’s comments resonate with me. If asked, I might defer to the request, but clearly would feel minimized as a customer. The suggestion that it might be an indication of a need for more staffing if this is happening is right on, too.

As for the comment about only 16 shoppers being communicated with — if they buy, she is awesome. If she is only a chatty and friendly face — not so much.

Bob Phibbs
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

I think Ian that being courteous and asking permission yields most people saying they don’t mind — as you note. The point of this article was how to include as many people as possible with limited resources. Customers are often at various stages in a department from when they first arrive, looking around, questions, trying on and ringing up. Many times people who are trained how to handle this can make more sales.

I was at a Clarke’s in OH a couple weeks ago when I wrote this and the two associates did a masterful job at it. The Nordstrom I visited first, didn’t and lost the sale.

Fabien Tiburce
Guest
Fabien Tiburce
7 years 3 months ago

What’s more unlikely: a) spotting a unicorn b) finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow or c) getting a sales associate’s attention at Home Depot? If you answered c), you are, sadly, like I and many customers. The suggestions given are sound, but obviously one can only cut labor costs so far until that strategy cuts into sales.

Sid Raisch
Guest
Sid Raisch
7 years 3 months ago

Tightening schedules to hit a budget is fixing a symptom, not a problem. Unfortunately, when it comes to floor sales staff, a death spiral can begin when customers are not receiving the help they perceive they need. I say, “You’ll Never Have Enough Staff, Until You Sell Enough Stuff.”

Mark Burr
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

This has always been the case and always will be. The simplest and most effective tip is acknowledgement, acknowledgement, and acknowledgement.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

It drives customers nuts to wait in line to check out, then wait again as the sales associate needs to answer the phone. (It drives associates nuts, too.) It’s going to be important to address structural issues like this, or customers will move on.

Carlos Arambula
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

It’s definitively on the rise. Based on my observations it is not due a lack of desire to help, rather a lack of knowledge by the store’s associates and/or training of personnel.

It’s worse when a new layout or new merchandising is added to the stores; then the associate is as lost as I am because an outside crew is responsible for the work.

What tips do I have? Other than training, honesty is the best avenue. Inform the customer that you are unaware but will try to help. Customers can be forgiven so long as they know what to expect.

Kate Blake
Guest
Kate Blake
7 years 3 months ago

It’s on the rise. Most stores have single coverage, especially in malls and I can tell when they are in trouble and that there is no one to fall back on, usually in the morning and late at night. Unfortunately, the average customer doesn’t realize that and will suffer.

When you have one person who must act as night janitor, security, and salesperson, something will fall by the wayside. To the associate I would say that you will get fired for injury or theft. Taking care of those things will come before sales. I would recommend that that associate keep their cell phone handy with the number of security, never let customers use the restroom when you are by yourself (tell them it’s broken), and never throw out garbage by yourself.

To the company who is expecting sales, I say, “TOUGH LUCK.” That’s what you get for short coverage.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

Well, a couple responses to this article are to simply employ more staff. As a former store manager, I can say that stores have to be profitable and labor costs are your largest controllable expense. Therefore, in order to make your P&L goals, you typically cannot simply add more staff.

Therefore, some of the tips in the article are appropriate. Bottom line, as the tips suggest, ensure the employees talk to all the customers so no one feels ignored.

Mark Price
Guest
Mark Price
7 years 3 months ago

As retailers continue to “manage” labor down over time, store associates are more and more often faced with handling up to 3-4 customers at the same time. With that workload, triage is the only solution — quickly find out which customer problems you can solve quickly and do so, without alienating customers with more involved issues. Net, net, try to annoy as few customers as possible.

Tom Redd
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

Associates are working with multiple shoppers — it is on the rise. For store associates: when handling multiple customers, make sure you know the key issue with each of the customers, right up front. When you ask them to wait, watch their non-verbal feedback. If they put on a stressed face then get help from a fellow associate ASAP as you shift to the next customer. There is no fancy technology to help you serve multiple shoppers/customers. Work them tight, watch their faces, and get product in their hands and close the deal!

SELL SELL SELL…and care too!

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