Product and promo knowledge won’t make the sale

Photo: RetailWire
Feb 08, 2019
Ray Riley

Excluding grocery and convenience stores, think of your most common shopping experience.

Here’s mine: upon entering the store, a sales professional is positioned behind the counter, on the point-of-sale computer. In my experience, half of the time, the sales professional looks up and provides some form of acknowledgement of my presence in the store. Next, comes the beloved “brand introduction” with questions like, “Have you ever visited _______ before, etc.” Some take the promotional approach: “Just so you know, _______ is 50 percent off today.”

Retailers need to ask themselves if canned talking points require a human to utter them? Are we developing associates to be chatbots or true retail sales professionals that have the ability to connect with customers and solve problems?

In his book, “The Four,” Prof. Scott Galloway highlights one of the outcomes of being globally over-retailed, combined with the rise of Amazon: “Consumers no longer go to stores for products, which are easier to get from Amazon. They go to stores for people/experts.”

As consumers have little reason to drive to their nearest shopping center for a purchase that Alexa could fulfill, why is product or promotional knowledge the primary form of training that associates receive? One could argue it’s another form of business school thinking gone bad: products and promotions generate revenue, so therefore — “Duh.”

That false equivalency, as I see it, seeks an outcome without any consideration towards the drivers of said outcome.

There’s a reason why developed sales professionals can jump from selling high-end chocolate to fine jewelry to high fashion without missing a performance beat. They have either the natural talent (unscalable art) or have been developed with the scalable science of selling to connect with customers on an interpersonal level. They have the nonverbal and verbal communication skills that build trust and positively influence a customer’s experience. Neither Alexa or an in-store robot can do that. So, why aren’t building these skills on a retailer’s education curriculum?

The future, Prof. Scott writes, requires retailers to zig as Amazon zags. There are plenty of examples of retailers doing so via the deepest engagement channel that exists in retail: the store.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Where does the development of interpersonal skills (e.g., picking up on verbal and non-verbal cues) stand with the training of sales associates at retail? Are there retail chains you can point to who organizationally “get” the need to hire and develop associates who understand the role of interpersonal skills as part of the job?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"C-level folks at retailers need to spend more time with their HR teams determining how to attract and retain those natural born sellers."
"In the era of Amazon and rising e-commerce sales retailers need to focus on the human element of the sale."
"The old mantra of hire for attitude and train for skills is still valid today."

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18 Comments on "Product and promo knowledge won’t make the sale"

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Mark Ryski

Sales or more generally customer service skills are becoming a lost art for many retailers. Ultimately, store staff should be focused on serving the shopper in a way that leads to a successful visit — in most cases, a successful shopping visit is one that ends in a sale. The fact is, selling/service skills will be highly dependent upon the store environment – we don’t expect service at Costco, we want fast checkout lanes. There are retailers who do an excellent job of finding the right level of engagement with shoppers, and one of the best examples is Lululemon. They have found a way to connect with their shoppers in a way that is completely authentic – and their consistently excellent business results reflect this.

Ananda Chakravarty

Salesmanship is a critical skill for retail — steeped in integrity, authenticity, and a genuine effort to help others. The human element of retail is sometimes completely missing from discussions about new tech solutions. Sales associates need to prioritize these skills to be brand ambassadors — which they are, just by standing at a register or stocking a shelf. As for examples, I’ll pick on Walmart that had its greeter program, manager scenario training and more — but the challenge is to make it stick. Apple is moving in the right direction by integrating Deirdre who also runs HR to head up retail. Personalization comes from more than just tech.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

In the beginning there were the four Ps: Product, Place, Price and Promotion. The big miss back then is even more important today — PEOPLE! When today’s customer can purchase anywhere/anytime, products have become a commodity. The retailer that originally capitalized on the power of people, and who is still generating more sales per square foot than any other retailer is Apple. Apple’s simple formula for success is to hire for smiles and train the rest.

Richard Layman
2 months 10 days ago

With regard to Apple, it’s a bit disingenuous to talk about their stratospheric sales per square foot numbers as the result of some special sauce. Yes, special sauce is involved. So is selling very highly priced products. Try generating high sales per square foot selling 100 packages of underwear versus selling one iPhone.

Ron Margulis

There is a great deal of wisdom to the axiom that some people are just born salespeople. Sure, you can train people to do a better job engaging with customers and you can have them watch how the “naturals” sell. But the real talent is spotting the people who have the selling gene. This is where HR is supposed to earn its living but too often they are stuck dealing with compliance issues and under pressure to have warm bodies in the stores or call centers. C-level folks at retailers need to spend more time with their HR teams determining how to attract and retain those natural born sellers.

Art Suriano
There are several outstanding points in this article. For starters, retail training has become a lost art where the focus today is getting the associate on the floor as quickly as possible, often with little or no training. Why? Because the center is on tasks, tasks and more tasks. The author states he receives a greeting about 50 percent of the time. It’s actually far less because most retailers have associates so heavily engaged in tasks, they don’t even have the time to pick their head up to look at a customer. Managers make it worse by telling associates they need to tend to customers out of one side of their mouth while with the other, get that task done as quickly as possible because then we’ll need you to do this or that. It’s a game gone wrong. Every retail executive talks about the need for customer service and yet when it comes to investing in the right type of training and enough staff to make that happen, it is completely forgotten. Smart retailers… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson

Product knowledge certainly helps, and I wouldn’t want to discount the value of knowing what you’re selling. Sure, the talent of the specific person is the primary driver, however knowing what you sell can drive additional sales via up-sell and cross-sell techniques. I do feel that these “best sellers” employees should often be the trainer in that store. Take advantage of the natural or learned expert skills in every store. And, if you must, have them travel to regional stores if they’re that good at what they do.

Bob Phibbs

My sales training program has three parts: engage a stranger, discover the shopper and make a customer. Most retailers are stuck on the last part, which makes the associate more of a warehouse worker — what do you want, here it is. Millennials come to retail without many core competencies in communicating with shoppers on a retail sales floor. According to the survey I did in connection with Oracle NetSuite, more shoppers are feeling overwhelmed, anxious and alone when they go to a store. To overcome that, associates must be trained — especially if you want to grow sales.

Liz Adamson

In the era of Amazon and rising e-commerce sales retailers need to focus on the human element of the sale. A few years ago I was in Best Buy with the intention of buying a new TV, hoping that a sales associate could help me pick one out. After 45 minutes not one associate who worked in that department could be found, I decided on a model myself, and went home and ordered it from Amazon. So yes, sales associates make a difference, and ones that can connect with the customer on a deeper level than just “this is our sale today” can help create a brand loyalty that will keep bringing customers back.

Georganne Bender
I think that some retailers do a great job with associate training and development of interpersonal skills, while others treat store associates essentially like order takers who can stock shelves and ring the register. Yesterday, my partner Rich Kizer and I held a live consumer panel at a furniture conference. Each participant emphasized to the retailers in attendance how important the role store associates played in their choice of stores, and the overall store experience. The panelists were people who spent big bucks on furniture and who bought more, and were willing to pay more, because of the store associate. It’s amazing to me how training, such an important link in a store’s success, is blatantly overlooked by so many retailers. Are there retailers who get the need to hire and develop associates? Of course. Everyone is going to say Nordstrom, but retail chains can learn from indies like MartinPartick3, an amazing apparel, fashion and furniture store in Minneapolis or Cella’s Boutique, a ladies apparel shop in New Orleans. These stores are staffed with people… Read more »
Jeff Sward

I would add a couple of words to a great summation.
“…the deepest engagement channel that exists in retail: the store.” The store AND its staff. Brand promise and product are differentiators. The staff is a differentiator when the difference in promise and product becomes fuzzy. I’ve been saying Explore + Experiment = Experience. Emotion is obviously a huge part of shopping, so I may have to add it as the obvious component that it really is. Ex + Ex +Em = Exp. And the staff will contribute heavily there — or not.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Product knowledge for store associates is table stakes. Retailers would be smart to help them develop interpersonal and selling skills.

Steve Montgomery

A great starting point is the sales person genuinely likes people and interacting with them. The old mantra of hire for attitude and train for skills is still valid today.

Some people come to the job with the ability to recognize the cues being given off by the customers. For many others it takes training and time. Unfortunately, most retailers spend their training time on how to run the POS, handle returns, etc. and not how to read the cues given off by their customers.

Rich Kizer

After many years that span every aspect of retail, I can certainly and easily point to management’s inattention to sales training and development that led to the establishment of mediocre interactions and shameful cultures of excellence on the floors. Today, due to the vast options of where to buy, there is a much higher level of expectations from customers. Our mandate with our retail clients is: Training has no season … it must be on-going and one step ahead of the customer — period.

David Naumann

Training retail sales associates is quite a challenge and soft, interpersonal skills are difficult to teach. As the article points out, the basic skills of educating consumers on product details or offering a promotion are fairly easy to teach and can be done by a robot or communicated directly to the consumer’s smartphone. Theoretically, we should only need sales associates to provide the personalized advice that factors in verbal and non-verbal cues and is truly consultative selling.

Nordstrom comes to mind as a retailer that hires and develops sales associates that truly add value to the shopping experience.

Shep Hyken
When I speak to groups on customer service, I typically share a list of ways to create “customer amazement.” One of those is “knowledge.” Product knowledge is important. The employee that showcases their knowledge can create confidence with the customer. And, just as important, if not even more so today, is knowledge of the customer. That comes from asking the right questions. Along the way, the employee can build rapport by getting to know the customer on two levels. First is to understand why the customer wants what their buying. Second is to learn a little about the customer on a personal level. It could be something as simple as a question, such as, “Are you from around here?” The goal is to create the personalized experience. That is the big opportunity when a customer chooses to walk into a store rather than go to a website. Who “gets it”? Many retailers, but one of the first that comes to mind (on a national level) is Nordstrom. My personal experience (and many of my friends)… Read more »
Cate Trotter
Selling is definitely a skill. Another skill is being able to interact well with people. Brands likes Bentley’s and John Lewis have turned to other sectors, namely the theatre industry, to recruit staff or to conduct training. They realise that knowing what’s on offer or what a product can do isn’t enough — you have to be able to approach and interact and engage with customers in a genuine fashion, to make them feel welcome and at ease. Enthusiasm also goes a long way. Some retailers have started recruiting their biggest fans to work in their stores, which makes a lot of sense. If you’ve managed to convince someone to fall in love with your brand, it’s not because of some 50% off sale you’ve got on or the product dimensions. It’s because of how it makes them feel or what it does for them or what it adds to their lives. And who better to communicate that to another potential customer? That’s not to downplay the importance of training — I think it is… Read more »
gordon arnold

More costs more. Investing in training should be kept for each and every sales associate as a demonstration of how to prepare them for someone else to get returns. Employee turnover is an issue not taken into account here. It is during the interview that we should look for personal hygiene habits, communication skill levels and pleasantness/attitude. For the employees wishing to stay on and move up, it is again the company’s role to work with the employee to establish direction and training needs. Location, in stock, replenishment and housekeeping are the attributes most necessary to create sales and grow turn. Lest we forget.

"C-level folks at retailers need to spend more time with their HR teams determining how to attract and retain those natural born sellers."
"In the era of Amazon and rising e-commerce sales retailers need to focus on the human element of the sale."
"The old mantra of hire for attitude and train for skills is still valid today."

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