Retail Customer Experience: The 10 Essential Strengths of Front-Line Retail Employees

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Apr 14, 2010
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By Adrian Miller, President of Adrian Miller Sales Training

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary
of a current article from Retail Customer Experience, a daily news portal
devoted to helping retailers differentiate the shopping experience.

Most customers assume that small, local stores generally have a bigger focus
on customer-care excellence. However, this isn’t always the case.

Think
of the greeter in Walmart who informs you of the current promotions and invites
you to stroll a bit and take advantage of the good deals. What about the sales
associate at the Gap who looks up from stacking t-shirts and points out what
great colors they are and then asks if you need any help finding something?
Of course, there are the local shop owners who always say hello and ask if
they can be of service.

What skills and qualities are required by retail sales
associates to facilitate positive initial engagements with customers?

Confidence: The confidence to make eye contact and strike up a conversation
with strangers is absolutely essential.

Innate friendliness: Customers don’t want to deal with sales
associates who have to force themselves to be pleasant and nice.

Flexibility: When
dealing with the public, things can go wrong. You have to be flexible enough
to roll with the punches and think outside the box sometimes.

Ability to multi-task: Sales associates have to juggle customers and
their questions and needs, and at the same time attend to their other store
duties.

Patience: Dealing with people means that you will have to take the
good with the bad. The patience to deal with all types of customers is vital.

Articulate: Sales reps must be conversational and have the ability
to formulate answers and provide information when asked.

Respectful: The customer might not always be right, but she is always
the customer. Customers must be treated with respect, even in the most challenging
situations.

Proactive: It’s never a good idea to wait until a customer is
stressed or agitated before offering assistance. Being one step ahead to gauge
when someone needs help is the best way to minimize a brewing situation.

Positivity: The ability to smile in the face of a long and possibly
chaotic day can make a world of difference to customers.

Empathy: Being able to look at a situation through the eyes of a customer
is an extremely valuable skill that can enable you to provide the highest degree
of service.

At the end of the day, it’s all about how a sales associate interacts
with a customer. How that interaction goes will ultimately determine if that
customer will buy and recommend the store to her friends and family, or turn
around and walk out, never to return again.

Discussion Questions: Which retailers, in your experience, do the best
job of acquiring/training associates with the core strengths listed in this
article? Are their any qualities missing or over-emphasized in the list?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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23 Comments on "Retail Customer Experience: The 10 Essential Strengths of Front-Line Retail Employees"


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Paula Rosenblum
Guest
11 years 24 days ago

It’s not easy working in a store-you get pushed and pulled in all directions from headquarters AND customers. So while “friendly” seems like the most important trait, I had to go for “patience.”

Dick Seesel
Guest
11 years 24 days ago

If you can find a sales associate with all ten of the qualities discussed, she or he probably ought to be promoted to management! Yes, sales associates ought to have basic “people skills” but at least some of the employee mix needs to include people who are task-oriented, detail-oriented or visually-oriented…these may not be the same people who are on the front lines connecting with customers. So it requires a careful skills assessment on the part of management in order to fit the right type of personality with the right job. It’s a particular challenge for small specialty retailers where the employees are likely to fill multiple roles.

Joan Treistman
Guest
11 years 24 days ago

I’ve seen this happening at Bed Bath & Beyond as well as Target. Home Depot has lost its charm with regard to these characteristics.

If the sales associate merely points, it’s a sign that he doesn’t much care about how satisfied you’ll be. If the sales associate walks along with you or makes sure you have the assistance of someone who knows the products you’re interested in, well that shows the associate and store want your business.

Innate friendliness captures many of the points in the article. Friendly people care about getting to know others and helping them. They do it with a smile and enthusiasm.

Some skills can be taught. Friendliness is not one of them. Of course there is that saying, “Sincerity is the surest way to success…Once you know how to fake it, you’ve got it made.”

Carol Spieckerman
Guest
11 years 24 days ago

My picks are innate (important qualifier) friendliness and the ability to multi-task. You can’t make someone friendly who isn’t and everyone has experienced store associates who get “stuck” on tasks and can’t seem to move off of them. I would add having the ability to nail the sale. Bringing the entire experience to a conclusion is a critical and often overlooked element that can be at odds with the other important qualities outlined in the article. An innately friendly, multi-tasker who can ensure that every customer leaves with a purchase? The Holy Grail.

Dan Desmarais
Guest
Dan Desmarais
11 years 24 days ago

Confidence will take you further than anything else. I teach my children to pretend that they’re confident when they go into a new situation. More often than not they succeed without having needed the fake wall they put up. They soon realize that they can talk to anyone about anything.

Ensure your staff have access to the learning materials they need and send them out on the floor with a confidence boost that they know as much or more than any customer walking through the door.

Marge Laney
Guest
11 years 24 days ago

Retail sales associate selection is incredibly important but it’s probably the most poorly and inconsistently vetted career out there. The success of the entire retail organization rests on the back of the sales associate and their ability to relay the brand promise to the customer in a way that makes the customer buy and brings them back. You would think a whole lot of thought would go into the choosing of these important people.

Some brands do a great job selecting sales associate candidates by having a selection process that is comprehensive, consistently applied, and monitored for success. More often than not, though, I hear that the store managers hire friendly customers whose availability meets their scheduling needs. Retailers who want to provide a consistent customer experience across their brand should first look at their hiring practices. Hiring great associates is 90% of the battle won.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
11 years 24 days ago

Effective associates need to have at least half of the skills listed, although Richard is right, a sales associate that demonstrates all of these skills/traits won’t be a sales associate for long.

Interestingly, there was no mention of “Product knowledge.” In its simplest description, customers interact with sales associates for one thing–information, as in where is…?, what is the difference…?, does this product…?, why is this…?, etc. If a sales associate, regardless of how pleasant/confident/flexible, cannot provide information to the customer, they are not sales associates, they are operations associates in a self-service environment.

As far as the best companies for these kinds of attributes, my top pick is Apple 4-wall. Not only do they exhibit all the attributes in the list, they also display something else not mentioned–a true passion for the brand. Starbucks is another exemplar, as well as (to some extent) Best Buy.

Ian Percy
Guest
11 years 24 days ago
Same old, same old. Sales “training” is generally still stuck in the 70s and 80s where we thought that throwing M&Ms at people would “train” them to behave in pre-scripted ways. There’s a huge difference between “Here’s how you look confident” and “Here’s how you become confident.” What’s next–confidence metrics? Likewise instead of trying to make people “task” and now to “multi-task” let’s look at how people “think” or if you wish, “multi-think.” All 10 of these behaviors are rooted in the same thing: what a person believes. Belief begets Behavior. When sales people are kept busy fulfilling someone else’s purpose the magic will never happen. But when there is synergistic alignment between a sales person’s energy and purpose and the energy and purpose of where they work, watch out! You’ll be able to come right off the energy grid! It gets down to this: Are you trying to manage an “organization” or are you part of a living “organism?” In an organization you spend all your time trying to make desired behavior happen. In… Read more »
Ben Ball
Guest
11 years 24 days ago

I have seen marked improvement in both Lowe’s and Home Depot stores around the country in this regard lately. HD certainly lost its way in this regard at one point–but seems to have found its footing again. But the absolute standout has to be Jimmy John’s Sandwich Shops. With over 875 locations, it is impossible to enter or leave any one of them without a loud welcome and a hearty “come back soon!”

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
11 years 24 days ago

These are personality traits. Basic customer service training will not change a person’s personality. The culture has to come from the organization in a genuine manner. Leaders must lead by example. Apple Stores are generally good. I think interaction, as so many retailers strive for (customer withing 10 feet gets greeted, etc.) is the main action step to take. If a customer gets a customized experience, time after time they visit the store. True loyalty will evolve.

Bob Phibbs
Guest
11 years 24 days ago

Ian is right on here. Belief begets behavior. When I first read this list it sounded like a superhero from a Marvel comic. Hire the lacking and they are angry they have to serve. Hire the grateful then show them how it connects to their goals and their energy will be contagious.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
11 years 24 days ago

Customer service is the one function in retail that should not be overlooked. Yes, customer service and sales are somewhat identical because of the retail store function. Customer service, aside from the sales function, has to keep the needs of the shopper in mind when making recommendations. It is more about filling the customer needs which then fills the basket and makes the cash register ring. Now everyone is happy.

I suggest we look at two companies that are certainly customer service oriented: The Container Store out of Dallas and Chico’s out of Ft. Meyers.

Randy Cantrell
Guest
Randy Cantrell
11 years 24 days ago

My work is with commission-based salespeople, which is often dramatically different. Even so, many of the desired traits are shared. For my money, give me two traits above all others, and in this order.

1. Willingness – if they’re unwilling to be coached, trained, held accountable…nothing else matters!

2. Personable – they’ve got to be easy to approach and easy to connect with. It also necessarily means they must be compliant and easy to adjust to the variety of personalities they’ll have to interact with.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
11 years 24 days ago

One has to prove friendly and understanding before someone will buy from you. Remember the expression “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.”

David Biernbaum
Guest
11 years 24 days ago

The most important strength for a front-line retail employee is an ongoing ability to bend but not break.

Lee Peterson
Guest
11 years 24 days ago

I am shocked I didn’t see this answer above but c’mon! Starbucks wins! (the stores run by them, not the airport/hospitality units) I always marvel at how they seem to have such a great knack for having people that can remember your name, tell a joke, ask you how you are doing, get you something extra–in 30 seconds…in short, they’re very consistently the best. You don’t realize how spoiled you are until you hit another coffee shop and everything comes to a complete stop.

Whole Foods is another organization that ranks very high in localized, excellent customer service. Legendary where I live.

Also, I saw positive comments on Home Depot and Lowe’s above. Really? Not my experience. Let’s hope their initiatives to change customer service for the better made those comments happen–but they lost me a long time ago.

Aakash Pahwa
Guest
Aakash Pahwa
11 years 24 days ago

To bring in the online perspective, Zappos folks on the phone do a phenomenal job. One can well gauge that they are very friendly, know the product/category you are discussing with them, and have a positive attitude.

Sometimes, another important aspect is to know and realize when to back off, stop selling, and actually recommend the customer to a potential alternate channel or competitor. Again, Zappos comes to mind.

It’s more than just about that an individual has walked into my store or visited my website. Let me take time to acknowledge the individual and then try and fulfill his/her needs for the product or service.

Robert Craycraft
Guest
Robert Craycraft
11 years 24 days ago

Which retailers, in your experience, do the best job of acquiring/training associates with the core strengths listed in this article?

Lord & Taylor
Brooks Brothers
Radio Shack (only recently, what a change)
Pottery Barn
Local Ace or TruValue hardware stores….

Mark Burr
Guest
11 years 24 days ago

Which stores best exhibit these qualities?

Starbucks
Costco
Eddie Bauer
Brighton Collectibles
L.L.Bean
Nordstrom
JoS. A. Bank
Johnston & Murphy
Parisienne
Lord & Taylor
Yonkers

This list could go on and on. There are far more retailers today improving in this area. We’ve become so numb to being without it, it’s taking some time to recognize it, but its really getting much better. It could be why there is growth besides Wal-Mart in many of the recent reports.

Tom McGoldrick
Guest
Tom McGoldrick
11 years 24 days ago

All the skills listed are important for a front line sales person and a variety of combinations can work. However, the one skill everyone must have is “respect.” In my experience, spanning literally millions of customer surveys, 9 times out of 10, a truly irate customer is the result not of mistakes or product failure but lack of respect from an employee. Customers understand that things will go wrong and products will fail but will never tolerate disrespect.

The quickest way to lose a customer for life is to be disrespectful.

Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
11 years 24 days ago

I’ve always recommended that my independent retail clients look for two key qualities in the associates that they hire, 1)passion and 2)the ability to naturally engage others.

These are two very easy qualities to identify in the first five minutes of an interview, and from my experience will lead to a very high success rate in hiring.

Associates that possess the animating passion of the business and are able to effortlessly engage customers invariably find a way to leave a very positive, memorable impression with those customers.

Granted, a small percentage of applicants that an independent retailer will interview will possess these qualities, but they are worth holding out for. It may take a little more time and effort to find the right people, but it’s well worth it in the end.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
11 years 24 days ago

The word I was looking for is “empowered.” There’s no more frustrating exercise than trying to complete a transaction with a sales associate, only to watch her answer the phone again and again….

Dave Wendland
Guest
11 years 22 days ago

“Customer Service” has been talked about for so long it the term has become somewhat ambiguous. I personally believe in the golden rule, treat others as you would like to be treated. It’s simple, elegant and timeless.

The question that I believe may need to be answered at retail, if they are forever training staff to become better customer service advocates and representatives, take a giant step back and ask if the right people are being hired in the first place. If not, it’s time for tough decisions–some people simply do not belong in a customer facing role.

Like many others in this dialogue, I am consistently impressed with the experience I am privileged to encounter at Starbucks…positivity and engaging attitude shines.

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