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What Most Stores Get Wrong About Retail Sales Training


Minyang Jiang


The following column by The Retail Doctor CEO Bob Phibbs (@theretaildoctor) is excerpted from Credibly Business Journal, Vol. 4: Nailing Your In-Store Strategy. To read Bob’s advice on how to train millennial employees, download our free journal right here.


Let’s start by defining what “retail sales training” really is. Because for some stores, it means showing employees where the bathrooms are and how to clock in. That’s not training. To me, that’s called “onboarding.”

Other people say, “We spend a lot of time training our employees on product knowledge.” Well, that’s not sales training either.

The way it used to work, a manufacturer would have a product, and they would bring in dealers who would learn about the product, take it back to their stores, and teach their employees about the product. If customers were interested in something, they’d have to go to the store to find out more. That’s where the model was in the ‘40s and ‘50s, all the way until the last 10 years.

Now, the customer already has that product knowledge when she walks into your store. But learning about the product is not why she’s there — otherwise, she would have just bought it online.

My definition of retail sales training is, “How do I transform an interaction with a stranger to build enough rapport so that I become a trusted adviser?” That’s the part that is missing, and that’s the goal of retail sales training.

Open Hearts and Curiosity

For a lot of people, retail is just one step up from being a janitor or working at a McDonald’s or something. They have this silly attitude that they’re settling. But if you look at almost any CEO of a major company, they trace their beginnings back to working at a store. They had to learn about customer service. They had to put somebody else before themselves.

People bring in their own baggage when they come to work at a retail store, especially millennial employees. Millennials grew up with everything, but they also are pretty frugal. So they’re working at a retail store, and they know they can get the products cheaper on Craigslist or eBay or something, and they look down at the woman who’s thinking of buying the $1,000 dress, because she could do Rent the Runway, and it would be a better use of her money.

Now combine this with the idea that Baby Boomers are actually looking for great customer service and not finding it, and you have a really bad retail operation set up; it’s almost like you brought a Trojan Horse into your store. You thought you brought this person in to work, but really, they’ve got a critical eye about it.

FREE DOWNLOAD — Credibly Business Journal, Vol. 4: Nailing Your In-Store Strategy.

Retail sales training has to get rid of all that, so that employees are able to greet somebody with an open heart. That means leaving your baggage at the door, and just being curious about why that customer drove through traffic and the rain and the fog today, and she couldn’t find a place to park, but she finally did and walked into our store.

Once you’re curious, life gets a lot easier, because then the customer tells you their hopes and their wishes. And if you’re not curious, you’re dead. I laugh when I see this at hardware stores: A customer will say, “I need a bolt for my toilet,” and the salesperson never even suggests, “Why don’t you upgrade to a new toilet?” or “When’s the last time you replaced it?” Not even in their minds do they do that.

But if that salesperson actually asked, “Well how long have you had it? You know, you’re probably wasting a lot of water, and you can install a new toilet that’s a little higher or
a little lower, and it might be more comfortable for you. Why don’t we look at that?” Instead, we’ve got Old Joe who can find a toilet screw for any toilet from 1920. Well, that’s not the point!

Ultimately, what we’re going into a store for is wisdom. I can find product knowledge and facts everywhere. I can find a lower price from anywhere. But when you don’t train employees, they default to, “What can I help you find?” And if you have a question, maybe they’ll pull up a tablet, maybe they’ll ask somebody else, but the shopping is pretty much done alone. You’re on your own, and people don’t shop to feel alone. We shop to feel hopeful, and we shop to meet other people.

Great retailers understand this, and they spend an awful lot of money training their employees for days, and in some cases weeks, on how to make that bond — and that’s crucial.