The 10 essential strengths of front-line retail employees

How sales personnel engage customers can make or break a retail store. Most customers assume that small, local stores generally have a bigger focus on customer-care excellence. However, this isn’t always the case. Big box retailers also can harness the power of engagement. It all boils down to how employees relate to customers.

Engagement starts from the moment a customer steps into a store. 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. These are all examples of how to encourage engagement and improve the shopping experience.

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Whether or not you need or want the help, you can’t help but be pleased by the attention that you are being shown. Feeling important and welcome are two of our most basic needs.

Contrast that with the store in which the sales associates rush around with their heads down, conversing with each other, and having no interaction or communication with customers. Their peripheral vision allows them to see you when you’re approaching, and then they quickly make a beeline for the stock room in a clear act of avoidance.

Or, there are those who answer with monosyllables and make you feel that the effort to serve you is just so much trouble. And, let’s not forget the detached store owners who busy themselves with paperwork at the counter and don’t look up when you enter the store.

Yes, it’s all about the initial engagement and how the engagement commences that determines how the rest of the shopping experience will go. 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 multitask: 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.

Undeniably, retail sales associates should go through a soft-skills training program. However, much of what is needed is attitudinal and should be hard-wired in those who are hired to deal with customers. Screening and qualifying new employees is of critical importance to a retailer. Yet, doesn’t it often seem that little or no thought goes into attitude during the hiring process? After all, sales associates are the front-line representatives of a store.

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.

Adrian Miller is president of Adrian Miller Sales Training. Photo of Saturday Night Live's "Target Lady" sketch via Hulu.

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • TEST 10:43 am Scofield
    127820647
    Don't you think the difference between entering a Walmart vs. a Sam's Club is quite different. At Walmart you get the "hello, do you you have any returns?" (my wife hates returning things to Walmart with their whole sticker thing.) While at Sam's Club you generally get the person asking to see your membership card that usually grunts out a thank you and little else. Seems like they have very different training and rules yet are both run by the same large parent company.
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