COMMENTARY

Top 5 skills every frontline associate must have

Oct. 27, 2017

Photo: iStock.com

By Kevin Nix, CEO and co-founder, Stellar Loyalty

It's unrealistic to generalize across retailers about the "ideal" employee profile. Many aspects influence the candidate profile, from category, store type and location, target audience and market dynamics, the goods sold/complexity of product sales, scope of story inventory and so on.

Yet when you think about what makes for a skillful frontline retail employee, regardless of industry, there are several important commonalities. We consider the following "top five skills" essential to your customer-facing staff. Obviously, depending on whether they are behind a fast food counter, staffing a high-end luxury boutique, or waiting at the end of a big box customer service phone line, some of the top five skills are more significant than others. Consider this list the core fundamentals.

1.    Empowerment
Frontline employees should be empowered to make timely decisions to address customer issues and needs — without having to call in a supervisor. We call this "the moment of truth" when your customer is likely concerned or upset, or needs additional information to make a purchase decision (or not).

A colleague of mine recently wrote a piece in Forbes about a frustrating experience with front-line phone operators at DirecTV. When she called to complain about her bill and package, she got the runaround with several different agents and a supervisor, until she was finally routed to the "customer loyalty department."

That agent was pre-authorized to address her concerns and avoid a customer churn incident by offering her special perks for her troubles and reward her for her long-time loyalty. A real win finally, but it should have been her experience out of the gate.

Luckily my colleague's experience turned into positive press for the cable provider, but unfortunately 95 percent of people who have a bad experience will share it on social media. The best way to mitigate social grousing is to give customers a great experience across all touch points.

2.    Educated about your campaigns
All employees, even across franchises, should be educated on a company's loyalty and promotions program. Several years ago, I saw posters promoting Shell Rewards at a gas station and wanted to learn more. When I inquired about how it worked, the gas station attendant had no idea — not just about the program but what I was even referring to. No doubt the franchise owner would have been more informed, but the staff was not and, as a result, the opportunity to gain a new rewards member was lost.

A friend shared with me a similar experience at Whole Foods. She was excited when she heard home delivery was coming to her neighborhood in Boston, yet when she asked about it in-store, the employee drew a blank. Not only is that a good example of employees "not getting the memo," but it also shows the disconnect between the digital and physical worlds which plagues so many brands. Consumers want a seamless, consistent experience across channels because that's how they themselves operate daily.

3.    Consultative selling
Your frontline employees should be a good fit with your mission and expertise. This way, they can connect with consumers, and through a consultative sales approach, sell and upsell. Many frontline employees in retail today are simply focused on what needs to be done to complete the transaction. They are not consultants nor are they selling.

According to an article in Harvard Business Review, studies have found fewer than 30 percent of workers are fully engaged at work because of poor fit. In that case, they are less likely to be enthusiastic, less knowledgeable, and more likely to fall into passive selling patterns.

The author of the HBR article is a former journalist who had to turn to a retail job at age 50. Her first stop was Nordstrom, and she was given an impersonal computer questionnaire — but no face-to-face interview. In contrast, when she called The North Face, she was invited in for a real conversation with a hiring manager.  

Despite a lack of retail experience, she was hired based on her engaging personal skills and her passion for athletics and travel. She was a great fit with the brand and was able to offer consultative insights about the products rather than just answer the usual run-of-the-mill customer questions. As a result, she consistently doubled or tripled her personal monthly sales goals.

4.    Technology savvy
Many retailers today offer a range of technology innovation to improve the customer experience and empower their front-line employees. Yet not all frontline employees are well-trained and savvy enough to leverage these tools.

Examples include brands who use clienteling to empower their frontline employees. This is the modern version of the "little black book" that contained every client detail, purchase, preferred colors, styles, etc. Today, leading retailers have all this information on mobile devices to enable their sales associates to easily tap into customer data. Tech-savvy frontline employees can make smart and relevant recommendations to consumers in the moment, or even contact preferred customers to entice them with a personalized suggestion.

Sephora's use of mobile technology is another fitting example where tech-savvy front-line employees can create compelling customer experiences.  Sephora's ColorIQ measures skin color, sets up follow-up purchase of various foundations, and also offers a hands-on experience in the store.

5.    In tune with the customer
Consulting and clienteling can do wonders to maximize your customer relationships, but front-line employees need to be aware and "in tune" with the consumer. This is all about reading the signs, paying attention to signals, body language and even purpose.  

Recently, 60 Minutes interviewed Shake Shack Founder Danny Meyer. One key aspects of Meyer's success described by 60 Minutes is how Meyer has made an art of making his customers feel welcome, tracking their likes and dislikes, to the point of identifying what he calls the boss at the table: "There's no question in my mind that at every single table there's somebody who's got the biggest agenda. If it's two people doing business, there's someone who's trying to sell something to somebody else. And I think that if you can figure that out early on in the meal, and understand what is it gonna take for the boss to leave happy, it could be make sure that someone else gets to pick the wine. You just gotta pick up on those cues."

It's a fascinating concept and one that frontline employees need to develop as an essential skill.

Ensuring your employees have these critical five skills is a balance. You must invest in identifying those candidates who naturally have these talents, also well as those who are eager to learn and develop with the proper training, motivation and tools. This investment will lead to happier and more successful employees, and higher customer retention and advocacy.


Topics: Assisted Selling, Customer Experience, Customer Service, Employee Training, Loyalty Programs, Marketing, Merchandising, Workforce Management

Companies: Stellar Loyalty


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