Small Business Center
By Bob Phibbs, The Retail Doctor
The goal of retail customer service training is to create an exceptional customer experience. So what do you focus on when you teach your employees how to give customers exceptional experiences? Sometimes good customer service means something quick, cheap and easy. Think picking up a quart of milk at a convenience store on the way home or using the Starbucks app to get your drink without waiting. But for most stores that are looking to increase retail sales — and I mean most — quick and easy is not the way to profitability. If you add in “cheap” when talking about retail customer service best practices, it gets even worse.
Exceptional customer service makes the shopper feel like the most important person in the world. Even if it’s only for a few seconds, retail associates can create this feeling by going out of their way to make customers feel appreciated and happy to spend money in your store. To consistently achieve this level of customer service, it has to be an established core value. Just like any organization, you have to know what your store stands for and what it doesn’t, but you can’t just post a mission statement on your website or put up compelling signage and call it a day.
A brick-and-mortar retailer looking to create exceptional shopping experiences and lasting customer relationships has to live out that message on the sales floor.
That’s why your retail customer service training has to include more than product knowledge and learning the point-of-sale system. Your retail employees need to know how to create a customer’s happiness. It’s time to empower your staff to build and consistently practice these essential customer service skills.
First, let’s talk about the skills your retail customer service training needs to cover. These are the areas to build up in your team that will have the biggest impact on your store’s profitability. When learned and practiced, these skills will feel like second nature on the sales floor. Developing them into your store’s best practices not only will increase retail sales on first visits but also will build customer loyalty and your store’s profitability far into the future.
Does your training program cover how to greet customers in a retail store? If not, you are missing out on sales before shoppers even look at anything on your shelves. It’s not unusual to walk into a retail store and see employees chatting in a group, focusing on their phones or making themselves too busy with merchandise to look up and say hello. It happens every day in all types of retail, from luxury boutiques to drugstores. This behavior makes customers more likely to leave than seek out a salesperson, interrupt them and ask for help.
On the flip side, we’ve all experienced that fake smile and “Let me know if you need help” before you can even see the salesperson talking to you. This approach is lacking in both timing and sincerity.
Approaching strangers doesn’t come naturally to many people, but there are some concrete practices that make it less daunting. With training and practice, it starts to feel natural.
Selling relies heavily on communication skills, which are sadly lacking in many retail stores. It’s one thing to rattle off current discounts and suggest some popular items for a shopper. It’s a different thing entirely to have a conversation and listen to customers enough to learn key information that will help you personalize the interaction and close the sale.
Along with listening, your retail staff needs to understand what it means to empathize with customers. While engaging with a customer, they need to practice putting themselves in that customer’s shoes to truly understand their priorities, concerns and desires. While empathy is an innate trait, we can enhance and practice the skill of noticing what customers are thinking and feeling.
Because many retail employees are much younger than the customer base they serve, this skill becomes crucial. While a 20-something customer service rep might assume price is the most important factor in a purchase, their Baby Boomer customer might be more concerned about craftsmanship or longevity or even status. You can only know by listening.
Retail customer service people are very familiar with the phrase, “No thanks, I’m just looking.” That happens because the associate wasn’t trained on how to avoid that answer to a question in the first place. Do not let rejection be an excuse to stop trying to help customers! Instead, train your staff to put this type of shopper at ease in the store without being invasive or obnoxious. Your training program needs to cover how to engage with customers who are just looking, turning them into customers who are receptive, engaged and likely to make purchases. Skills like getting the timing right, using merchandise as a prop and perfecting your body language can be learned and practiced to achieve great results.
Does your training cover resolving customer complaints in ways beyond just calling the manager? Excellent customer service means the customer feels listened to, understood and validated in their concerns. Make sure your training includes a process to handle complaints that’s easy to follow and leaves customers satisfied, or you will pay the price in negative reviews and complaints on social media.
An often-overlooked aspect of training is how to talk about products. Of course, staff should learn key features of the products you sell, such as materials, sizing, functionality or anything customers might need to know. But training people to be product encyclopedias won’t help your sales. There’s no way an employee will know as much as a customer because the customer started their search online for one single product. If all the customer needed was information, they would have purchased it online. But they go to a store because customers buy based on what a product will do for them: the benefits. The unique features of your product can offer unique benefits, and it’s up to you to tie the two together based on a conversation. Teach your retail employees the language of features and benefits. Help them understand and practice the concept in any training program you implement.
One of the most costly customer service mistakes I see in retail is only showing customers what they asked for. This is becoming increasingly common in the age of online shopping, where customers may already know a lot about your products and just came in to grab it in person. When a customer walks in to make a specific purchase, a poorly trained employee either will direct them to the product or tell them you don’t have it. This means the bare minimum sale — or no sale — will occur. But what are some alternative examples of retail customer service? An employee trained in exceptional customer service will help this shopper discover another relevant product, a premium model or an additional item to complement their purchase.
Closing sales is an art and science, but with a quality training program, you can provide your retail staff with the tools to drastically improve this essential skill. In retail, we are often tempted to focus on volume, rather than quality, of sales. We have to strike a balance between spending enough time with each customer and helping enough customers. It’s why the best retailers move away from thinking of customer interactions as transactions and instead focus on making relationships. Train your staff with a step-by-step process to close retail sales quickly but in a way that feels organic and unhurried to shoppers.
Now that you know what it takes to provide memorable and profitable customer service, how do you train your retail employees to do it? Standing out from the competition starts from the very core of your business. When you invest the time, effort and money in people who will embody the high standards of customer service you want in your store, you’ll see the results in increased sales and profits.
The best thing you can do as a retail store owner or manager is to lead by example. When a customer walks in, do you keep doing what you were doing, or do you greet them, engage and make them feel welcome? When you’re in the store, you may be there for other reasons. You may prefer to sit back and let your staff take care of customers. But all the training in the world will not sink in if you show employees that it’s OK to not practice exceptional customer service when you’re busy or only supervising. Your employees will learn faster and more effectively by seeing you model what you teach.
One of the skills every manager should have in their training arsenal is how to coach. Learning some coaching skills and incorporating coaching conversations into your training is a must.In retail training, this means spending a lot of time with your employees, observing what happens in your store and talking through interactions after they occur. You could think of them as customer service exercises. It is part of holding them accountable for using what you teach them. You can tell your child to go clean their room, but unless you check up on them, they won’t do it and will learn it doesn’t really matter to you. The aim of coaching is not to critique employees, lecture them or even tell them what to do; it’s to help them practice and take ownership of improving their skills. Focus on asking questions to find out where your employees feel stuck and what they think would help them improve.
If you want a structured training system that covers everything your retail employees need to make your store successful, invest in a proven course. It is difficult enough running a retail business and finding the time to train your staff well. Formalizing your own training program and taking staff through it requires hours of extra time you probably don’t have.
Most retail owners don’t have enough time to spend with new employees, and on-the-job training isn’t enough to effectively teach and reinforce the skills your team needs. Depending on the size of your operations, consider bringing in a trainer to work one-on-one with new hires and work with long-term employees to improve their sales techniques. Of course, most operations are not at the level of needing a full-time trainer, and that is where a retail consultant can help. You might need help implementing a training program virtually or someone to train you on how to lead and manage your team more effectively. This is a higher-priced investment, but when you consider how important public-facing staff is to every sale in a brick-and-mortar business, you can’t afford to neglect training.
Role-playing is an excellent way to solidify the concepts and practice the skills your employees learn in their training. While it may feel silly or unnatural at first, it’s better to get the first attempts at a new skill out of the way in a practice setting than with customers. Spend extra time with employees, working on interactions like getting past objections, suggestive selling and using the language of features and benefits when talking about products. You also can role-play handling customer complaints, greeting customers and closing the sale. Through acting out customer interactions, you can find opportunities to improve and uncover places where your employees get stuck.
Training is costly; when done correctly, it costs you in terms of time, effort and financial investment. One of the biggest frustrations store owners face is making an investment over weeks and months to train someone, only to have that person continue with their bad habits, unwilling to try new techniques or work on self-improvement. Don’t waste time training the untrainable. If you want professional staff who will grow with your store, focus resources on good people who want to learn, and train them well.
Retail customer service training doesn’t have to be serious or boring, and it shouldn’t be. If you want customers to enjoy being in your store, make it an enjoyable place to be. Foster an environment where your staff can be themselves and let their personalities shine through. While you want them to be professional and follow the processes you’re training them on, don’t train employees to be like robots reading a script at every step of an interaction. Enjoy getting to know them through the training process; joke around, appropriately; and have fun! Laughter and fun create a relaxed environment, leading to improved job satisfaction and performance in your staff. This, in turn, creates a better atmosphere for customers and more sales for your store.
A lot of retailers give lip service to customer service. They might print up cards with a mission statement that states how important customers are and then demand their employees carry them. They might put lists of principles on their shopping bags. They might teach every employee to call shoppers guests. But what do those actions actually accomplish? In other words, you can paint a house, but if the foundation is crumbling, everything falls apart. To create an exceptional customer experience, retailers must substantively change the way their retail store operates, and that starts with investing in exceptional retail customer service training.