How much time and attention do you devote to developing your retail associates? Are you meticulous with hiring and making sure you find the best candidates for the job? Do you invest in your team so they can level-up their knowledge and abilities?

If you answered “no” to any of these questions, then you may want to reevaluate your hiring and staffing strategies.

We live in an age when the traits and skills of your staff are more important than ever. Consumers today are incredibly well-informed and have an array of choices at their fingertips. To compete, your retail staff must have what it takes to engage and convert modern shoppers.

In this post, we’ll explore some of the abilities that you and your associates need to do just that. Check them out to boost your store’s conversion rate.

1. Reading people

Different customer types call for different approaches, and the wrong one can easily turn off shoppers and kill the sale. That’s why it’s important to have associates who are adept at decoding shoppers’ verbal and non-verbal cues.

Does a customer need help or do they want to be left alone? Are they ready to buy or still on the fence? People will often give clues into their shopping intentions (even if they don’t say them out loud) and it’s up to you and your associates to discern those clues and then tailor the sales approach accordingly.

Here’s the good news: this is a skill can be taught and developed. There are plenty of resources out there on shopper psychology and body language that you can share with your staff. Here are a few samples:

And if you’re serious about taking things to the next level, you could even hire retail sales consultants who can conduct training and role-playing exercises to improve the people-reading skills of your employees.

2. Active listening

Pete Caputa at Hubspot said it best: “Too often, salespeople are waiting for their turn to talk or thinking about what to say next, instead of truly listening to the prospect.”

In retail, this habit could lead to missed sales. When you’re just waiting for your turn to speak or you’re busy formulating responses in your head while the customer is still talking, you’re bound to miss important details or cues. The result? You end up recommending products that aren’t quite right for the customer or you miss out on opportunities to upsell or cross-sell.

Active listening involves giving the customer your full attention and then repeating what they said back to them, making sure that you understood them.

You can avoid all that by by engaging in active listening. Simply put, active listening means consciously hearing and comprehending what the other person is saying. It involves giving the customer your full attention and then repeating what they said back to them, making sure that you understood them. Only then will you come up with a response or product recommendation.

“The single most important skill is active listening — pay attention to the customer's needs and what they're saying — both verbally and non-verbally,” says Tim Moungey, a copywriter at sales consultation firm Janek Performance Group.

“Sales these days is about becoming a trusted advisor — not the old-school high pressure tactics or even merely being consultative.”

Here’s a great example of active listening in action: I recently visited a spiritual store to purchase some energy-cleansing products for my home office. The associate in the shop was extremely attentive and asked all the right questions. Because of this, her product recommendations and cross-sells were spot on. For instance, she picked up on the fact that I didn’t have lot of time on my hands (even if I didn’t explicitly say it) so she suggested a spray that I could use for days when I needed to do some quick energy cleansing.

Long story short, I walked out of the store with a number of products that I couldn’t wait to try, all thanks to the associate's top-notch listening and sales skills.

How can you encourage your staff to be active listeners? You can start by training your team to repeat the customer’s statements back to them. Doing so not only ensures that they’re both on the same page, but it also gives the associate some time to come up with the best response.

Moungey adds that associates should always work with their sales manager to improve their listening skills. “Ask them to model the best sales practices, either through roleplay or direct observation of a manager's interaction with a customer. Break down interactions into its various segments — product demonstration, price objections, qualifying questions, etc. Associates should also reinforce and follow-through by having follow-up discussions with their managers,” he says.

3. Remembering customer and product information

Memory and comprehension skills, particularly when it comes to your customers and products, are essential when you want to close sales.

Let’s start with the customer’s side of things. Associates who are good at remembering regular shoppers and recalling their preferences are in a better position to drive sales. A survey by Tulip Retail found that nearly half of respondents said that "a knowledgeable store associate who is able to suggest products based on their purchase history would encourage them to shop in-store."

The key to enabling your staff to become better at recalling your customers is to make it easy for them to do so. Arm your staff with a CRM that allows them to record and look up customer details such as demographic info and past purchases.

This will help associates stay on top of shopper relationships and do their jobs better — which can increase conversions.

The key to enabling your staff to become better at recalling your customers is to make it easy for them to do so.

Now, let’s talk about memory skills from an inventory perspective. For obvious reasons, those on your sales floor must be good at recalling various product features, benefits, and even stock levels.

What are your bestsellers? What makes product X unique? Do you have product Y in the color red? These are just some of the questions that associates encounter regularly. Their ability to answer quickly can make the difference between a happy, paying customer or a missed opportunity.

So, what can you do to improve the product knowledge game of your employees? Get creative with how you introduce items to your staff. For example, some retailers hold “unboxing sessions” whenever they get new merchandise. These sessions give them the opportunity to examine products in detail, ask questions, and talk about the story of each item.

Tools or cheat sheets can also help. Cara Wood, a former retail associate, says that her store used posters and infographics with a grouping of 10 key product products and their selling points.

“The store I worked at released a new poster each month [with] the ‘Key 10.’ This poster included not just information about the items we were meant to learn, but they actually chose the Key 10 items based on what sold well together, making it easier for us to upsell new items.”

4. Relationship-building

“The mindset of a successful associate is one willing to think 'relationship first' and 'sales to follow,'” says Susan Miller at MyRegistry.com, a wedding registry platform for retailers. “In a world where compensation is usually largely based on commissions and immediate results, we still found that this approach would work and generate that real-time sale. Seemingly over-used words today like 'genuine' and 'empathetic' really do pay off.”

Christel Chaunsumlit, VP of Training at The Bryant Group, echoes and says, “Retail professionals should see every customer who walks into their store as a relationship opportunity. Often in retail, associates don’t spend enough time getting to know the customer and assume all of them are ‘just looking.’ Building good rapport from the beginning is essential to getting customers engaged with the brand and you.”

Getting to know shoppers and cultivating relationships starts with associates asking good questions. As Chaunsumlit put it, “retail associates need to ask the right questions to pre-qualify (not prejudge) the customers. Often, associates dive right into sales mode without finding critical facts about the customer.” Reading customers and active listening will come in handy here!
As an example, she says she uses the question, “Who is the lucky person we are shopping for today?”

According to Chaunsumlit, “This helps determine which direction the sale will go. Obviously, shopping for Grandma is different than shopping for a teenager.”

5. Tech savvy

You can’t afford to have employees who aren’t comfortable with technology. For starters, you likely have customers who are pretty tech-savvy themselves — and who think they have a better handle on research than your store’s associates.

Many consumers think they are better connected to product information than sales associates.

Research by Zebra Technologies found that many consumers think they are better connected to product information than sales associates, thanks to the always-on, store shopping tools they have in their pockets. The survey found 53 percent of millennials feel this way, while 42 percent of Gen X shoppers feel that they're better connected than in-store employees.

Additionally, the study revealed that consumers themselves think that in-store technologies can improve their shopping journeys. Sixty percent of the respondents said that “store associates who use mobile devices for customer assistance improve their shopping experience.” The majority of the respondents also said that tablets (57 percent) and kiosks or stationary information terminals (51 percent) can improve their retail journeys. Clearly, consumers today are advocates for retail technology.

Having staff who are comfortable with in-store technology like a CRM will allow you to effectively implement clienteling and personalization. Someone who’s at ease with using mobile POS software will ensure that your checkout experience is as smooth as possible.

What’s next?

Identify areas of improvement and then work on them right away. Once you’ve made the necessary changes, be sure to track your outcomes. Keep an eye on your sales numbers as well as your conversion rate so you can measure your results and keep improving.

Photo by Jessica Sysengrath on Unsplash