Employee training is retailing’s easiest competitive advantage.
Retail employees are notoriously untrained. Who hasn’t encountered a retail employee who knew almost nothing about his products and didn’t seem to care? Many shoppers would say they’re more rule than exception.
Which makes training one of the greatest opportunities in retailing. Standing above our competitors is easy; we simply have to train our people—on products, salesmanship, systems, methods, customer interaction, display, merchandising, and anything else that matters in the operation of our businesses.
Salespeople sell what they know.
Salesmen like to show products they understand and appreciate. They enjoy sharing their knowledge, and they demonstrate enthusiasm for products they believe in.
Their attraction to a product is not so much its superiority but rather their understanding of its features and how they can benefit the user.
One of the most effective ways to enhance sales of a product is to teach the salespeople about it. Smart retailers (and smart manufacturers) understand this and provide training at every opportunity.
New hires are eager to learn; don’t make them wait.
New employees are excited about their new jobs and want to learn what they’ll need to do the job well. They’re willing to invest the time if we simply give them the information.
There’s no reason to make them wait, even for their first day of work. If we have the material organized and prepared, we can give it to them immediately when they’re hired. They can come to work with a head-start that benefits both them and the store.
Write it once, teach it forever.
We need our training information over and over again, many times in the long term. It makes sense to collect and organize it, in notebooks, manuals, or digital files.
Training materials don’t have to be formal or fancy—just a collection of our thoughts and ideas, or even literature and articles written by others. We can add to it whenever we think of something new or come across something worthwhile; employees and managers can be encouraged to add their thoughts.
Good product manuals should include an overview of product construction, brief backgrounds on the major manufacturers, a glossary of product terms, product price points, and a list of models with features and benefits. But they can also include competitors’ products, features, and pricing, the shortcomings of non-standard products, an explanation of product accessories and their uses, a list of appropriate add-ons, and more.
Sales literature, manufacturer training materials, and product articles are a good place to start. They can simply be punched and added to a notebook. Or they can be scanned into a document that can be added to, refined, and printed out as needed.
Writing a manual makes an expert.
Nothing refines and reinforces an idea like writing it out. Expressing it clearly and concisely requires collecting and reviewing details, examining them for accuracy, considering alternate viewpoints, and selecting accurate phrasing.
A salesperson who doesn’t know a product as well as he should is a good candidate for writing that section of the manual. The process of learning and writing will turn him into an authority in both knowledge and recognition. After all, he wrote the book.
Customers, employees, and managers love certifications.
Certifications are a win for everyone. Employees are motivated to learn, take pride in being certified, and are more confident in their work. Customers like knowing that the employee has proven expertise, appreciate and take advantage of the increased knowledge, and are more comfortable and trusting in the employees’ recommendations. And managers know that when salespeople are trained and tested, sales increase, customers are better served, and complaints are reduced.
If it’s important to know, certify that it’s known.
Salesmanship and product knowledge are essential training, but many other aspects of retailing can benefit from training and certification as well—display, security, handling complaints, accounting, inventory control, computer software, telephones, purchasing, management, repair, delivery, etc. Whatever is important for smooth operation of the store can and should be certified.
Certification can be as simple as a written test, or it can include an oral exam, role-playing, videotaping, a written assignment, etc.
Employees should be allowed and encouraged to pass the certification levels as soon as they learn the information—the sooner the better. This not only encourages them to increase their effectiveness quickly but also creates motivation by giving them control over their careers and advancement.
Training incentives determine training priorities.
Certifications become priorities when incentives are attached. For example, the right to earn commissions might be contingent on salesmanship certification. If there are levels of certification, the commission rates might increase with each level.
Certain products might require certification before commissions can be earned on their sales. Or salespeople might be given priority access to customers for these products.
Other certifications might be rewarded with an increase in hourly wages or other benefits. Management certification can be required of employees who want to move up.
The most relevant training is conducted by the staff itself.
Outside trainers are rarely necessary. Our employees know what information and skills are most helpful, and sharing responsibility for meeting content creates buy-in.
The best meetings are participative, ideally with each attendee leading some aspect. Activities can include: discussing recent situations, successes, and challenges; sharing staff knowledge and expertise; presenting outlines of products’ features and benefits; reviewing systems and methods; brainstorming improvements; comparing experiences with sales techniques; sharing methods of customer follow-up; role-playing common situations (especially creating rapport, sales objections, price negotiations, and handling complaints); viewing and voting on submitted videos of product demonstrations (with a substantial prize to the winner); examining and comparing competitors’ products; contests for the highest number of follow-up calls; and reviewing customer feedback.
Role-playing is experience made affordable.
Role-playing is acting out a situation (e.g., you are the salesperson and your co-worker is the customer).
Employees can simulate common sales scenarios, difficult customers, tricky questions, tough negotiations, or any challenging situation. After a few rounds of role-play, the real world can serve up little we haven’t seen and aren’t prepared to cope with.