If you’re a large retailer, you know that training your sales employees and doing it well is a constant challenge. You’re in a highly-competitive, price-driven sales environment, where every penny counts. You employ thousands of relatively low-wage workers who change jobs frequently, often on short notice. According to a 2016 study by Hay Group, hourly employees at retail stores (which includes seasonal workers) had a turnover rate of 65 percent! What this effectively means is that you have to be constantly training employees; new and old alike.
Given these realities, you might question whether it’s worth investing the resources it takes to train sales staff. But consider the alternative: poorly trained employees who are almost guaranteed to cost your business sales, revenue, and customers—possibly even its reputation. That said, even if you recognize the value in training, you also know the retail environment allows limited time and minimal resources for it. What then is the solution? For a situation this multidimensional, it takes more than one.
1. Adapt your training to the situation, not vice-versa.
The three types of training most essential to retail sales are customer service, product knowledge, and sales technique. Retail employees need all three, although not necessarily the same amount of each. Cashiers, for example, need to be well versed in customer service, but generally less so in product knowledge and sales skills.
What this means is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Retail sales training should therefore be unitized, modular, and adaptable to individual needs. Web-based, just-in-time content makes it easier for employees to take as much of the training they can in the time available, on whatever delivery platform best suits the environment. This also makes it easier to adapt training content based on experience and specialization.
Finally, strive for a goal of continuous improvement rather than “one-and-done” training. This means making learning a continuous, self-directed process, rather than an episodic event. A learning management system or even a simple web portal empowers employees to access the content they need, when they need it. Also be sure to focus on fundamentals: sales associates must be able to explain the features and benefits of your products and services to customers and then, having done so, close the sale.
2. Embrace mobile delivery and impromptu training.
As much training as possible should take place in the retail environment, preferably on the sales floor and beginning with your point-of-sale system. Content that requires audio, a larger display, or more sophisticated interactions may require a desktop or laptop PC in a room separate from the sales floor.
Mobile platforms such as tablets and smartphones offer superior portability and just-in-time access. They also offer a challenge: how to protect access to proprietary information while limiting access to non-work related content. A common way to address this is with password-protected devices that run mobile apps.
Another thing to keep in mind is that training content must match the delivery device. Mobile devices work best with smaller, bite-sized chunks of learning. So-called “micro-learning” is essential tightly-focused, bite-sized training that can be consumed in just a few minutes.
3. Make training enjoyable, engaging, and relatable.
Impromptu, spur-of-the-moment training is ideal for those times during the day when traffic is slow. A five-minute role play scenario between two sales associates or a sales associate and a training manager provides opportunities to practice, receive real-time feedback, and improve.
Apply the same approach to product training. Give sales associates 15 minutes to find out everything they can about a given product, then quiz them on who can remember the most about it. The winner receives a gift certificate for a burrito or an extra 15 minutes for their lunch break. The benefit of mobile delivery in either scenario is that, once designed and optimized, the same training experienced can be delivered time after time.
If your retail sales floor is one where learning and continuous improvement are tightly interwoven with rewards and recognition, your best sales associates will quickly embrace the opportunity to not only improve their skills, but distinguish themselves as they do it.
4. Hold managers accountable for training results.
As with any type of learning, skill and expertise require consistent practice and reinforcement, both of which require the support and encouragement of managers. Store managers should therefore be expected to direct, push, demonstrate, and model best practices to make sure the training “sticks,” and that trainees progress toward predefined, measurable business outcomes. One example of a measurable outcome might be conversion rate: out of every 10 customers a sales associate interacts with, how many interactions result in a sale? An increase in conversion rate from 2 to 4 is an increase of 100%—a significant return on training investment by any measure.
There is no substitute for the right attitude.
One last point to remember is that although training can improve baseline skills and performance, baseline attitude is much more intractable. It’s difficult and time consuming to train someone who is habitually irritable, short-tempered, and withdrawn to be friendly, outgoing, and ambitious. In contrast, it takes much less effort to train someone who is a natural salesperson how to leverage that ability to achieve the results they are already inclined to pursue.
Will better training solve all the problems today’s retailers face? Of course not, but it can improve retention and the bottom line, and any improvement is better than none.
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