Non-Verbal Cues Key to Retail Sales Results

Discussion
Sep 16, 2013
Bernice Hurst

In an effort to determine "how retail environments, as exemplified by the retail salespeople they contain, can satisfy customers more effectively," research from the highly respected Said School of Business, part of Oxford University, concludes that reading non-verbal cues ticks all the right boxes.

Two admittedly small academic studies found that customers value salespeople’s abilities to read non-verbal cues more highly than managers. While customers appreciate not being pestered or upsold when they’re not in the mood, managers may consider salespeople derelict in their duties.

While perfectly obvious to some, objections abound. How can employers measure applicants’ skills at reading non-verbal cues? Once hired, how can sales staff be trained to improve those skills? The current study suggests further research is needed to determine the potential ROI on the costs of recruitment and training.

Participants in both studies were undergraduates in a "Principles of Marketing" course. In-class role playing enabled them to evaluate their own sales behavior and to observe others’. Observational tapes from J. Crew and hospitality outlets renowned for their culture of intensive service supplemented classwork.

Researchers found "observers of interactions in which a salesperson correctly interpreted and acted on the customer’s non-verbal cues saw the salesperson as delivering poor service."

Harvard-trained lead author, Nancy Puccinelli, specializes in studying consumer behavior. Her four American colleagues’ expertise includes non-verbal accuracy and behavior, emotion, judgment and decision-making, consumer behavior, motivation and privacy issues plus retail atmospherics.

Speaking to RetailWire, Dr. Puccinelli said customers try to signal what they need. "These findings have important implications for the evaluation of salespeople by managers. Given that salespeople that are good at reading both face and body cues are rated highest by customers they wait on yet rated much lower by observers, managers may be undervaluing some of their most effective employees. Retailers that consider the positive impact of a salesperson’s ability to read customers’ moods can select and train salespeople more effectively to deliver quality service, providing a distinctive opportunity to delight customers and achieve competitive advantage."

How important is the ability to read non-verbal cues, i.e. body language, to sales at retail? Are store managers trained to measure this skill and to teach it to associates?

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18 Comments on "Non-Verbal Cues Key to Retail Sales Results"


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Tom Redd
Guest
7 years 1 month ago
Sorry, but this is a “Duh, really?” topic. Sales is the business of helping the person or business to fulfill a NEED that they have or that you/your company creates. In retail, the starter point for good selling is how the associate looks. This matters at store level, face-to-face retail. If a retailer is taking orders via phone, it is about how they sound. This is all about TRUST. Look crappy or sound crappy, then you lose shopper trust. Non-Verbal Mistake #1 – Poor grooming. As a representative of your company or your product, you are always “on.” You are being visually and mentally judged the moment you come within sight of a potential client. Their perception of your competence starts then. Next, the non-verbal cues are the map to closing a deal. These are the simple changes in the direction of the shopper’s eyes to their stance. The non-verbal on the associate’s side is also critical. The shopper is watching the seller. Train them to get excited and monitor that their excitement has transferred… Read more »
Ian Percy
Guest
7 years 1 month ago
Once again we fall into the old trap of seeing the human experience as mechanistic. This ‘cue’ means this and that ‘cue’ means that – all teachable and measurable of course. We’re removing all the mystery, fun and magic of being human by “studying” the wrong thing. These studies are almost totally on the wrong track. It is always about the energy! It’s the energy that is transferred between customer and salesperson which can sometimes match up with physical manifestations but most of the time doesn’t. So the discussion doesn’t get too quantum on us, let’s use the word ‘intuition’; that sixth sense that takes us beyond interpreting a situation based only on the basic five. Lately this is being discussed in terms of ‘consciousness’ with each of us generally operating on various levels of consciousness. A low level is a mechanistic one where we see the world as physical parts and a higher one is that which enables us to see and ‘know’ what others do not. A sales person looking for the non-verbal… Read more »
Bob Phibbs
Guest
7 years 1 month ago

Does a non-verbal cue that is appreciated by customers, i.e. “leave me alone” result in more sales? That’s a big unanswered question.

Non-verbal cues are graduate school in retail sales training. Until retailers have sufficient staff on the floor for the store traffic, and unless they can at least get the basics down of interpersonal communication skills – let alone actually selling – hiring for ability to read non-verbal cues is cart-before-the-horse thinking.

Chris Petersen, PhD.
Guest
7 years 1 month ago

In typical US retail stores today, the annual turnover of sales associates ranges from 50 to 100%. Keeping staff on the floor is a challenge in itself. Store managers find it very difficult to find quality sales associates who can proactively engage consumers with a friendly greeting. Ability to read consumer non-verbal clues would be beyond the reach of most retail store associates and managers.

It is possible that the ability to read non-verbal cues could have an ROI for a very high-end sales environment, such as jewelry or even auto sales. It is extremely hard to envision how store managers could be trained to assess an associate’s ability to read non-verbal clues in a typical retail store environment like Best Buy, or even Apple.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
7 years 1 month ago

Answer to the first question: anything that helps you relate more effectively with the customer is a positive. Answer to the second question: Most retail managers are not even taught how to manage let alone taught how to read body language and teach the skill to subordinates.

Liz Crawford
Guest
7 years 1 month ago

It is true that shoppers signal what they need – to be assisted, to be left alone, to be greeted, etc. A good salesperson will leave a shopper to her own devices if that is what will result in a sale.

The observers need adjusting, not the salespeople, who are generally better “people people” than researchers.

Max Goldberg
Guest
7 years 1 month ago

Good salespeople read verbal and non-verbal clues. Unfortunately, most retailers don’t spend the time and money to properly train managers or sales associates. By walking into a store, a consumer has indicated an inclination to buy. Retailers need to close the deal. A better understanding of customers can help.

Kevin Graff
Guest
7 years 1 month ago

Oh my! The goal of selecting candidates based on their ability to read non-verbal cues, and then managing them on that exact same thing, is a bit … lofty! Not wrong, but shouldn’t we achieve the minimum standards of selling and service first?

Look, retailers have come a long way when it comes to realizing the importance of staff, and staff development in the past few years. But for the 90% who still are working on getting someone to say ‘Hi’ to a customer and add on a few additional items, this sounds like the stuff best left for discussion in dorm rooms.

Shep Hyken
Guest
7 years 1 month ago

As I read this article I can’t help but think of the advantage an in-person encounter gives the salesperson and the retailer over the digital experience. Human interaction allows us to pick up on cues; verbal, non-verbal and physical (body language). This is exactly the type of advantage a retailer can have to combat showrooming and other competitive issues.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
7 years 1 month ago

Depending upon the type of retailer, the ability of the store people to actually spend the time to analyze the shoppers’ behavior will of course determine if any of this can actually be intentionally done on a regular basis.

For example, a jewelry store may have among the best opportunities to leverage these techniques. The shopper is physically in a small overall area, and spends a ton of time in the product decision phase.

Zel Bianco
Guest
7 years 1 month ago

The ability to read people is a skill in any position, not just retail. This is not an immeasurable skill; however, it should be evaluated based on the environment. In high-end retail, for example, non-verbal cues are probably more telling and easier to teach/interpret than say in a grocery store. Body cues are important, but I don’t think reading them is a necessary skill for an employee to give great customer service in most environments. I could see trying to master the skills for some employees being a detriment even, as non-verbal cues are misconstrued and understood differently.

I agree that it is a unique opportunity to deliver quality service, however, perfecting simple customer service tools ranks higher on the needs of most retailers.

Karen S. Herman
Guest
7 years 1 month ago

Trying to turn sales associates into body language experts by reading non-verbal clues is a leap of faith and a passive approach to sales.

The opportunity to close an in-store sale exists the moment a potential customer walks through the door. Chances are they brought a smartphone and plan on showrooming as they browse around. So, I think the conversation between store managers and sales associates should be to share a brand story with each potential customer when they walk in the door.

As Bryan Kramer states in his blog post titled “Be Delightfully Disruptive,” “Use storytelling as a strategy. The journey a potential customer takes on the road to buy your product or service is as important as the moment they transact.”

Sharing an engaging brand story is always a good idea and much easier than deciphering non-verbal clues.

Lee Kent
Guest
7 years 1 month ago

While reading non-verbal cues is a plus for any retailer, it would be extremely tough to screen for this gift in recruits. People who are ‘people people’, which good sales people should be, would be naturally inclined to pick up on these cues. Can it be taught, certainly, in some cases.

I would suggest, as others have here, that good customer service skills should be nearer the top of the list, however, IMHO, the top skill should be a love and/or passion/energy (salute to Ian) for the brand!

Any impassioned advocate for the brand might just be able to turn those ‘leave me alone’ customers into partakers! Just sayin’….

Robert DiPietro
Guest
7 years 1 month ago

Non-verbal cues are important to sales at retail as much as any selling environment. If you are in sales, this is a required skill, but I don’t think it is taught or measured in the majority of retailers.

Most retailers have a hard enough time finding staff that will present itself appropriately – hair combed, shirt tucked in, gum disposed of before interaction with customer.

Alexander Rink
Guest
7 years 1 month ago

The ability to read body language/non-verbal cues is important, and will certainly help retail associates better serve and relate to customers. However, as retail stores often see high turnover, and are constantly hiring new employees, one key question is how cost-effective and accurate will it be to train and measure these skills in a way that retail managers can use?

I believe that there are definitely some cues that can be taught (i.e. in the restaurant business, if a customer has their wallet out, they are probably ready for the bill, or if their menu is closed they are probably ready to order), and the greater the retailer’s employee retention rate, the better these efforts will pay off.

Christopher P. Ramey
Guest
7 years 1 month ago

Inability to read cues is sure failure. A prospect needn’t have to say something in order to communicate.

Intuition is essential to success. The best salespeople know what the customer is thinking before the customer knows they’re thinking it.

Mike Osorio
Guest
Mike Osorio
7 years 1 month ago

This all falls under emotional intelligence and is a high-order area of learning for most retail managers, let alone sales associates. Extraordinary service providers such as the Ritz-Carlton train ceaselessly on this area at leader and staff level. It is a significant commitment and investment and definitely works. Unfortunately, most retailers struggle finding and developing even modestly effective leaders and staff. For those that are able to meet this challenge, the rewards are clear.

Gordon Arnold
Guest
7 years 1 month ago

Proficiency in the connotative, denotative and definitive aspects of a one-on-one sale is a learned and practiced skill which can take a lot of time to develop, even with a highly educated trainer. The annotative aspects of a live and in person sale is an advanced sales technique in any sales training course of value.

To qualify and understand customer non verbal cues, a sales person must probe. The composition and delivery of the questions are always met with a pass or fail apprehension by the customer. Watching a multiple choice “what should you do?” training film will not prepare associates for the many variations that occur. Another consideration is the sale to two or more persons and the cues they can and often do signal simultaneously that may be in different directions. A poor performance by the sales associate or manager will turn a buying customer into a shopper almost every time, very quickly.

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