What does it take to improve an underperforming retail sales team?

Feb 14, 2018

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from The Retail Doctor’s Blog.

Do you remember what it was like when you started your first retail sales job? The joy of finding out how you could do better and especially sell better was intoxicating.

But after a while you began to make assumptions, especially when it came to selling the merchandise. You began to believe you had superpowers and could read people just by observing them.

You instantly thought you knew: She’s not going to buy anything, she never does. He’s too cheap. She’s comparing Amazon. He’s just kicking tires.

As salespeople, we become so certain of how shoppers will act that we become jaded.

How do you motivate an underperforming retail sales team?

First, give everyone the chance to learn and start over. If one can’t or won’t, then have a sit-down with them and get their buy-in. If they won’t change, fire one of them or all of them.

Retailers continue to think their greatest enemy to making a sale is price. A lost sale is never just about price and it isn’t just about the product itself. It’s about how the employee interfaces with the shopper to reduce the fear of purchase.

What do shoppers fear?

Shoppers fear they can’t afford the best; can’t find the best option; the item won’t do what they want; or their wife, husband, or significant other — you name them — will think they got taken for a fool.

For those reasons, each salesperson has to be open to their ability to solve what shoppers fear. As salespeople, we have to be open to the discovery of the person in front of us, without trying to get rid of them because we think they are cheap or not worth our time. 

The shopper hasn’t changed. They still want to feel better when they meet someone in a store; they still want someone to help them; they still want to feel their money allowed them to experience a place where people took care of them and respected their time and money …

Not an experience where someone tried to get rid of them with minimum service levels.

  • How To Improve An Underperforming Retail Sales Team – The Retail Doctor

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is shoppers’ obsession with price wearing down sales associates more so than in the past? What tips would have for reinvigorating a jaded sales associate or team?

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"In-store sales associates should be focused on being attentive, responsive, friendly and facilitating the sale."
"The skill set for associates needs to include how to quickly form a common thread that converts to the 'trust' of a recommendation they'd find online."
"I think the retail industry is wearing down sales associates, not prices."

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20 Comments on "What does it take to improve an underperforming retail sales team?"

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Mark Ryski

Price is and always will be a consideration. However, price transparency and the availability of pricing information to consumers has changed the game. When a shopper enters a store, it’s likely that s/he already has an understanding of what the price is and what competitors are offering the item (or similar item) for. In-store sales associates should be focused on being attentive, responsive, friendly and facilitating the sale.

Art Suriano
I see retailers today divided into two categories: 1.) Retailers for whom the customer comes first and 2.) Retailers for whom the tasks and all other needs come first. Unfortunately, the second group is more significant. Most retailers talk about how necessary excellent customer service is, but they don’t invest in the proper training for store associates and, as a result, lose sales. They focus more on opening stores and how technology will improve their business, but they fail to see the opportunities they have when customers are in their stores. Bob makes excellent points in the article. It’s true that because of the internet more customers are informed about what they are buying. But a well-trained, knowledgeable store associate still has an opportunity to influence the customer’s decision by making the right recommendations and, when achieving the customer’s trust, can often add on to the sale. It’s not just the price but the whole experience that can lead the customer to purchase the item. And the associate who has mastered this enjoys their job… Read more »
Charles Dimov

Sales is a tough job that takes quite a bit of finesse, style and some good core capabilities. Yes price is a factor that gets sales down. But you need a sales team that knows how to handle it (resilience), has the optimism to keep trying and testing new techniques and approaches, and which continually learns. It’s a process. Store managers are key to driving this experimentation and team learning.

At the end of the day, Bob is right. You train, discuss, motivate, experiment, test, drop what does not work and do more of what does. If this still does not work, after your reasonable time-frame, you also have to be prepared to make the hard calls.

Anne Howe

Knowing the price on the way in is table stakes for most shoppers. Many are seeking empathy and dialogue with an associate to verify the reason to buy. The skill set for associates today needs to include an understanding of how to quickly form a common thread that converts to the “trust” of a recommendation they’d find online. Shoppers want to feel that the associate “gets them” and can be trusted. This is not easy, but associates can be trained and the results are powerful on the sales floor.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

Price is the demon that takes the focus off of value. Consumer are basically value-focused, and price is but one element of value. Arming the sales associate with information about features and benefits enables them to bring their value to the customer discussion.

Sterling Hawkins

Lyle is right on — consumers are focused on value of which price is simply a component. Educating associates makes all the difference. Using the internal dialogue: she’s not going to buy anything; he’s too cheap; she’s comparing Amazon, etc. as an associate’s access to setting that aside to uncover what’s really going on with the shopper can build stronger relationships, more effective teams and a better business all around.

Ryan Mathews

I think the retail industry is wearing down sales associates, not prices.

You want improved performance? Pay folks a living wage, stop treating labor scheduling like a Ouija board and start treating employees like they have a brain or two in their heads, i.e., recognize them, listen to them, talk issues through with them and incorporate their input.

Sales associates don’t get jaded by customers half as much as they get jaded by managers, district managers and corporate standards-setters — most decades removed from working a sales floor, assuming of course they ever did.

If you want people to act like professionals you have to treat — and compensate — them as professionals.

Sky Rota
5 years 3 months ago

No I don’t think shoppers are wearing down sales associates because of price. I think sales associates need to be much more hand-picked for their jobs. I understand these jobs don’t pay great but there are applicants. You must pick the ones with personality, energy and ADHD! They are the ones who will greet, help and know your merch inside out. They will make the sales, bring you socks to match your shoes and the shirt that looks amazing with it. It’s mostly about who is doing your hiring. I suggest you clean house and start over.

I believe having the ability to be a sales person is a personality trait! It’s a gift! Hire the gifted ones and they will make your store shine!Then give them a stake in the game, a percentage for their sales. Everyone wants an incentive. Celebrate your sales together, it’s all about being a team player!

Paula Rosenblum

It has nothing to do with price, which is a self-inflicted retailer wound. Shoppers don’t want to be stupid and, as Mark says below, shoppers enter the store with an understanding of what prices should look like.

It’s much more about an utter lack of training on the part of retailers. Our data consistently shows that most retailers spend fewer than 10 hours per year training their sales associates. TEN HOURS. They should be trained on product feature/benefits and should also be aware of their company’s pricing policies.

In general, I think the race to the bottom is over. Will retailers get serious about training their in-store associates? They should.

Sara Mays

Shoppers are more educated on pricing than in the past so modeling customer-centric values is key for all leaders. Minimizing tasks to allow associates time for customer interactions drives the message that customers are more important than the tasks. Building processes for continuous training, communication and associate feedback will create a positive environment for the associates and ultimately the customer. Celebrating sales stories and goal achievement keeps teams focused on the importance of service during all phases of the sales cycle.

Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett
President, Protonik
5 years 3 months ago
As W. Edwards Deming observed, employees like to do the right thing and be successful in their jobs. Most often (but not always) it’s mis-management that interrupts their natural tendencies. The goal of management should be to guide without being obvious. Here there are lots of solid answers about things to do in training and hiring and the like. But what things should companies STOP doing (or never start)? I think it’s most critical for managers and execs to look at themselves and the things they do to learn what policies and management approaches are demotivating associates. ‘ For example, customer satisfaction surveys are out of control. Without any research validity, these surveys are often used punitively for the store associates — punishing them for corporate and local policies rather than rewarding them for good service. (We should remember people work much better looking toward an ideal than being punished for not meeting it.) That’s only one example — the one that’s incredibly obvious me yet HQs have yet to realize is data that they… Read more »
Shep Hyken

Retailers have taught consumers to become price-sensitive, especially in certain types of stores. So live with it and deal with it. The key to successful sales is to hire the right people in the first place. (Sometimes easier said than done, but many retailers have succeeded so we know it’s possible.) Train them in sales and service, not just once but ongoing to sustain it. Keep salespeople informed. They love to know how they are doing and celebrate their success.

Peter Luff

Price has always been a factor; this though is principally one for head office to address to knowingly put the stores in the game with appropriate pricing. It’s for head office to strip out all those unnecessary tasks that have built up over time for the store teams. Then train the store teams continually, then let the stores teams do what they originally wanted to do; provide great customer services and sales assistance.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

If retailers want better performing employees they have to pay a living wage and invest in training. Retailers will say they can’t afford it, but how long can you afford having worn-down, uninspired employees?

Ralph Jacobson

So store staff is tired of shopper obsession over price today? Does anyone remember a 1947 movie called “Miracle on 34th Street”? Shoppers were being directed where to find the best prices by the store staff, even if it was sold at the competitors’ stores. This is nothing new, and we all as a society have to toughen up just a bit and try to wean off the comfort llamas.

If staff needs motivation, lead by example. Store management should walk the sales floor 95+ percent of the time and proactively interact with shoppers. Staff turnover has always been an aspect of most retail, and maybe that’s not always a bad thing. It does keep your average hourly wage rate down. 😉 (I can’t wait to hear the replies to THIS one!)

Craig Sundstrom

Bob is holding his age well, he doesn’t look 150. But seriously, his description of career people making sales one at a time seems, if not exactly quaint, then at least dated. Even before I, and imagine he, was born, the rise of discounters and changing tastes had begun the destruction of the full service model.

But back on topic, one of the things that seems to be missing here (before one tries to “improve” anything) is measuring the performance in the first place. Particularly with declining comp sales now common, better metrics for measuring aptitude are more important than ever.

Bob Phibbs

Thanks for the slam and snark. I’ll explain that to my luxury brands who use me to drive sales Craig. The full service model is doing just fine.

Rebecca Fitts

I’m sure it is wearing down store associates, but the solution lies with retailers to empower store associates and see them as a critical part of the store experience. When I say empower — yes pay them, incentivize them and educate/equip them on how to be a crucial part of the store experience. Best Buy is a good example and learned a lot from the 2008 shake up — part of why they are here and Circuit City is just making a comeback.

Mike Osorio
Excellent discussion on the core of physical store retail woes: the lack of expemplary sales professionals to interact with the consumers who choose to enter the retail space. My experience and obeservation is that even with proper wages and training for sales staff, service excellence is challenged by the gereral approach that pushes staff to use some variation of the “5 steps of service”: greet, determine needs, present product, overcome objectives, close the sale. This is outdated and worthless. What is necessary is to develop leaders and staff that have high emotional and cultural intelligence, as well as the story and inspiration behind the product. This allows the staff to utilize service from the heart, flexing their communication style to the individual customer, and effectively communicating their passion about the product. This can only be done if the staff is led by similarly emotionally and culturally intelligent leaders who tailor their approach to the individual staff member, flexing their style to what works best for that individual to inspire them to excellence. This very human… Read more »
Joel Goldstein

Cash and celebrities … Those are the two proven ways to improve a jaded sales team. If you compensate them, they will sell. However, sometimes they do it too well and that can backfire with returns. If there is a way to attach a celebrity or internet personality to a brand or trend, it’s a surefire way to give your sales team a talking point when approaching any new customers.

"In-store sales associates should be focused on being attentive, responsive, friendly and facilitating the sale."
"The skill set for associates needs to include how to quickly form a common thread that converts to the 'trust' of a recommendation they'd find online."
"I think the retail industry is wearing down sales associates, not prices."

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