This is a guest post by Cara Wood.
For three years in college I worked for a giant corporate women’s clothing retailer. I loved working there, mainly because I adored the other women I worked with. Seriously, they were some of the best people I’ve ever known. But I also hated working there because Corporate couldn’t have cared less about us floor employees who worked our butts off to actually move their products. And ultimately, that lack of care was what caused me, consistently one of their top sellers, to leave after I graduated.
Sales associates are a store’s most important asset. Product and marketing (what Corporate does) is great, and obviously very necessary, but will both fall flat without the right team in place to actually sell to customers.
Sales associates wear many hats.
- They set the product and actually design your store.
- They provide the maintenance in your store – from vacuuming to markdowns.
- They are your customer service team.
- They are the faces of your brand, and often the keyholders of your brand’s relationships with individual customers.
- And they sell your products.
Without your sales associates, virtually everything your corporate side does is worthless.
Not only do sales associates do a lot for the store, but they cost a lot to replace.
Losing a $10/hr retail employee costs you $3,328. When you combine that with the retail industry’s turnover rate of 70%, you have a store staffed by ten people, like mine, spending $23,296 a year completely unnecessarily. Most stores staffed by ten people are lucky to make that in a week.
Sales associates are vital and costly to replace, but what can you do to make sure they know you appreciate them? A lot, as it turns out. Here are seven things I recommend.
1. Seek sales associates’ input on programs, products or customer experience.
Sales associates are typically the only ones in your whole company who personally know your customers. (Although, that really shouldn’t be the case.) Additionally, sales associates are the point in the production chain where everything the corporate side of your business has been doing – marketing, researching, purchasing products, etc. – comes together. As a result, sales associates have a VERY unique viewpoint on how your business is run and what your customers are looking for.
A sales associate can tell you why a certain product is not moving, while another product can’t stay on the shelves. A sales associate can give you the story behind the data you’ve collected on a customer.
For instance, you may know that Sheryl only ever bought pants from you, and in a size 12. You can even tell which colors and styles. But recently she purchased four pairs of pants, a skirt and dress for the first time ever in a size six. A sales associate can tell you that she lost 50lbs and she was celebrating with her purchase. With her new size, she’s no longer afraid to buy skirts, so now she’ll purchase more from your store!
Sales associates are a goldmine of need-to-know information on your customers and better yet, many sales associates are happy to share. By asking them for input, not only are you gaining valuable information to run your business with, but you’re also showing the sales associates that you value their expertise.
The ease of implementing this tip depends on the size of your business. If you own only a few stores, you can probably personally ask each associate for their opinion. If you run an enterprise level retailer, it’s going to take some more creativity.
You may want to have a suggestion email and encourage sales associates to send you their thoughts there. Or you could personally ask particular associates, and publicize it in your company newsletter to let all sales associates know you’re listening. You could also try using survey software to set up a company-wide survey to learn how sales associates think you’re doing and what new things you could be trying.
No matter how you decide to do it, make sure that you really listen and actively try to fix the problems they see happening. Again, at the enterprise level, you have to make sure to publicize that you’re listening so that all floor employees know you’re trying.
2. Give your employees excellent training and continually invest in retraining.
Training has a lot of perks. It provides you with better employees, for instance. A recent ATSD study shows that companies with comprehensive employee training see a 218% higher revenue/employee. Training also shows your employees you value them enough to invest in them, and that you want them to continually develop their skills with you.
You should absolutely provide strong training to all new employees, but you should also continue to provide retraining and training in more specialized areas to those who have been with you for a while.
Investment in training works for Costco, a retailer who almost exclusively hires corporate workers from their floor employees and has some of the happiest workers on the planet. (Hiring from floor workers has the added bonus of ensuring that most or all of your corporate employees truly understand how the company works and who your customers are.)
- Role play with your employees regularly. Make sure to use real situations – don’t just go with a boring script. You can even role play a situation that a sales associate just failed in so they know what to do for next time.
- Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. You may not be the best teacher, and that’s ok, as long as you know when to bring in outside help, of which there is plenty. For instance, you can get help training employees in sales techniques from Bob Phibbs, the Retail Doctor; or you can frequently get free training on your retail tech from your vendor.
3. Provide your employees with incentives to do better.
What does that mean? It means offer bonuses when employees consistently do well, or run contests with juicy prizes. Even if you have absolutely no ability to offer something that costs you money, make sure you verbally reward employees for doing well by praising them – in private, or in front of other employees.
Running contests to encourage harder work was actually something the retailer I worked for was very good at. They regularly ran all kinds of contests, with excellent results from their teams. My personal favorite contest was one where they would give you a $5 or $10 gift card to the store for every store credit card you opened.
I was always good at opening cards, but I was extra good during these contests. I typically opened one per shift, but during one of these contests I opened 14 cards in three shifts, netting myself $70 in gift cards to the store.
Other types of contests they ran included a pizza party for the store with the highest average of units per transaction (UPT) over the course of a month, or $20 in gift cards to every employee at the store with the highest amount of dollars per transaction in a week.
To set up a similar contest in your store, first start with the goal of improving a certain metric, whether that be how many seconds it takes for a sales person to greet a customer, or UPTs, or anything else.
Once you’ve done that, you just have to determine how the contest will work (i.e. will you award a prize every time a sales person hits the target, or will you award the prize only after a consistent performance over a certain amount of time?).
4. Don’t blame your stores for Corporate’s slipups.
One of the hardest things about working at my store, and one of the biggest contributors to my decision to leave, was the fact that Corporate blamed my store, particularly my head manager, for many issues that we had very little or no control over.
One of the biggest things they blamed us for was not getting enough foot traffic at certain times, something that was largely out of our control. One of Corporate’s jobs was to market our store and get people through our doors. Once they were in, it was up to us to sell to them.
Rather than Corporate admit their marketing strategies were failing, my manager took many phone calls where she was berated to the point of tears for not getting enough people inside the store.
This was problematic for several reasons, the largest being Corporate did not take responsibility for their failings and blamed our store instead. How could they have fixed this?
- They never should have reprimanded our manager at all, much less until she cried.
- They should have offered our store training in methods to bring in traffic that we could control, like building relationships with customers, or creating better window displays.
The takeaway for any store manager or corporate retailer is this: treat your floor employees with respect and don’t blame issues on them they have no control over.
If they do have control over a problem that’s occurring, provide training. If the training doesn’t work, let your problematic employee go kindly. Never yell at them until they cry. (In fact, if that happens, you should get some managerial training stat.)
5. Avoid scheduling abuse
Nothing makes an employee feel disrespected and undervalued like being poorly scheduled. Scheduling abuse is a pretty rampant problem, so it’s definitely something you should make sure isn’t happening in your stores.
What is scheduling abuse? Basically, it’s any practice in scheduling that treats an employee as an expendable laborer rather than as a person with a life outside of work. Examples of scheduling abuse are:
- On-call scheduling of an employee who was not hired with the express purpose of being on-call.
- Regularly scheduling employees on a days they request time off. (Especially for small stores, scheduling employees on their off days can sometimes be unavoidable. If this is the case for you, make sure you do it with as much communication with your employees as possible, and do it as infrequently as possible.)
- Regularly keeping an employee after you’ve scheduled them, particularly without giving them the option of leaving at their scheduled time. (Giving them the option to leave doesn’t just mean asking them if they can stay. It means making it clear there will be absolutely no backlash for their choosing to leave, otherwise it’s not a choice.)
- Changing the schedule at the last minute without asking or telling any of your employees.
Scheduling abuse communicates to your employees that you do not care about them at all except as labor at your store. Nothing kills your employees’ morale faster than knowing that they are just a means to an end.
A few tips for avoiding scheduling abuse:
- Utilize your POS reporting to truly understand what happens in your store so you know when to schedule your best sellers.
- Use employee scheduling software to make scheduling faster, and even automated!
6. Give your sales associates the autonomy to make calls on their own.
Letting your sales associates make decisions about things like whether or not to return an item past your policy, or to mark an item out of stock, or to offer a special discount on an item has several benefits:
- It shows sales associates that you trust their judgement, which makes them feel respected.
- It makes your customers’ experiences better by saving time and reducing friction. No need to wait around for a manager to give approval.
- It makes your managers’ lives easier as well. Managers are busy. Constantly having to run to the cash wrap because Bob wants to return an item three days past your policy is a waste of their time and talents.
Of course, you can’t just give your employees free rein. You will end up with a lot of old products that associates found easier to return than to fight over, and a lot of products sold at very low prices to your associates’ favorite customers. Part of any good employee training is teaching your new employees what sorts of guidelines they should follow in such situations.
7. Train your managers to back your sales associates in the face of a mean customer.
The classic rule is that the customer is always right, but that’s definitely not the case. My usual rule is that the customer must always think they’re right, but sometimes, even that isn’t the case.
Mean and even downright abusive customers happen more than is desirable, and sales associates should not be forced to deal with these people.
Now, I’m not talking about customers who are brusque, or even generally rude. I’m talking about customers who outright verbally abuse or physically or sexually harass your employees.
Managers should be trained to handle these kinds of situations by asking the customer to leave the store, rather than allowing the customer to continue. Knowing that a manager has your back allows employees more confidence in their dealings with customers, and helps them feel more valued as employees.
Those are the seven ways I recommend showing your sales associates you appreciate them. Don’t limit yourself to these though! If you think of a different way to show your appreciation, go for it (and share it in the comments so we all can learn!).
Author Bio: Cara Wood is a marketing associate at Capterra, a company that puts business software buyers in touch with business software vendors! When she’s not hard at work at Capterra, she can be found horse-back riding, reading and just generally having a good time at life.