Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Hire the attitude; hone the skill

In ‘The True Differentiator’ last month, I spoke of the three ingredients for success in retail – a) sales people with the right attitude to serve and an aptitude to learn; b)a time-tested training curriculum that is enabling and empowering in its philosophy and c)choosing trainers that can empathise with the trainees and make training impactful and fun.

A willing workforce

“Hire the attitude and train the skill” is a popular statement. You can never train your salespeople to have an attitude to serve your customers. However, you can train them how to take care of your customers when they are in your stores. Attitude comes from ‘willingness’ – willingness to a) consistently respect and adhere to company or store policies and procedures and b) do whatever it takes to help customers make the right choices of products and services they believe will address their needs and wants. Store operations become complicated and chaotic – as they are in some retail environments – primarily because retailers unwittingly hire unwilling salespeople.

I admit that attitude is intangible and is therefore difficult to assess. There are assessment tools to understand behavioural patterns of potential salespeople. But, if all that sounds very sophisticated and/or expensive and cumbersome to follow; store managers and retail HR personnel – through training - can be equipped with some tips and techniques to make such assessments during the interviewing and hiring process.

Determining salespeople’s attitude upfront – during the hiring process or at the earliest thereafter - also helps retailers in a) fitting people in roles that act as motivators and b) defining career paths for salespeople to aspire for and reach through consistent acceptable performance.

Not everyone is made for retail. While the glamour and glitz attracts many salespeople; for some it is another job that gets them their salaries at the end of the month. Retailers have the onus of choosing the right people – those with a passion to ‘sell’ and an aptitude to ‘serve’. One without the other is unhealthy. Those with only a passion to ‘sell’ tend to be pushy and can alienate customers faster than you spend to acquire them! While those with only an aptitude to ‘serve’ will only help you make an excuse of service what you fail to do through selling.

A robust curriculum

Have you ever liked a movie without a script - without a story to tell? It is not enough just populating your stores with people with a heartbeat and cladding them in uniforms who may or may not come to work everyday. It is important to have a screenplay (scientific training) with a script (selling skills) to enact. You need a script that sells – quite literally! Retail training programs have to be authentic and train salespeople in handling the different moments of truth on the sales-floor.

Training programs have to accomplish two crucial imperatives – a) train salespeople to become compliant with store policies and procedures and b) say and do the right things when they come in contact with customers. The most effective retail training programs are those that first help articulate store standards; develop the right scripts for various roles on the sales floor and train salespeople using a pedagogy that is known to deliver the desired results – sales increases and satisfied customers.

When you invest in a training program, you deserve only the best in the business – a training curriculum and pedagogy that is proven to be effective - a training program that embodies learning from being applied successfully across different formats and in different markets.

The transformers

You need expert screenplay and script writers (trainers) who know the retail business -retail trainers that understand the dynamics of retail – store operations; sales and customer service.

The true differentiator

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You may be shopping for that sophisticated business suit for your first job or for an ethnic attire for a wedding reception. You land up in a mall hoping that you can choose from a wide variety of brands and stores to make your purchases at. You have beaten the traffic; cursed half a dozen jay-walkers and motorists and have finally pulled into the mall. You park your car and step into the atrium.…and Viola! The glitter and glamour; lights and music; shining floors and sparkling ceilings; those riotous colours from the show windows….and the excited shoppers have all transported you to another world. When you bring yourself back to reality and try to recollect why you are there; you seem to be more confused than you were before you entered the mall. You find yourself on the horns of a dilemma as to which store to patronise for your purchase? Trust me. It’s not your fault. Malls look alike from the inside; you find the same brands in this mall that you found in the previous mall that you visited. Only that, this mall has a BMW parked in the atrium while the previous mall had a Merc – the so called bumper prize! So much so that even the clowns out there to entertain shoppers are also from the same agency!

You went to the mall with a specific requirement – of buying a business suit for your first job and that is a ‘planned purchase’. Planned purchases are usually well thought of and well considered purchase decisions that we make to fulfil specific needs; and they are usually preceded by two layers of decision making. The first layer – what (product) to buy? Eg: a formal business suit and when to buy it? say, before that all important first day at work; where you want to make the best impression. The second layer of decision making however - what (brand) to buy? What store (to buy it from?) and how much to spend? - determine the ‘consideration set’ – a choice of stores that come to your mind unaided; that would fulfil your planned purchase. But, malls being what they are – one indistinguishable from the other; and stores inside of the malls; all looking increasingly similar, you tend to stray into any store that scream out their discounts the loudest.

If you are a retailer; every time a customer chooses to enter your competitor’s store, you are so much farther away from influencing his or her buying decision - even the vantage location (place) where you are located; seems to have little or no impact.

Is it true therefore, that the loudest and brightest advertisements or announcements of discounts always snatch away a customer? Are you, as a retailer completely at the mercy of what may attract (or rather distract) a potential customer from entering your store? Do you also have to spend on full-page colour advertisements or do up your store windows or erect discount posts outside your store to attract customers? Is it then, a battle of the advertising rupee - that takes away any edge you may be able to derive through your smart marketing plans (promotion).

We know it too well that – one retailer can outdo the other in the choice and assortment of merchandise offered (product) and the price at which it is being offered (price). With that, the four pins of McCarthy’s marketing mix lie knocked down on the slippery floors of retailing!

But, for retailers, a potential customer lost is a customer lost forever in these days of shifting loyalties. Therefore, is there something that we have missed here? How can you as a retailer ensure that a potential customer, safely and surely walks past all the tantalizing cacophony out there and step into your store to spend some of his money?

We agree that ‘Retail’ is all about ‘brands’ interacting with their ‘consumers’. And shoppers are people that have emotions and feelings; reacting differently to different stimuli. Their reactions can be made favourable or adverse – they choose to become ‘buyers’ or simply remain ‘shoppers’ depending on the influencers that interface with them during a shopping experience. In-store touch points have a significant influence on our shopping behaviours. While the product, price, lighting and ambience – inanimate as they are - play a limited role as passive influencers of purchase decisions; it is the human ingredient – as animate touch-points hold the highest potential to influence shopping behaviours and they can be ‘trained’ to ‘behave’ in a desired way to bring about favourable responses from customers. This makes our sales people the most pivotal of all interfaces between a ‘shopper’ and a ‘store’ – sales people play the role of true “catalysts” that convert ‘shoppers’ into ‘buyers’ while remaining unaffected themselves.

It is small wonder then that ‘planned purchases’ comprise only 30% of all purchases made. The remaining 70% are influenced on the shop-floor – a good part of them by sales people!

Getting salespeople to be better catalysts should be at the heart of any training program. Training retail salespeople is unlike how a tiger is trained in a circus - jumping through the loop at the lashing of a whip. It is more like Pavlov’s dog - who gets his feed to the accompaniment of a ringing bell – a conditioning that offers a reward for every effort.

Unlike the inanimate factors, ‘sales people’ can be ‘conditioned’. Much as ‘actors’ follow scripts while enacting their assigned roles; to the requirement of the ‘director’; so also sales associates can be trained to put up a ‘show’ every time a customer walks into your store. Having untrained sales people on the shop floor is like having all the characters on stage and having no script to follow! It is essential for retailers to first acknowledge the need to train – provide a screenplay and a script for their respective ‘retail shows’. And, find the right store manager to direct the play - who works with and through his sales team to bring about a cohesive and seamless performance to the liking of his customers, that results in a resounding applause (sales target). When this becomes a habit for a store team; the audiences (customers) will begin to ask for an encore each time (they will have compelling reasons to patronise your store again and again.)

It is for want of training that we see sloppy customer service around us. Retailers will do well to ensure that every training investment has these three right ingredients – 1) trainees with the right attitude to serve and the aptitude to learn (just as ‘casting’ is very important for a movie to get the right people to play the right characters). 2) A time-tested training curriculum that is both, enabling and empowering in its philosophy and approach (as critical as having a screenplay and a script) and 3) trainers who can empathize with the trainees and make the training impactful and enriching. (Just as makeup artists can make an actor look either like a prince or a pauper!)

In my next piece, I’ll write more on how to go about choosing the three ‘right’ ingredients.