For now, forget being a retail sales associate—the essence of your job is to help people improve their lives by sleeping well. Cultivate the following 4 skills and qualities to become a true Retail Service Associate.
BY JULIE A. PALM
As a retail sales associate, how do you describe your job to people? Do you tell them you work for Retailer X? That you sell mattresses? Help customers sleep better, improving their health and well-being? OK, now we’re getting somewhere.
How you view your role as an RSA—and how you approach your job every day—matters. Being a successful RSA requires educating yourself about the products you sell, as well as feeling comfortable and confident leading shoppers through the buying process.
But, at its core, being an RSA means helping people. On your best days, you help people choose the most comfortable, supportive mattress sets and quality sleep accessories within their budget. Thanks to you, they sleep better and feel better. They might even be happier and healthier. On your worst days, you simply help someone buy a good bed at a good value. Job still well done.
And so, for the purposes of this article, I propose we abandon the title “retail sales associate” in favor of “retail service associate.” Because, on all days, if you’re doing your job right, you are of service to your customers.
Family and friends
Now, how to be of service? As Jonathan Morrow, chief executive officer of Smart Blogger, writes, sales is really “less about manipulation and more about genuinely helping people. It’s less about charm and more about empathy.” That advice for sales professionals comes from “6 Ways to Sell Without Selling Your Soul,” a blog posted on Copyblogger.com.
A good way to start “genuinely helping people,” as Morrow puts it, is to treat every shopper like a family member or friend. You don’t need to be overly chummy or familiar, telling jokes or prattling on. You simply need to be welcoming, kind and helpful. Think about it: How would you treat your Aunt Jeanie or high school buddy Enrique if they walked into the store? (Presuming, of course, you like Aunt Jeanie and buddy Enrique.) You’d be glad to see them, greeting them in a warm, friendly manner. You’d give them your full attention, make them feel comfortable and answer all their questions. You wouldn’t rush them so you can go do something else or push them to buy a bed just to help you meet a sales quota or boost your commission. You’d want them to feel good about the products they purchase, the store’s selection and the level of service you provide.
There are several specific skills and qualities to cultivate if you want to be an outstanding retail service associate.
Without customers, there would be no retailers and no sales jobs. As an RSA, you have many duties and responsibilities, but customers always come first. When a shopper walks in the door, drop whatever you’re doing and help that person—and that means doing more than shouting “Hello! Welcome to the store with lazy RSAs” from a back corner.
A friend recently checked out a new gym. His pithy review, posted on Yelp and on Facebook, couldn’t be clearer: “Instead of walking around singing Johnny Cash songs and looking at your computer/phone, may I suggest you greet a prospective client when he walks in.” Are you surprised my friend didn’t join? Of course not. (In fact, he ended his review: “Lost business.”) While you’re with a shopper, give her your full attention: Don’t surreptitiously check your smartphone for personal text messages or daydream about what you’re going to have for dinner.
Being attentive demands you not only pay attention to the customer but to what you’re doing: for example, listening to what customers tell you so you don’t have to ask them a second time, carefully inputting orders and double-checking an address for delivery.
Shep Hyken, a customer service expert, speaker and author, tells a story of inattentiveness that marred a recent lunch. Hyken and a friend both ordered salads from a pleasant, even joking server. When the salads arrived, Hyken’s had the wrong dressing and his friend’s was the wrong size. “She just said, ‘Sorry, I don’t know how that happened,’ and took the salads away. … She eventually brought out a second round of salads. Mine was correct, but my buddy’s was a completely different salad than what he had ordered. She said, once again, ‘Sorry, I don’t know how that happened,’ ” Hyken writes in an article posted in May on his website, TheCustomerFocus.com.
The kitchen certainly bears responsibility for the mix-ups, but the server—however friendly—wasn’t paying attention and it left Hyken and his friend doubting her competence, as well as her concern for their satisfaction with the dining experience. “Incompetent service is about mistakes. The attitude can be great, but the execution doesn’t meet expectations. … The remedy: a great attitude and flawless execution. Isn’t that what every customer wants?”
(Regular Sleep Savvy contributor Gerry Morris writes more about competence and other key selling skills that start with “C” in his column on page 38.)
“Most customers are savvy enough to tell when someone is being honest with them—and they like it. If they feel they can trust you, they’re more likely to buy. Never overstate the value of a product or service, and don’t gloss over potential shortcomings. Not only does dishonesty hurt your store and your own reputation—it makes people leave without buying,” writes Bob Phibbs, chief executive officer of The Retail Doctor, in “Retail Sales Training: 9 Ways to Get Better at Selling,” a blog posted on his website, RetailDoc.com.
Sleep Savvy doesn’t believe any RSA working for a reputable mattress retailer would intentionally lie to a shopper, but it can be tempting to use sales tactics that are less than forthright—for instance, relying on confusing jargon to impress (and not necessarily educate) a customer or shifting a conversation to another topic when asked a question you can’t answer. As Phibbs says, “If you don’t know, you don’t just shrug your shoulders; you tell them you will find the answer right then from someone else who knows.”
Morrow reiterates the point: “What’s important is that you care, that you be honest, that you tell them the truth, regardless of how it affects your bottom line.”
“People can tell whether you care about them or not. … And if they sense you care more about making the sale than helping find the product or service that’s right for them, they’ll immediately distrust you,” Morrow says. “So, stop trying so hard. Forget about how much money you’ll make if they buy, and forget about sales goals or quotas or even your own objectives. Instead, focus on them. Make helping them your No. 1 priority.”
Phibbs puts it this way: “No matter how much you want to make a sale or need to make a sale, don’t approach a customer with dollar signs in your eyes. Remember that you’re selling them something that will make their lives better (or you should be), and your attitude ought to reflect that to the customer. They should feel like you’re helping them—not that they’re helping you.”
One key to being genuine is to make sure your body language matches your words. Have you ever been advised by a manager to smile when you answer the store phone? It’s because that positive change in your facial expression can alter the tone of your voice, making you sound friendlier and happier.
Mark Hunter, a sales expert and author who calls himself “The Sales Hunter,” notes the importance of “speaking with your face” in an article posted in 2014 on TheSalesHunter.com.
“I’m constantly amazed at the number of times I run across salespeople who clearly don’t believe what they’re saying. It is easy to spot in the person’s face and body language. They take on a whole host of nonverbals, ranging from nonexpressive smiles with tight lips to eyes that lack any sense of direction,” Hunter says in “33 Tips for Selling Success.” “When we’re selling to a customer in person or on the phone, we have to make sure our entire face reflects the enthusiasm and excitement of our words. Why would we expect a person to buy from us if we’re not connected to and excited about what we’re selling?”
We all have bad days, but as an RSA, you need to find ways to set aside anger, frustration, sadness, even boredom and approach your job with, if not joy and enthusiasm, then at the very least a light heart and an agreeable demeanor.
Horses are teaching me how to do this. Once a week, I volunteer at a therapeutic riding center that uses horses to help children and adults who have physical, mental and emotional challenges to expand their capabilities. Horses are incredibly sensitive creatures: If I enter the barn annoyed or stressed, my horse Flash will sense it. From a horse’s perspective, an angry handler is one to be feared, not trusted. An uninterested or tired handler, on the other hand, can be ignored, and Flash will do what he wants to do rather than what I need him to do.
Most mattress shoppers aren’t quite as sensitive to an RSA’s emotions as Flash, but they aren’t oblivious. If you’re going through the motions of a scripted sales process or silently seething over something your brother did, customers are going to pick up on it. At the riding center, we’re encouraged to leave our troubles at the entrance gate. We physically slow down, breathe deeply and drop car speeds to 5 mph as we travel the long driveway to the barn. If we’re still feeling stressed or worried, we’re encouraged to tell our horses all about it (horses are good listeners) and to let whatever is bothering or distracting us go so we can concentrate on the task at hand.
You can follow a similar practice. Take a few minutes on the drive in—or in the parking lot if the drive itself made you anxious—to breathe and shift your focus. If you desperately need to get something off your chest, call a friend or pull aside a co-worker who isn’t busy for a quick chat. Unload your troubles and clear your head so you can focus on helping your customers—as any great retail service associate wants to do. O
Julie A. Palm is chief wordsmith at Palm Ink LLC in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She has 25 years of experience as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines and as a publications director. She is a past editor in chief of both Sleep Savvy and BedTimes magazines. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.