Charles Howden

October 11, 2006

It insults the customer who deserve better when they are trying to spend their money…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Charles @ 7:59 pm

I was writing last week about what a great experience it was to be helped by a gifted sales assistant. We were in Oxford at the weekend and inevitably found ourselves in a clothes store. On Saturday afternoon it was Toast (by name, maybe by nature).

Because my fiancé liked some of the shoes on show, she started to engage in the sales process. Our assistant was very presentable and extremely polite (squeaky posh actually). I’m guessing that whoever interviewed her thought, hmm, nice girl (a person like me, that is, the interviewer), she’ll be fine, you’re hired. Great, except that politeness is only the starting point of the process. It takes more than politeness and a smile to be a competent sales assistant. Rapport gets you started, now you need to do some work.

Do you have this in this size? What colours have you got? Can I see a pair of those? And this is where through all the politeness, the cracks started to appear. It quickly became obvious that the assistant did not know what was in stock, how long it would be before fresh stock arrived, what the full range was in terms of size and colour, how to give appropriate guidance, reassurance (very relevant for high ticket items) or attempt some trial closing. Our assistant was doing the best she could, she was clearly very bright and meant well, she just didn’t understand the sales process.

In casual conversation, when I asked her how long she had been with the shop, she told me that it was her Saturday job, and this was her second week. From what I saw, I can only conclude that, if she had received any training at all, it was probably only on how to work the till. This is probably not uncommon. Yet, how much inherent knowledge about the sales process would you reasonably expect an eighteen-year-old undergraduate to have?

I am working on the premise that there is a need to ease the sales process. I don’t think that complex garments just sell themselves without advice and guidance, and I see this as an essential role of a sales assistant.

Perhaps the owners of such shops assume that all new members of staff will learn “through experience”. For staff that don’t get training, formal or informal, then the only way they can learn, assuming they are motivated enough to try, is through trial and error over a period of time.

Is “experience” a learning process? We do not expect brain surgeons to “pick it up as they go along” because we expect some knowledge to be required. For sure, once a surgeon has studied the books, watched an operation or two, cut a bit around the edges, we might be comfortable if they then, with guidance, went a bit further; dug a bit deeper if you will.

Fortunately, being a great sales assistant does not require the same level of knowledge as brain surgery, though I maintain that there are skills involved, and a number of processes to chose from. Few of these, I believe, can be learned by trial and error without knowledge of the process.

If “experience” is a learning process, is it cost effective? OK, so the cost of training is avoided, as is the staff downtime. Balance this against the loss of failing to convert good sales opportunities and creating a returning customer, and worse, the possibility of creating a poor experience for a potential customer resulting in them never returning to the store.

I don’t like it because it fails to recognise the value that a skilled sales assistant can contribute to the business results. It fails to pass on skills to young people who deserve to be invested in. And finally, it insults the customer who deserve better when they are trying to spend their money. On this occasion, we didn’t spend ours.


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