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Expert Opinion: Why front-end retail staff are critical differentiators

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Disinterested and indifferent sales personnel in retail stores is a common sight. Staff members, who are plain bored of their jobs or complete misfi ts in roles that demand presence and engagement, can often be that critical under-performing link in such stores. Customers increasingly have the option to buy online.

Expert Opinion: Why front-end retail staff are critical differentiators
For brick-and-mortar retailers, the contribution of front-end staff can help convert customers from browsers to shoppers, and leave a positive influence on them to return again

Brick-and-mortar retailers therefore need to use the opportunity provided by the visit of the customer to their store as an opportunity to leave a positive influence on them to return again.

One of the most significant and easiest ways to leave that positive influence on customers is through front-end store staff . Their contribution can be immense in converting customers from browsers to shoppers, impressing them with their knowledge and attention to detail and in general giving them a superior experience that online will always fi nd tough to match.

This has implications for retail businesses in terms of the kind of people that must be recruited, the kind of behaviour and learning that should be encouraged specifi cally in the store teams – and the kind of behaviour that should be consistently rewarded. While recruiting, front-end Operations Managers often juggle the demands of the job in their own heads.

This means potential recruits must be good at organizing, managing the backend, indenting for stocks, making reports, creating rosters at one end and simultaneously have endless energy to interact with customers at the front-end.

Of course, the first part is a hardcore nuts-and-bolts operation at the heart of the retail business and without which the store can’t function, while the other is an equally energy sapping and, perhaps, the tougher aspect of dealing with customers, day in and day out. At the heart of this dilemma is the quest for that perfect retail employee who can do it all– be valuable for the business through his hardwork and diligence and also ensure that he leaves a positive impression on the customers that he interacts with.

To make this possible, rather than blandly recruiting store staff on the basis of historical patterns or basis individual needs of front-end managers, the question that HR and front-end Operations

Managers must answer is (a) what kind of profile should they consistently recruit that can add value to their business? What kind of behaviour should they train employees for? And what attitude or skills should be encouraged, valued and rewarded on a day-to-day basis? A section of Retail Managers speak about the importance of discipline in store teams and look at those who will always come on time (and before time if possible), work late hours, can multi-task in the store when required and unquestioningly accept the diktats of the Store Chief or Store Manager.

While these are important and highly desirable qualities, they are by no means sufficient to make an employee a valuable resource or the kind of qualities that’ll help elevate the store from an average business to one that is loved by its customers.

Another section of Retail Managers rightly point in the direction of staff who handle the back-end. I am more inclined to agree with them for the sheer importance of work done by these team members in ensuring that the stores run efficiently in terms of stock indenting, product availability, hygiene and cleanliness, stocking accuracy, reporting, etc.

The skills required here are an ability to work with numbers and the discipline to do it diligently at the prescribed frequency. When one considers this in light of the question whether this quality is enough to bring a smile to the customers face or if it is sufficient to bring a customer back to the store, I am not so sure. This brings me to team members who work in the front-end engaging with customers of all hues. Their key role is to ensure that customers find what they are looking for, make their experience in the store pleasurable and achieve targets that they may have, through upselling or cross-selling etc.

At the outset, this doesn’t look like a great skill and can easily be dismissed as too generic. But to my mind if, between the three sets of store staff , any one has the power to bring a customer back into the store, it is this set. It is obvious that we need all the three kinds of skill sets and experience in a retail store to be able to run it well. But seen in the backdrop of increasing incidence of online sales, chaotic roads with limited parking on high streets, malls overflowing with customers on weekends, and stores in general beginning to look like each other, Retail Managers need to be clearer about the profiles of employees that they are entrusting to run their stores.

The business needs to be clear about the kind of behaviour that will help distinguish them from other competitor stores, or the kind that ensures customers have a genuinely good experience and encourages them to return to their stores in the future as well.

Qualities of great store staff

To my mind, quite unequivocally, the team members who should be most valued are those who are trusted by customers. These are colleagues who can engage with customers in the most authentic and appropriate way. Customers don’t think twice before sharing their contact numbers with them. These team members never seem to be over pushy when selling. Observations regarding such team members throw up a couple of important pointers that recruiters and front-end Managers must be cognizant of:

• Their confidence is just at the right level. They are neither over nor under confident. Their quiet confidence does not stem from arrogance or mere bluster. It stems from their superior knowledge of products that they are entrusted to handle. And this knowledge, in turn, is an off shoot and consequence of their desire and keenness to learn and absorb in all situations.

• They have relatively higher EQ than the rest. They intuitively understand from their knowledge and experience about what works or does not work for a customer. They are able to tailor their recommendation basis actual customer need versus sounding overly promotional in a bookish or theoretical kind of way.

• Their cheerful and friendly demeanour makes them the go-to people for customers in the store rather than those employees who are always too busy or too enraged or too distant.

• They are charming and able to converse easily with customers – going beyond the “Yes”, “No”, “I don’t know” routine. When asked a question, their answer is more likely to be in a paragraph rather than a monosyllable.

• They are emotionally stable and have a great temperament through both easy and tough days. They are able to better handle all kind of situations more calmly.

Normally, when faced with the challenge of recruitment – preference is often given to those who have worked in similar contexts or industries before. What also needs to be remembered is that – while such candidates may have contextual knowledge, they still may make for poor choices if the above criteria are not met.

Given the fast changing shopping and customer contexts, the crying need for offline businesses is to be superlative in their service orientation and it is not necessary that people from similar industries always fit the bill.

This is what retail businesses could strive to get better at:

• Define the skill sets that your business needs in front-end retail staff clearly.

• Drive alignment across the business, especially amongst those who recruit and train them to spot the right skill sets and behavioral traits.

• Train front-end store staff in the desired behavior and skills that will help get them perceived as experts by consumers. Customers look forward to interacting with the experts and not with clueless team members or those that can’t add value to them.

• Retrain or relocate staff members who do not demonstrate the fl air for front end roles. Relocation could be to positions commensurate with their skillsets.

• Training of front-end managers (supervisors, store managers, etc) to recognize the signs of desired skills, attitude and behavior is the key. They need to role model desired behaviour and consistently mentor and encourage their staff towards this end.

• Reward team members who can engage effortlessly with customers or are seen as experts so that the message to the rest of the team percolates down faster.

Importantly, for this culture to trickle down across the organisation, it needs to fl ow from the top. Having the right skilled front-end staff is that one big differentiator for brick & mortar retail. Greater sensitivity in this regard across levels and departments in the organisation can only be helpful.