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Win the retail street fight with customer centric tactics

Arnie Capitanellie III
Arnie Capitanellie III

Over the past 20 years, retail service in America has been declining or at the very least has become predictable and rote. An environment that lacks passionate service has resulted in consumers believing they are better off serving themselves, thus creating the appeal of the Internet and other self-serve environments. But, this is also where the specialty retailer can compete, and it is a fight you can win. While the IT geeks and the supply chain gurus are trying to use CRM software and process efficiency to woo the customer, you have, if coached properly, a very powerful secret weapon — human to human contact.

The fight's on

What is being passed off as customer service in today's brick-and-mortar retailers, lacks passion, direction, discipline and consistency. Salespeople have turned into human Product Knowledge Kiosks who either hope customers will buy if they "do a good demo," or have become operational robots hiding in task work. This is not the way to stay competitive.

retail street fight

There's a retail street fight brewing, one that is going to be neither a civilized nor an organized fight. The reality is that specialty retailers can win this fight with a move considered to be the dreaded-pretzel hold that the self-serve giants fear, a customer centric experience. However, let's be honest. The old fire in the belly salesperson has gone by the way of the Oldsmobile. And the frustration found in trying to get the new generation of retail associates with their texting, instant gratification and palm up mentality is numbing to the retail operator.

It's not that retail salespeople are trying not to sell; they just don't know they're supposed to. To win this fight, they must not only know how, but why as well.

After the fizz

Many retailers believe the answer to better salesmanship and service is to provide associates with sales quotas or goals, performance accountability and to train them on closing techniques. But, that method is not sustainable long-term. The reason is because most retailers attempt such programs as a bolt-on, feel-good, apple-pie training moment. It's like dropping an Alka-Seltzer in a glass of water; a lot of initial activity but after awhile the fizz goes away and we're back to a still glass of water with many ineffective particles floating around in it.

These methods just don't hit the mark as they are exercises in compliance. When compliance becomes the foundation for service delivery, the sales associate engages in a game of "What can I get away with when the supervisor is not around?" The answer lies in developing a shared belief system about serving customers. When customer expectations and the behaviors for satisfying them are known, then an associate will enlist the right behaviors instinctively rather than from obedience.

Staging the fight

Having developed customer centric sales and performance management models for several well-known companies, the one thing I constantly run into is the scenario of anxiety-filled store managers trying to hold salespeople accountable to a compliance-based customer service model. We have no problem firing someone for showing up late to work, but fire them for saying the all too common, "Can I help you?" That's another story.

Front-line managers are constantly struggling with compliance relative to serving customers. This conflict extends to the manager's lack of ability to coach people skills, to harness the opinion leaders who control the sales floor, to diffuse mutiny when it's time to role-play and the list goes on. The one thing I see more than anything else is managers are so operationally burdened and payroll strapped that the idea of calling someone out on a compliance issue regarding how the customer was served is far from the top of his or her list.

It's not that there shouldn't be behavioral and performance expectations for staff; but in an industry that has a multitude of help wanted signs within a stone's throw of every store and in which compensation rates are at the lower end of the spectrum, holding a retail salesperson to service compliance makes it difficult to maintain a stable staff eager to serve the customer and ultimately improve the company's profits.

Arming up for a fight

If you are in your office right now, turn around and look at your bookshelf. Do you see all the books, videos, seminar manuals and programs you've attempted to implement in your company? Chances are there are quite a few, and they have become nothing more than iconic reminders of what you hoped would improve the way your associates behave when serving your customers. These programs are like toupees. They seem silly until you think you need one. Like the toupee, these programs are just a cover up and never actually turn out like you would have hoped.

Sure, salespeople need to know the techniques for how to ask a customer to buy and how to identify certain items that have higher margins and should be offered early and often. Although sales goals, performance metrics and closing techniques are essential to selling, they are not nearly as effective as when the company creates an awareness of the value of every single customer. In fact, a company is better off with a strong belief about service and minimal technique than with a lot of technique and no shared belief system.

Taking the first punch

It's time for retailers to create a compelling reason for customers to shop and buy with them. Consumers also need to reclaim their local stores and demand their expectations be met. This new retail model is for the street-wise fighter who doesn't have the patience to learn complicated selling systems and can't afford to lose people by using high-compliance methods.

The most effective way to sustain performance and build lasting relationships with your customers is simply to ensure everyone is dialed into your belief that you are in business to serve people. Cars get serviced; people are served. So, serve them beyond their expectations. It's guaranteed to be a powerful punch to the competition.

Fight with fundamentals

This fundamental approach to retailing. recognizes the people who work for you are self-intended and your desires to get them to buy-in and think like an owner are not realistic. The efforts of specialty retailers need to be focused on methods that get store associates to tap into their innate nature to be personable, hospitable and solution-oriented, which most likely are the attributes you saw in the interview.

For more about Capitanelli, his new book "Retail Street Fight"or his retail education program,

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