Superior retail training blends customer service, product knowledge

Unfortunately the two are often taught in isolation

Someone recently asked me to provide a list of the top five annoying behaviours of retail sales associates and to describe the best training to get rid of those behaviours.

I was sure the annoying behaviours would be easy to describe. However, the best training was going to prove more problematic.

As a trainer, I wanted to point out that the goal of good training shouldn’t be to rid employees of “bad” behaviour but to provide employees with the knowledge, skills and attitudes required to demonstrate good behaviours, those behaviours expected by the organization.

I decided to take a trip to the local mall to do a little research, to complete my own informal mystery shop. It wasn’t particularly scientific, but it did return some interesting results.

The top five quickly ballooned into a top 20 and kept right on growing. But most of those annoying behaviours could be categorized into two areas — product knowledge or customer service.

Associates either lacked product knowledge or provided product information that was questionable or obviously wrong. On the customer service side, annoying behaviours were either a lack or an overabundance of care.

The two categories, though distinct, are also closely linked. That is, product knowledge and customer service combine to shape the customer experience. Shoppers are willing to overlook a considerable amount of bad behaviour if the associate can connect the shopper with a product that meets his needs.

An associate with poor product knowledge could overcome this weakness by providing high-quality customer service. An associate with extensive product knowledge, on the other hand, could squander this advantage by being too engaged, by trying to cross- or up-sell items not wanted.

Most retailers understand intuitively that product knowledge and customer service combine to make a good sales associate and, by extension, create a positive customer experience.

However, in most cases, customer service training is seen as one program of study while product knowledge is seen as another. An outside provider using off-the-shelf training usually handles customer service. It is typically taught in a classroom and only spoken of in general terms in the workplace. Product knowledge, on the other hand is the domain of internal trainers or job coaches. Most often, the trainer is the associate’s direct supervisor or manager, an employee who might have been with the company six months longer than the associate.

In fact, customer service and product knowledge rarely even appear in the same sentence, a relatively large oversight since the two dimensions are so intimately entwined in the workplace.

Armed with this realization, I began to think less about how to rid employees of bad behaviour and more about how to rid training programs of bad design. I’ve developed my own top five list of favourite principles to follow:

1. Consider all communication with employees a chance to train. Orientation of new employees, for example, is often a rushed process that is not particularly welcoming or particularly successful in transmitting basic organizational expectations about customer service or product knowledge. Orientation is also an opportunity to begin modelling sales behaviours you would expect of your associates by “selling” the company and its product to them.

2. Move learning closer to the job. The delicate balance between customer service and product knowledge is learned and maintained through practice. Sure, associates can learn the knowledge in the classroom but without practice, experiences, scenarios and other job related activities they cannot transfer that knowledge into a working pattern. Consider your store their classroom.

3. Provide learning in digestible chunks. Consider breaking up formal training into (at least) basic, intermediate and advanced levels. But remember to modify your expectations of the employee to coincide. By creating training levels, you can increase the detail in each step and connect customer-service concepts with product knowledge for each level.

4. Know and communicate expectations. Create behavioural standards or competencies or use existing industry standards from organizations such as the Retail Council of Canada. Then, help employees meet those competencies and go beyond them. Be consistent in the message and design training to help employees display the behaviour expected in the workplace.

5. Consider training systematically. Think about training as a process rather than an event. Set goals for training to connect customer service and product knowledge. Then answer the question: “What tools can I use to achieve the goal?” Training is more than classrooms. It is e-learning, mentoring, informal , group and self-directed learning.

While this top five list is not exhaustive, it should help create the conditions within which you can provide comprehensive training that connects concepts across functional areas, such as customer service and product knowledge, while also increasing the number and type of learning events offered.

Brendan Nagle is the CEO of Technologies for Learning Group, a Winnipeg-based e-learning services provider. He can be reached through the TLG Web site at or at [email protected]

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