While some may think of sales roles as entry-level jobs, sales associates are vital to any retail business. Your sales associates quickly become the face of the company; they’re not only the ones closing sales and driving profit, but they’re building valuable relationships with your customers too.
Hiring the right sales associates with the right skill sets, therefore, is essential. And while training can get inexperienced associates up to speed, there are some inherent traits and skills that you should be looking for when hiring your staff to begin with.
In this post, we’re going to take a close look at 20 must-have retail skills that all sales associates need to excel:
- Soft retail sales associate skills
- Hard retail skills for sales associates
- Hiring the sales associate that’s right for your store
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Soft retail sales associate skills
Many hiring managers often significantly underestimate soft skills when hiring sales associates, but this is one of the biggest oversights that could be made. Sales associates can learn selling techniques like how to close a sale on the job, but you can’t teach a standoffish person to be empathetic and outgoing.
There are ten crucial soft skills that you should be evaluating when looking to hire or promote a sales associate. Let’s take a look at each one.
When it comes to necessary sales associate skills, helpfulness will always rank at the top of the list. Sales associates need to be naturally eager to help your customers with everything they need. They should be ready to answer questions, check for back-ordered products or if any more stock is coming soon and discuss the pros and cons of two almost identical products so that the customer can feel confident in their decision.
There’s a reason why some of the best sales associates follow up with “is there anything else we can help you with today?” If a customer feels like a sales associate doesn’t want to be bothered, your store’s positive reviews will likely decrease.
One essential role of a sales associate is to be able to get a quick read on a customer, understanding their emotions and needs to figure out what motivates them.
If your sales associates struggle to identify and relate to a customer’s emotions quickly, they can easily miss the mark when it comes to their suggestions and sales pitches. This can result in lost sales that would have otherwise been closed with a different staff member.
When I worked in jewelry, for example, being empathic was one of my biggest assets. If I was able to quickly assess whether the customer looking at engagement rings was overwhelmed with excitement and romance about the proposal or anxious about a big financial purchase, I could proactively offer solutions they may not have known they were looking for.
An impatient salesperson is not going to be successful. Sales associates need to listen to the same questions and explain the same care instructions, product warranties, and company guarantees dozens of times a day. They also need to deal with rude and temperamental clients, potential issues with technology, and customers who spend an extraordinary amount of time trying to decide what they want.
For people wondering how to be a good sales associate, remember to start with “patience.”
Friendliness is a key retail associate skill. Your sales associates should always be naturally welcoming and easy to get along with. If someone isn’t a “people person,” that will read quickly, and your customers may feel uncomfortable.
Look for team members who describe working with customers as their favorite part of their job when hiring.
5. Fast learner
You need all of your sales associates to be fast learners. You want your team to have the ability to quickly learn about brand new products right as they hit the floor, updated company policies, and new technology coming into the stores.
Products and industry knowledge are always changing, and if someone isn’t able to pick up new knowledge quickly, they won’t be able to help their customers.
Sales can be a chaotic job role. Your sales associate needs to be able to listen to the customers needs, make small talk with them while thinking about products that would be a good fit, find the products on the shelves, watch for new customers coming in and know when to push for the close.
Those who are able to multitask will be most successful in the role, as they’ll be able to successfully keep up with a fast-paced environment.
7. Time management
Time management is crucial for sales associates. You need your associates to be on the floor on top so that you aren’t short staffed with customers waiting. Even beyond that, your sales associates likely have more tasks they’re responsible for aside from simply sitting on the floor and waiting for customers to arrive. They might have cold-calling to do before a big sale, follow up calls to vendors and clients, restocking merchandise or cleaning display cases.
If you have a sales associate who drops the ball on calling a vendor to ensure that a special order is possible, you’ll have an angry customer and a lost sale on your hands. All of this can typically be avoided with careful planning and time management.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that being persuasive is one of those strong retail sales skills that your associates need to have.
For the record, being persuasive does not mean that you should be trying to convince a customer to buy something they don’t need. Instead, it means that your team should be able to aptly explain why customers need products that they could benefit from, whether that’s the product itself, an add-on or a warranty.
Being persuasive comes down to being able to correctly understand a customer’s needs, overcome objections and explain why a product is right for the customer, often using feature-benefit selling. While some of the techniques can be taught, if someone has no ability to form a persuasive argument, they’ll struggle in the position.
As a sales associate, you’ll have a lot thrown at you. You might have crafted the perfect sales pitch for the standard client, only to have someone come in who breaks the mold. They have different objections or different needs, and you need to adapt.
Your team will also need to adapt to new store policies, new products and new industry knowledge on a regular basis. It’s all part of the job.
Are your sales team members able to adapt to specific challenges placed in front of them? If not, you might run into some concerns.
Sales associates need to be adaptable, because they’re regularly going to be working with diverse audiences who all have different expectations, motivations and pain points. If they can’t adapt to selling or offering customer service in different situations, they’ll struggle.
11. Trend aware
From furniture to shoes to snacks, tech, workout gear and beyond, everything goes through trends. Sales associates need to know what’s hot right now—what are the new products you have on the shelves? What’s selling better than anything else? What resonates with Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X and Boomers?
Trend awareness is half soft skill and half hard skill. Sales associates need to be keeping up with the data, both from the industry and from your POS, and they need to come across as friendly, knowledgeable and with it.
Hard retail skills for sales associates
Soft retail skills are difficult to teach, so you need to find someone who has them as part of their core personality. Fortunately, though, there are some skills for retail sales associates that can be taught. Let’s take a look at a few hard skills for retail sales associates that you’ll want to either look for or offer training for with your staff.
12. Basic math and money handling skills
Think fast! You’re selling a gaming console to customers. There’s a sale, so everything is 15% off, they want to know the final price once sales tax and warranty cost are added in.
Your sales team needs to be able to at least use an on-person calculator to give exact and accurate pricing to customers. You never want a customer to get a surprise at the register; if it’s not a happy surprise, they’re likely to walk away just out of frustration alone.
They also need to be able to confidently work at the cash register, counting money. You can set them up for success with embedded payments, which reduce the amount of manual entry needed to process a sale. “The till operators are only pressing one button, feeding transactions straight through to the card machine,” says Bruce Jones of Lightspeed retailer Philip Morris, “so that makes it quick. It has reduced errors completely.”
Make sure they also know store policies about checking for counterfeiting, which often changes from store to store.
13. Product knowledge
A small arts and crafts store would ideally hire someone who knows all about knitting and watercoloring, but that isn’t always the case. That’s okay. Teaching your staff about your products is all part of the manager’s job.
Your team should be able to make strong product recommendations based on a customer’s needs and price points. They should be familiar with the pros, cons and uses of a different item, and know what you have in store. Someone who only knows about watercolors, for example, would likely fail to take users over to your premium-quality oil painting kits that might have been closer to what the customer needed.
14. Active listening
Active listening is a type of listening that takes in the speaker’s entire behavior and body language, fully interpreting what they’re saying. If a customer listens to your solution and says “it’s fine” but you see that they’re frowning, hesitating and fidgeting with their watch in an agitated way, you’ll know that it’s not fine.
With active listening, your sales staff will give their full attention to the customer, and may learn to reiterate the customer’s concerns or needs back to them. This helps the customer feel heard and improve communication so that your associate can find the client what they need.
15. Industry expertise
Industry expertise is one of those skills needed for sales associates that isn’t often overlooked, but we still want to mention it here. You can train it, but someone with a background understanding of your field is useful.
If you’re trying to train an associate at your bridal boutique as a sales team member but they don’t understand different types of fabrics, cuts and fits and how they look on a bride, it will be hard for them to hit the floor on their own soon. You need someone who knows that certain fabrics are more flattering on certain body types or that long lace trains can rip in an outdoor wedding.
16. Communication skills
Communication skills for retail sales associate team members are everything. They’re communicating all day with their customers, one-on-one. They also need to effectively communicate with team members. If a sale isn’t going well, for example, knowing how to pull in another team member to ask for help is crucial.
This is something that can improve with on-the-job employee training. Practice role playing with your team, going over situations like how to turn over a client, how to ask for clarity and how to create small talk that can actually be productive.
17. Sales skills
Plenty of people think that selling is just relaying product knowledge, but that’s not the case.
Let’s say that you go into a store, asking for a blue pen. The salesperson offers you two choices. One is twice as much as the other. All else being equal, you reach for the more affordable option, right?
The right salesperson will be able to say, “this one is more affordable if that’s a concern. But pen number two is worth the extra cost if you’re planning on using it again. It’s got a great grip for maximum comfort, and it dries fast so there won’t be any smudges. It’s got vibrant ink that looks great, and it’s got a sleek, professional look that will make you look great in the workplace. Are you interested in trying it out?”
In this example, there are clear sales skills being used. One is feature-benefit selling, where the salesperson lists a product feature and explains how it benefits the user. (The ink dries fast = feature, so it won’t smudge = benefit.) There’s also a clear close: “Are you interested in trying it out?”
Sales skills can be taught, but should be taught early on before the staff hits the floor.
18. Customer service skills
Any customer-facing team member needs to have strong customer service skills. If you have an associate who is happy to sell to buying customers but doesn’t want to help someone who isn’t purchasing today, they don’t belong on your sales staff.
Customer service skills really come down to having the knowledge and ability to listen to a customer’s needs or concerns, find a solution that works within company policies and take steps to implement it. Those soft skills of being empathic and patient really come into play here.
The tech in your store comes into play as well. Harriet Cleverly of Lightspeed retailer Cleverly Wrapped explains how having the right tech in place improves the customer experience.
“If we get online orders, we send them out on the same day, however many we get. They nearly always get there the next day. People love that. If you send something back to us, we will refund it within an hour of receiving it, and send you an email to tell you that we’ve done that, which we think is quite unique in the industry.”
19. Tech literacy
All retail stores have a point-of-sale (POS) system that their team needs to use. They might also have on-the-floor tech like iPads or digital catalogs that they need to learn to use on the fly. If your team is unable to use the technical tools provided to them, they’ll struggle to perform well in the job.
While this is often overlooked, knowing how to use specific retail tech tools is one of those skills that can help a sales associate with long-term success.
Of course, it helps to have an intuitive POS and retail management system that’s easy to use and learn. With the right solution in place, improving your team’s tech literacy is a breeze.
No one wants to walk into a messy store. Make sure cleanliness is part of your employee training so new sales associates know exactly what is expected in your stores.
Sales associates should know what their cleaning duties are and be able to seamlessly integrate them into their shift. That means they should know how to fold, mop, dust, straighten, organize—whatever you need them to do—and that managers should be sure there is enough labor on the floor that chores can get done.
Hiring the sales associate that’s right for your store
When your retail store or HR department is thinking about sales associate job skills, there are a few good skills for retail to consider. These include both soft skills and hard skills. While the ideal candidate would have both (being both empathic and having lots of industry knowledge), remember to always hire based on the skills you need that can’t be taught.
Just as you would never want to hire an executive chef who couldn’t be organized enough to follow tickets, even if he had great recipes, you don’t want to hire an industry expert in your field who absolutely has zero patience to deal with frustrating customers. You can train product knowledge, but not the ability to recognize emotion.
Remember to offer regular training for your staff, track sales performance and hours worked. The Homebase and Lightspeed integration can help with this. Lightspeed’s analytics can help you identify top-sellers, and Homebase’s integrated scheduling ensures that you’ve always got some of your top-performing sales staff on every shift.
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