How to Train Employees to Wow Today’s Savvy Customers: 5 Staff Engagement Techniques

Francesca Nicasio

It’s no secret that the retail landscape has changed dramatically over the last few years, thanks to the rise of online and mobile commerce. And within the retail community, some of the people who have felt this change the most are the front-line employees.

The dynamic between associates and customers has shifted. In the past, shoppers would walk into the store, browse products, and rely on retail associates to help them select the best item to buy.

These days, however, consumers are more knowledgeable and empowered than ever before, because any information they need about a product  (including features, benefits, and reviews) can be accessed with just a few taps or clicks.

Consumers have so much information at their fingertips—and they are well aware of this. Research from Tulip Retail found that 83% of shoppers believe that they’re more knowledgeable than in-store associates.

So what’s a retailer to do? The answer lies in changing how you see, treat, and train your front-line staff. To effectively engage modern shoppers, retail employees have to do more than just spout off features and benefits. Instead, they must find ways to add value and give customers an experience that they won’t find on their computer or smartphone.

Let’s look at some of the ways that you can train your team to do just that.

Treat Employees as More than Just “Associates”

The first step to empowering retail workers is to see them as more than just salespeople, and instead view them as product experts and trusted advisors.This shift in thinking will help you craft better training programs—ones that go beyond teaching employees about features and benefits.

For example, a fashion retailer can start training its team members to be stylists or consultants instead of mere associates. While the latter is all about selling items, the former knows the latest trends and can advise customers on their wardrobes.

We can see this in action at many luxury boutiques. The staff at high-end stores don’t just sell products; they offer advice, create looks for their clients, and build one-to-one relationships with them.

Another way to shift the role of your associates? See if they can be brand ambassadors and influencers. Social media influencers have gained tremendous traction over the last few years because of their ability to connect with their audiences in an authentic way.

Forward-thinking retailers are putting this idea into action by encouraging their employees to serve as brand ambassadors and content creators who tell the company’s story through social media platforms like Instagram.

See if you can do something similar in your retail business. Change the way you view your associates and train them to go beyond selling products.

Support Various Learning Styles in Your Training

Already have solid employee training materials? Make sure they come in a variety of formats. Recognize that individuals have different learning styles and preferences. Some people are visual learners while others can pick up information by reading an instruction manual. There are those who thrive in group learning sessions, while others work better alone or with a partner.

The key is to cover your bases by developing a well-rounded training program that accommodates various learning styles. For example, if you’re training your team on how to interface with customers, you could convey lessons through various methods, including:

  • Written lessons and reminders
  • Verbal discussions
  • Role-playing
  • Shadowing

Doing so improves knowledge retention and makes it easy for employees to perform at their best.

Instill a Bigger Purpose in Your Team

Often, the failure to connect with shoppers isn’t necessarily because of a lack of knowledge or skills, but a lack of interest and enthusiasm. The store’s staff members simply aren’t invested or connected enough to the brand to exert effort at their jobs. This, in turn, translates into poor in-store experiences.

How can retailers address this? Aside from treating and paying your employees well, it’s important to instill a sense of purpose in your team. Identify your brand’s vision or your WHY. What is the purpose of your company? What do you want to achieve? Once you have a compelling answer, relay it to your team.

One company that does this well is Disney. When a new Cast Member is hired, the first thing that Disney does is share the company’s main purpose, which is “to create happiness.” As Bruce Jones, senior programming director at Disney Institute, wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Instead of first providing them the technical skills they will need to complete the tasks of their new roles, we share with them the big picture—their purpose, which is to create happiness. Sharing our common purpose empowers each and every Cast Member right from the start to begin providing outstanding service to guests.”

Take a leaf out of Disney’s playbook. If you’re struggling to get your employees to perform at their best, you may need to refresh them on your brand’s “why.” Instill that vision in your team, and use it to give them a sense of purpose and meaning in their jobs.

Boost Your Staff’s Effectiveness with Technology

Even the best employees won’t be able to perform if they don’t have the right tools. That’s why it’s important that you arm your team with the apps and solutions they need to do their jobs well.

Such tools may include:

  • Communication platform—Whether it’s a matter of the corporate office relaying information to local stores or a manager sending messages to their team members, communication is essential to any retail operation. You need to have a platform that lets users send and receive messages with ease, and keeps everyone on the same page. Avoid using too many channels (e.g., email, SMS, phone, etc.), as this opens up room for miscommunication. Instead, have a centralized system that keeps all the information in one place, and makes it easy for users to search and retrieve messages.
  • CRM—One of the keys to converting today’s knowledgeable consumers is to provide personalized insights and offers that are tailored to their needs. The best way to do this is to use a customer relationship management platform or CRM. If you haven’t done so yet, provide your staff members with a tool that lets them view your customers’ purchase histories and preferences, so they can tailor their interactions and offer personalized experiences.
  • Staff training and development solution—Training should be an ongoing effort. Make sure you have staff education and development tools that can keep your team members at the top of their game. Have a portal that gives staff the ability to refresh and revisit training materials, and keep adding content to ensure they’re constantly learning new things.

Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill

While training and education are essential, the success of your programs hinges largely on how coachable your employees are and how well they fit into your culture. That’s why you need to invest time and energy in recruiting the right people. The key is to find individuals who naturally embody your brand. Skills and expertise are important, but know that while knowledge can be taught, someone’s personality and disposition are much harder to shift.

As Bruce Nordstrom said, “We can hire nice people and teach them to sell, but we can’t hire salespeople and teach them to be nice.” So, identify the traits that you’re looking for in a new team member, and prioritize those characteristics during the recruitment and vetting process.

One brand that does an excellent job at this is Trader Joe’s. Walk into any TJ’s location and you’ll find happy, quirky employees who love chatting up customers. And as it turns out, TJ’s staff members aren’t trained to act like that. They genuinely love interacting with other people.

Mark Gardiner, author of Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s, experienced the company’s training program first-hand, and discovered that TJ’s doesn’t hire just anyone; the brand sets its sights on “people persons” and only hires individuals with the right attitude.

Gardiner had this insight when he went through Trader Joe’s training program. He recounted his experience on Zendesk’s Repeat Customer podcast, saying, “It starts with everyone introducing themselves. Now, we’ve all heard these stories about how people fear public speaking more than death. But in that group of 50 people, all the hands went up. It was like, pick me, pick me, I can’t wait to tell you about me… The next really profound thing that happened after realizing, wow, these people are really not a random group of people. These people are all naturally empathetic… they want to listen to other people talking about themselves, they want to have conversations with other people.”

Follow Trader Joe’s footsteps in your own employee recruitment efforts. Identify that innate characteristics of your ideal employees, and make sure those traits are present in the candidates you hire.

Final Words

You and your team must evolve in order to serve today’s retail shoppers. Accomplishing that starts with having the right employee training and engagement practices. If you haven’t done so yet, evaluate your existing employee programs and make sure that you’re arming your team with the knowledge, skills, and tools required to serve modern consumers.

Francesca is a B2B content marketer and LinkedIn TopVoice who helps companies increase their Web traffic, leads, and customers through high-quality content and thought leadership. She’s also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, an eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. When she’s not writing, you’ll likely find her wandering around at Target or at the playground, chasing after her son.