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the lost art of selling

The holiday season is upon us and retailers are gearing up for the increased sales volume.  One way they’re doing so is hiring more salespeople.  In a piece in the Wall Street Journal, Karen Talley reported the retail industry added 28,000 positions in October, according to figures from the Labor Department.  Macy’s Inc. is reportedly adding 65,000 seasonal employees nationwide to stores, call centers and distribution centers, while Kohl’s Corp. will hire over 40,000 seasonal staffers.

I sure hope these retailers adequately train these new salespeople.

Based on experiences I’ve had in recent years, it seems the art of selling has been lost.  And I’m not the only one.  Last month the McKinsey Quarterly featured research by the firm’s practice group which indicates “that, at most, 45% of frontline employees across multiple retailing sectors have the personality and attributes to be effective sellers” (common traits of effective sellers include being motivated by helping customers, having extroverted personalities, and being passionate about their work). But, “few retailers provide training with the specificity and quality to effectively support sales associates in their mission to sell more.

I wonder why.

Is it a lack of resources?  I’m sure the recession has caused retailers to cut back on expenses like sales training.

It might also be that retailers don’t think selling is a priority.  The McKinsey piece reported, “Many retailers assume that customers walk into stores for purely transactional purposes: they know what they want and just need to buy it.”  (If this is the case, they’re greatly mistaken — McKinsey research indicates that as many as 40% of customers remain open to persuasion once they enter a store.)

Or maybe retailers don’t provide adequate sales training because selling has earned a bad reputation.  A few months ago I had the privilege of hearing Garrett Boone, co-founder and Chairman of the Board, of The Container Store speak at a conference for senior level retailing executives.  The topic:  “Selling is NOT a Four Letter Word.”  When I first got the agenda for the conference, I was surprised to see his topic.  This was an event which attracted executives from some of the country’s preeminent retailers like Target, Best Buy, and Foot Locker!  And they need to hear an evangelistic message about selling?!  Apparently so.

Regardless of the reason, it seems that retail sales training needs a shot in the arm.  I think companies can learn a lot from The Container Store.  They employ a sales philosophy called  “man in the desert selling”.  It’s one of the chain’s Foundation Principles (TM) and they use it “to illustrate how we astonish our customers by exceeding their expectations:”

Imagine a man lost in the desert. He’s been wandering for weeks. He stumbles across an oasis, where he’s offered a glass of water, because surely he must be thirsty. But if you stop to think about what he’s experienced and what his needs really are, you know that he needs more than just water. He needs food, a comfortable place to sleep, a phone to call his wife and family, maybe a pair of shoes and a hat to screen the sun’s rays.

When a customer comes to our store looking for shoe storage, for example, we equate her to a “Man in a Desert,” in desperate need of a complete solution. We start asking questions about what her needs are. “How many shoes do you have?” “If shoes are a big problem for you, how does the rest of the closet function?” By anticipating her needs, we know that she needs an organization plan — a complete solution — for her entire closet.

Most retailers are pleased with helping her find a shoe rack — that glass of water — but not at The Container Store. We don’t just stop with the obvious. Providing our customers with a complete solution through our Man in the Desert selling philosophy has been key to achieving one of our main goals of having our customers dancing in their organized closet, pantry, home office, etc., because they are so delighted and thrilled with the complete solution we provided them.

Anyone who has been in a Container Store has surely experienced this kind of selling – it’s helpful, service-oriented, and tailored to my needs.  In fact, when I walk out of the store, it doesn’t even seem like I’ve been sold – I simply feel like I’ve been well taken care of.

Above all, it seems their salespeople embrace the attitude Mr. Boone shared at the conference:  “Selling is the highest form of customer service – the best thing we can do for the customer.”

So perhaps rediscovering the art of selling is really about rediscovering the art of serving.

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