the sales associate of tomorrow

The folks at Deloitte recently released, The Next Evolution: Store 3.0,  a report on the readiness of retailers for the store of tomorrow.  Although the report offers a somewhat limited and biased perspective since it is based on a survey of only 39 current retail executives, it raises some important questions about the requirements of the future store.

One point caught my attention: the role of the sales associate.  “As customers’ purchasing behaviors evolve, the sales associate role must evolve with them,” the report rightly stated. It laid out primary salesperson tasks/skill sets:

  • POS assistance
  • Purchase selection assistance
  • Specialized product knowledge
  • Technology savvy
  • Brand ambassadorship

Today the top three most important responsibilities and skills of the sales associate are POS assistance, purchase selection assistance, and specialized product knowledge,” reported the survey respondents.  “As we look to the next three to five years, survey respondents pushed specialized product knowledge and brand ambassadorship to the top of the list, ahead of POS assistance, as a store employee’s most important roles.”  And the report predicted that, “Five or more years from now, the sales associate is expected to become a technologically-savvy brand ambassador with specialized product knowledge.

While this direction is absolutely on-target, there are some key tasks/skills missing from the report’s list of qualifications of the sales associate of tomorrow:

salesmanship – Retail salespeople need to be skilled in the art of selling, i.e., establishing rapport, explaining value, overcoming objections, etc. This may seem like a no-brainer, but with the current trends like reductions in training and moves away from commissioned sales, salesmanship at retail is becoming a lost art (see another post of mine on this subject.)

customer relationship building – In retail, salespeople are a critical piece of a company’s customer relationship management program.   A robust customer database is only valuable when it’s used, and not only by corporate folks.  Salespeople on the floor need to understand who their customers are, what their specific needs/wants/preferences are, how to provide personalized service, how to foster continued loyalty, etc.

customer ambassadors – Salespeople glean valuable insights about customers since they’re interacting face-to-face with them every day.  As such, they can serve as customer ambassadors to the company.  Fast fashion retailers like Zara use input from salespeople to inform product design.  Store layout, service policies, product quality, and assortment are other areas where salespeople’s perspectives are invaluable.  Companies need to train salespeople so they know how to integrate customer insights with company priorities when giving input, and they need to develop processes for incorporating salespeople insights into the company’s strategies and plans.

Rising labor costs are squeezing already thin margins and so retailers may feel a need to scale back on sales floor coverage, salesperson training, and infrastructure enhancements that help salespeople do their jobs effectively.  And with shiny new objects like mobile devices, augmented reality, and social shopping apps, retailers may be tempted to favor technology investments over people ones.

But it would be shortsighted to discount the importance of sales associates in the store of tomorrow.  The Deloitte report closes with a strong exhortation for retailers to revive their talent management strategies:

“As customers increasingly demand a more personalized experience, your sales associates become even more critical in achieving that goal. That means investing in your employees by providing the necessary skills, training, education, compensation, and career-development options to increase product and technical knowledge, among other skills. It also means equipping them with the right technology so they can easily and conveniently provide customers with instant product information, purchase history, or customer preferences. The renewed investment in the sales associate as a brand ambassador will bring back the confidence in retail as a profession, and convert browsers to buyers.”

In other words, a skilled salesperson could quite possibly be the final bastion against the showrooming trend that looms large over brick-and-mortar retailers.

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