Retail Staff Training in Today’s World

Your sales associates are your store’s best asset. We’ve got seven tips for training them properly to make the most of their skill.

Retail Staff Training in Today’s World

Photo by John Hafner

In today’s uber-competitive retail world, the days of hiring a friend’s son or daughter “just because” are over. Each and every employee must be motivated to do whatever it takes to satisfy the customer. Few come to work with the requisite skills. Here are seven tips, modified from, on how you can turn them into your shop’s No. 1 asset.


1) Hire for attitude, not skill.

Simply stated, you can hire nice people and teach them to sell, but you cannot hire salespeople and teach them to be nice. That’s why it pays to hire trainable individuals with a positive disposition and attitude — they’re much easier to train if they already share your values than it is to modify someone’s bad attitude that will quickly turn off customers. As Oddball so profoundly said in the classic movie Kelly’s Heroes, “Why don’t you knock it off with the negative waves?”


2) Get to know each employee.

In our industry, it really helps if in-store associates are hunting and shooting enthusiasts. Be sure to ask them about their in-the-field and on-the-range experience level. This will help you know what motivates them, and also fill you in on how much specific product knowledge training will be required.


3) Teach incrementally.

Most people learn best when using several methods over time. For example, first you can verbally explain a technique or skill, then let the employee read about it in a manual, then maybe watch a YouTube video and/or have it demonstrated personally to them, then perhaps do some quick role playing. This becomes doubly important when teaching how to use a POS system or taking inventory. When it comes to customer service, verbally teach about company policies, reinforce the information through handouts, then practice everything by role playing.


4) The importance of role playing.

Sales is serious business, and employee sales skills can become markedly improved if you can make it a game by role playing. It can bring staid, boring conversations about customer service, closing a sale, and upselling to life, helping turn on the lightbulb that says, “OK, now I get it!” And it doesn’t have to be formal. Watch your staff interacting with customers, then in between customers, re-enact sales conversations that didn’t produce a sale. Keep it casual and positive, and do it privately, with no judgment. In a store I once worked at, the manager would do a staff role-playing session before the store opened where we would act out what not to do. He would focus on one specific situation and kept it light, but it loosened everyone up and got everyone thinking about sales and how we could all get better.

5) No one stays the same.

As a professional fitness trainer told me, every day, his athletes are either getting stronger, or they are falling behind. To him, there is no such thing as treading water. One goal should be to encourage employees to strive for continuous improvement. Just because a training session ends doesn’t mean it should be forgotten. This can be simply defined by TQM, or Total Quality Management, developed by William Deming, a management consultant whose work had a great impact on Japanese manufacturing. TQM is the continual process of detecting and reducing or eliminating errors in manufacturing, streamlining supply chain management, improving customer experiences, and ensuring that employees are up to speed with training. TQM aims to hold all parties involved in the business accountable for the overall quality of the final product or service.


6) Flexible enforcement.

Motivated employees want to be heard and have their ideas for improvement considered. While rules that you train employees on are necessary to keep staff in line and make sure there is consistency in the way you operate, there may be some areas where flexibility is not only possible, but a good option. Empowered employees who can use their judgment and skills to forge creative solutions can be a big benefit to any business. This is especially true when it comes to customer service. If the base principle of your store is to service the customer and make them happy, within reason of course, allowing employees to solve customer problems creatively while maintaining the core principles of the business can be a win-win for everyone.


7) Recognize your strengths and weaknesses.

Sales training is not for everyone. If that isn’t one of your strong points, you might seek some outside help. Can you delegate it to another employee or manager with skills in this area? And do not overlook vendors. Many years ago I was a consultant for W.L. Gore & Associates, makers of Gore-Tex. At the time they were just starting to be a player in the hunting business, but found that because technologically-advanced Gore-Tex products cost a lot more than competitor’s products, it was necessary to teach retail sales staff about why this was so. So I would travel to major retailers like Cabela’s with another Gore employee and conduct training sessions on both the scientific benefits of a Gore-Tex membrane, and how wearing Gore-Tex garments in the field helped improve hunter efficiency and comfort. These training sessions were conducted at no cost to the retailer and helped staff intelligently sell the product.

How do you keep your staff trained and motivated? Drop me a note at, I’d love to hear about it, and share it with our readers.


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