The Retail Training Imperative for the Next Normal

As brick-and-mortar stores begin to reopen after state stay-at-home orders lift, those overseeing sales teams have the task of creating a welcoming and safe experience for customers.

Experts in the retail industry agree it will be a challenge—and one in which improved training for retail associates will be a priority. Regardless of where stores are located and what they sell, the associates who are on the front line of customer interactions are the ones who can either ease concerns or exacerbate them.

As the economy rebounds, public perception of brands and their sales teams must be rooted in strong customer service. Adjusted sales methods will be needed to meet the new expectations resulting from the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Retail associate training must take on an increased level of importance and incorporate new training elements that address the requirements of this next normal.

Sanitation with a Smile

In a recent survey gauging consumer behavior, McKinsey & Company reported that one-fourth of customers expect companies will take care of their employees with new protective protocols such as barriers, the use of masks, and enhanced cleaning routines.

These procedures help keep employees healthy while allowing customers to also feel safe. That means associate training needs to be reworked from a top-down vocabulary of “mask mandates” into opportunities for customer service.

Change the tone from cleaning directives, which can feel menial for associates, to the fostering of a desire to create a compassionate, supportive environment. If an employee is unhappy about protective measures, that will likely influence a consumer just as much as if no mask was worn.

In times of social distancing, relationships are more important than ever. A friendly attitude and a commitment to sanitation is a winning combination that must be included in new training offerings.

Technological Solutions

The National Retail Federation recently heard from many industry leaders that they don’t consider permanent barriers to be the answer. Instead, new technology should be integrated into traditional brick-and-mortar stores for more contact-free shopping. Brands and retailers now have an opportunity to be innovative as they evolve to meet the needs of their consumers.

Associates will require training on technologies such as mobile apps, touchless kiosks, voice recognition software, and touch-free payment systems such as Apple Pay and Google Pay. While these services are slowly integrating into the modern retail experience, they’re still new to many Americans.

At the same time, the American buying public can anticipate more virtual and augmented experiences at store locations. For example, virtual fitting experiences may replace the act of taking armloads of clothing into dressing rooms. But technology will only be the answer if the on-floor retail team is comfortable and experienced with serving a supporting role as the modernization rolls out.

Time-Saving Strategies

With people throughout the world having stayed home for weeks on end during the lockdown, many remain uncomfortable with the idea of spending a lot of time outside their houses. In some parts of the world, such a large percentage of consumers remain uncomfortable with going about their regular out-of-home activities that a “homebody economy” has developed.

All this means that customer service must now include creating ways to reduce the time consumers are in the store—without sacrificing sales. By putting customers first, managers and department heads can develop a number of policies that are clear, time-saving, and easy to implement through associate training.

Curbside Pick-Up

Service should not stop just because the associate is exiting the store. Training should include clear instructions for how to safely deliver products to the curb in a way that represents the brand. Consider the marketing and service opportunities available when rethinking packaging and communication during the act of this increasingly common activity throughout the industry. What does the way in which the associate approaches a customer’s car, engages with the customer, and exits the exchange say about the brand? Even if an in-person “thank you” cannot be given, could a consistent smile with one’s eyes and a friendly wave before leaving the customer interaction become a brand-differentiating experience?

Cashless Checkouts

Cash is no longer king, as more and more consumers are preferring to use touch-free, cashless checkouts. Many retailers have transitioned to totally cash-free systems to reduce touchpoints throughout the retail process.

It is crucial for associates to be trained to seamlessly manage the technologies surrounding cash-free transactions. At the same time, the use of cash-free systems can come with its own unique problems. Associates should be prepared for any obstacle during a sale.

Samples by Request

Gone are the days of open tables where consumers can sample food or beauty supplies. That hasn’t stopped shoppers from appreciating an opportunity to try a product for free, however. The National Retail Federation has stressed that samples still help secure sales. Offering samples by request, much like at an ice cream shop, can keep customers feeling safe while still allowing them to try before they buy.

Training associates to respect social distancing while offering samples or other try-before-you-buy offerings can create new opportunities for quality customer interactions and product demonstration.

Enhanced Expectations for Professionalism and Brand Consistency

A welcome side effect of the pandemic is a greater expectation of professionalism throughout the industry. A well-trained team of professional associates will be the make-or-break factor when it comes to recreating trust with customers.

McKinsey & Company notes that customers “want a resource they can trust, that can make them feel safe when everything seems uncertain, and that offers support when so much seems to be overwhelming.” A knowledgeable and confident team goes a long way toward building that trust.

In this environment, brand is ever more important. Although the shopping experience may look and feel different than it did in the past, consumers will continue to expect an on-brand experience. When brands demonstrate that they are still the same as they were while also acknowledging that they have adapted to the new normal, they gain trust and win the hearts and minds of their customers.

To this end, training must ensure that associates have an in-depth understanding of the values and underlying mission of the brand. Even in altered retail environments, delivering a consistent and authentic brand experience is critical. Training that reinforces brand attributes and connects them to specific actions ensures that associates act on-brand at every point in their customer interactions.

Three-Way Communication

According to industry experts, communication will perhaps be the defining factor of a retailer’s ability to thrive in a post-COVID-19 environment. Brands must be able to share their messaging with consumers in a way that is authoritative yet welcoming and on-brand. Associates must also feel confident that they are supported.

To that end, communication streams must be open not just from the top-down, but from associates to decision-makers as well. New training opportunities can be a time to listen to the concerns of associates as communities reopen and return to shopping. If there are improvements to signage or store design that might facilitate improvements, associates may be the ones to know first.

Communication streams need to be open to consumers as well. They must be made to feel comfortable expressing their concerns or ideas—and they’re often expressing them directly to associates. Train the retail team to share the ideas or concerns they hear so that improvements can be made. With communication as a three-way process, relationships are strengthened.

Replacing Fear with Hope

New training must include working directly with associates to overcome any fears they may have, and ensuring that they exude confidence to the customers they serve. This is particularly important as research shows that positive and engaged employees will generate positive and engaged customers.

Psychologists believe that people can “catch” the moods of others, almost like they’d catch a cold. It happens because human beings unintentionally copy the expressions and nonverbal behaviors of the people around them. They internalize those feelings and pass them on to others.

It’s a cyclical process, and it means that your customers pick up on the moods and attitudes of your sales team. If you’re a brand and you’re sending a representative into a retail store, you want them going in with a good attitude about their jobs and the product. You want them to be excited and to pass that excitement on to the people they meet in stores.

Brands and retailers know that successful salespeople excite and delight the customer. They know that a smiling employee is ideal. The lesson of emotional contagion is that the smile isn’t enough. There has to be genuine enthusiasm and engagement.

A Final Word

There are a number of reasons why retail and brand associates receive training. From brand and product orientation to retail selling and operations skills, solid training is essential to an organization’s sales and profits. In our post-COVID-19 environment, training is taking on a new and even more critical role. Whether safeguarding their own safety and that of customers or delivering online purchases to a customer’s car, associates are a brand’s human expression. Providing the training needed to assure that their associates deliver quality brand experiences—especially in this next normal—will give retailers and brands alike a team that contributes to their continued success.