Research illustrates that competency directly affects individual performance. And individual performance directly affects both operational and business outcomes. So every retailer wants competent sales assistants because garçons win at point of sale.
Competency links to the technology used and to the complexity of the goods being sold. A leather handbag retailing at £500 maybe sells itself to an affluent woman who places value on style. The link between function and benefit is simple for the sales assistant to elaborate. And there’s not much technology in the sales process either. But it’s not that simple for many other goods.
Let’s take an example. It was Saturday and my wife and I were in Runners Need. The sales assistant suggested a pair of running shoes for my wife. We mulled. He suggested some more. But we left without buying and headed for Sweatshop. The assistant there wasn’t prepared to sell us anything until he’d assessed her pronation, the degree of roll of her foot. This was done using a pad that took an imprint of each foot. The imprints were compared with references. And he wasn’t prepared to suggest shoes until she’d run on the treadmill and he’d viewed her running gait. And that was done with a computer, a camera and some on-screen lines as reference.
Once the technology had done its bit, the assistant selected shoes appropriate for her biomechanical characteristics. Along the way he’d prepared a pair of stability insoles. Now it was just down to style preference – we were at the same point as we were earlier looking at handbags. But it had taken significant sales assistant competency and about 40 minutes of his time to get us there.
On mobile phones
Let’s take another more involved example. Vodafone sold us a device to sustain mobile phone coverage within our firm during a period of network upgrade. But the device failed to ‘talk’ to our router and hence wouldn’t work.
We found this out after a period of 72 hours of trialling this-and-that and talking to Vodafone’s first line support.
Eventually we talked to Vodafone’s support specialists, who suggested that our router and modem may be using an unsupported protocol to communicate. Because we were using professional-grade kit, it turned out they were right.
We could go on. There’s a huge technical saga around the protocol discussion but the question is this, should we have expected the sales assistant to have had the competence to ask about our router and modem and advise us? The Vodafone forums were replete with howls of complaint over the protocol issue and all could have been avoided if sales assistants had greater competency in the products they were selling.
A consultative sell
Now there are many approaches to sales. One of the most favoured is the consultative approach. Here the sales assistant asks questions of the customer and informs them until eventually the customer says “So this product meets my needs? I’ll have one.” It’s more a form of order taking than selling.
For sales success, retailers must match product with the right sales approach. Runners Need did not use a consultative approach whereas Sweatshop did, with commensurate success.
So should all sales assistants be technology geeks?
Perhaps the question is summed up in a LinkedIn post, reputedly by Richard Branson, saying that Virgin Atlantic recruits on personality alone.
That might be true for jobs for which the average Joe or Joanna can be trained, like cabin assistants, but I’m fairly sure he’d want to know that the pilots in the cockpit could actually fly a plane before sending them an offer.
There are two types of competency. Task competency is having skill and knowledge in relevant technical subjects. Context competency is where Sir Richard’s focus aparently lies. Sales assistants need significant task competency centring on the technology that they will use in the sale and on the product they are selling. Retailers must increasingly recruit technicians. So-called ‘retail skills’ are one thing. Competency in technology is another.
Garçons and geeks
Perhaps the French have got it right? French waiters have huge competence in food and drink. They are famed for being able to advise ‘madame ét monsieur’ comprehensively before taking their order. The trade of garçon in France is high skill, well respected and well paid. Perhaps that’s the model for British sales assistants of the future.
For retailers to enjoy competitive advantage, they must focus on the task related competency of their sales assistants. If high-street retail is to survive in the face of online competition, retailers must enhance the buying experience. That experience comes from the sales assistant and their technology competence.