Don’t sell, help customers buy

Retail selling is one of the toughest jobs amongst white collar workers. To be effective, sales staff must be able to develop a relationship with strangers who distrust them, in the first twenty seconds of meeting them. Unfortunately for customers and retailers in Fiji, this generally not the case; customers are either overwhelmed or ignored as a standard approach.

Fiji is not alone in having poorly trained and poorly motivated sales staff. However, for a country reliant on tourism as major driver of foreign earnings, gross domestic product, jobs and government revenue, it is more important for retail sales staff to be skilled and motivated in their roles.

An insight for managers and sales staff which is often missing from the standard approach to sales is that their role is to help customers through their buying process, rather than to push potential customers through a sales process.

Surveys show that the inherent distrust that retail sales people are held in is driven by the experience of customers with sales men and women who operate at the slick or smooth end of the range of sales processes one can observe.

At one end of the spectrum lie used car salesmen, real estate agents and funeral parlour operators. Before I offend some friends in those professions, that is to say the impression that people have of these professions is of a slick, pushy, process which people feel leaves them worse off than they could have been.

At the other end of the scale are no particular groups, just experiences where individual companies or people have provided customers and potential customers with a buying experience that causes them to want to come back again and more importantly, as the old statistic goes, to tell ten of their friends.

For customers wanting to purchase a non trivial item, a buying process can be clearly identified. For trivial items, the process happens without thinking and is harder to observe.

The buying process begins with customers understanding that they have a need and their search for a supplier. The stimulation for that need may have come from the obsolescence of an existing item through to envy for a significant one off, high value, purchase. At this stage, two groups are responsible for directing the potential customer to a particular retail store. The marketers and the people involved in the previous sale, delivery, installation or warranty issue drive most of the customers to or away from a retail outlet.

The next phase of the buying process involves the sales person directly. Customers seek people they can trust. Trust is enabled by the presence of one or more of three elements.

The first is a third party reference, a friend or relative who has had a good experience. The second is through the presence of strong brands, which may be the retail outlet brand or the brands they stock.

The third is the ambience of the store which comes from the merchandising of the store and the apparent attitude of the sales person. If trust is not developed at this stage, then a sale is unlikely, unless prices are reduced.

Trust can be developed or broken with the opening line. The opening line “how can I help you?” is so lame that a best selling sales book carries the usual response phrase “no thanks, I’m just looking” as its title.

However, when the Hong Kong Sevens are on next week, a simple reference to a player, the fate of the team, the rights and wrongs about the appointment of the coach, posed as a question, will more often than not start a conversation. Conversations engender trust and allow sales people to ask questions. Asking open questions which cannot be answered with a yes or no engenders trust. The opposite, closed questions, when strangers first meet, sound like and feel like an interrogation.

Good sales people know how to start a conversation in the fifty one weeks of the year when the Hong Kong Sevens are not being played.

The next phase is where the traditional sales approach kicks in. From the buying process view it is the determination of value. From the sales approach it is the demonstration of value. Customers who have developed trust in the sales person will place an unconscious premium on the relationship when it comes to considering perceived price versus perceived value.

Unfortunately, in many cases in Fiji, no trust is developed and the determination of value is a straight out contest of wills over price, rather than a trust building buying experience. This may be good for egos, but not for repeat purchases or reputation.

For their own longevity and for the good of Fiji, retailers and sales people need to think of themselves as assisting buyers rather than pushing sales and build their skills accordingly.

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