training sales associates

Training Antiques Sales Associates to Succeed

I get a big kick out of my fellow auctioneers. Some of them (especially the newbies) think that auctioneers are such great salesmen. Wherever auctioneers gather, you will see a few of them assembled telling “war stories” and comparing notes about what they and others have sold. At some point in the conversation, someone will proclaim “(insert name here) was a great salesman! He could sell anything!”

Give me a break. How hard is it, really, to stand in front of a crowd, call bids and declare an item sold to the highest bidder, regardless of the price? Such sales are pre-ordained. In a no-reserve auction, every auctioneer is a great salesman. In an auction with reserves, successful selling depends on many factors outside of the control of the auctioneer: the item, the reserve amount, the size of the crowd and the number of items to be auctioned. In an estate with 600 lots to be sold, an auctioneer will sell a lot roughly every 20 seconds. There’s not much time for a big sales pitch. The “art” to auctioneering is what happens before the auction: the marketing, set-up and flow.

You want to see a great salesperson? Watch a business-to-business salesperson sitting across a desk from a small business owner who has deep pockets but very short arms. Those salespeople earn their money.

Retail sales associates are generally poor sales people

I have a very low tolerance for poor salespeople, and most retail sales associates are poor salespeople. When I walk into a retail store of any kind, my service expectations are so low that when I find a sales associate with a modicum of knowledge I am very impressed.

I’m not alone in this opinion. The Wharton School’s Jay H. Baker Retail Initiative has released its second annual Retail Customer Dissatisfaction Study, and the results are not surprising. The study found that poorly prepared and disinterested salespeople lead to more lost business than any other retailing issue.

Wharton marketing professor Stephen J. Hoch, director of the Baker Initiative, says, “There are a variety of different triggers for having a bad shopping experience, including things like parking or how well the store is organized. Some of those things retailers can do something about and some of them they can’t. But frankly, a very important part of the retail experience is the interaction with the sales associate.”

In the Initiative’s telephone survey, 1,000 shoppers were asked to describe their most recent retail experience. Thirty-three percent of these shoppers described their experience as being so bad that they would never again shop in that particular store. Why? Because they couldn’t find a salesperson to help them. According to the Wharton analysis, unresponsive sales associates cost American retailers 6 percent of their customers. Add to that the 25 percent of consumers reporting they were ignored outright by sales associates – no greeting, no smile, no eye contact – it becomes clear that American retailing has a serious problem.

Therein lies an opportunity for conscientious antiques and collectibles dealers. Well-prepared and engaging retail sales associates are so uncommon these days that with a little effort, your store can quickly gain a reputation for outstanding customer service. Happy customers are repeat customers. Repeat customers build strong and profitable businesses.

Here are a few tips on how to turn your sales associates into your biggest asset:

Give your sales associates a reason to care about making sales. No matter what you’re paying them, sales associates quickly learn that they don’t make a dime more when they work hard to make extra sales. As a group, your associates observe each other, and soon performance shrinks to the level of the lowest common denominator. Your people learn to do just enough work to keep from getting fired, but not enough to maximize your sales and their potential. The solution: Give your sales associates an incentive to sell more.

Let each associate know (in writing) what you expect them to achieve for the money you pay them, and what bonus they can earn for exceeding their sales goals. Incentives should be tailored to the individual; not everyone will be motivated by a dinner for two, a week at the beach or a cruise. Some associates will be motivated by cash; others by recognition (parking space or plaque) and others by tuition help or a pre-paid gas card. Find out what they desire and use that information to motivate them.

Give your sales associates product knowledge. This doesn’t have to be done by the owner; his “to-do” list is too big already. One successful dealer holds a mandatory training session weekly, and each week assigns a different associate to conduct the session. Session topics are specific to a particular category: collectible glass, furniture, advertising, (whatever is in inventory) and covers points of connoisseurship. Assignments are made a month in advance, so each associate has time to prepare his material. The “teaching” associate gets a bonus ($25) for teaching the session. In this scenario, associates learn to train each other.

Train your sales associates in selling skills. This doesn’t have to be the old-fashioned, arm-twisting type of salesmanship; in fact, it’s better if it’s not. Perhaps a better term to use might be engagement skills: How and when to approach a customer, engage them in conversation, discover their needs, direct them to a product and answer their questions.

The key to effective salesmanship is to use questions to uncover what the customer values, and then present a product to them that fits their need. Each customer has her own agenda, and it’s important for an associate to discover that agenda and use it to help the customer.

Perhaps the best book I’ve read on how to do this is “Why People Don’t Buy Things: Five Proven Steps To Connect With Your Customers And Dramatically Improve Your Sales” (Basic Books, 2000, ISBN: 978-0738201573) by Harry Washburn and Kim Wallace. Though not written specifically for retail selling, the principles and procedures outlined work well and are helpful.

Track your conversion rate. Know how many customers came into your store in a given time period, and how many of those customers made purchases (number of sales divided by number of customers equals the conversion rate). You’ll know that you’re doing a better job serving your customers when your conversion rate goes up.

Wharton’s Stephen J. Hoch describes the ideal retail sales associate as being an engager, an educator, an expeditor and a person who is seen as “authentic.” When your sales associates acquire those traits, your sales will surely rise. Then you will pleased if they stand around the water cooler and, like auctioneers, brag about their sales.

Previously published in Antique Trader Magazine

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