“How To Get Employee Sales Training To Stick” by Bob Phibbs (The Retail Doctor)

“How To Get Employee Sales Training To Stick” by Bob Phibbs (The Retail Doctor)

Customers go online to buy – frequently replacement purchases – but go to stores to discover. That moment of discovery needs to be crafted, trained, and rewarded because customers respond to a human trusted advisor more deeply than to any webpage.

These days the decision between a shopper choosing to visit your store over an online competitor lies in your employees’ ability to know exactly what to say, when to say it, and how to make it count.

I call it a branded shopping experience.

With fewer employees on your sales floor and shoppers returning to physical stores, you can’t let your retail staff wing it over and over again and expect to survive.

While the history of retail was built on product knowledge, today that former ace in the hole is available online. You know yourself, you start the search for something worth more than a few bucks on the web to learn as much as you can, uncover reviews, and compare offers.

The ace in the hole for physical stores now must be how to engage strangers.

And if those employees can’t talk to strangers, how will they ever use any of their product knowledge to sell your goods? They won’t. And the merchandise will sit until it is marked down.

Discover how to create a winning retail sales strategy here

So if your training is not focused on people knowledge first but is solely focused on product knowledge, you’re missing the boat.

The skills of engaging a stranger is not intuitive nor is it easy.

80% of shoppers entering your store have already researched the features of your products online. And the other 20% will do it on your sales floor or after they leave without buying from you.

Many retailers avoid training because they’ve never seen the value of it and only see it as a cost, not an asset. Or they half-heartedly tried something once but couldn’t get their employees to do it.

Brian Tracy said it best, “95% of everything you think, feel, and achieve is the result of habits.”

And habits are why most sales training programs fail…  

In retail, an associate’s cup is filled to the brim with what they’ve been taught to say to a customer – both right or wrong.

That cup is also filled with a host of learned responses the associate has received from shoppers. They’ve heard everything from the polite, Just looking to complete silence.

And their brain (cup) holds all of their own bad shopping experiences, from clerks who ignored them to those greeters who parrot the same empty How are you today?

And that cup is topped off with their previous employer training or lack thereof.

That full-to-the-brim cup has determined their habits of engaging or not engaging with your shoppers.

Here’s the thing…you cannot put new training on top of their full cup as there is no room. It will metaphorically run over and that missed opportunity will produce nothing but frustration.

So how can retail sales training stick to your employees?

Here are five ways to get training to stick:

1. You must poke holes in the learner’s stockpile of reactions to make room for a new perspective.

You must ask them to notice how their shoppers respond to their rote questions: Can I help you? or Looking for something special?

Many times, your associate has fallen into a rut and their mind has stopped. They might have learned all shoppers hate being greeted. You must tell them, No, they don’t.

You must get the point across, What if we could greet customers a better way? Would you be interested in learning how?

When they say yes, you’ve made space for training.

But you can’t pour all the correct information on them with a fire hose. You’re trying to alter their behavior, and a fire hose will just drown them.

That’s how many training programs fail miserably, but you also can’t train employees by exposing them to rapid doses of information and expect them to both understand and change their habits.

If that were the case, anyone could play baseball like Derek Jeter just by watching him throw a ball.

If that were the case, showing someone a D Major scale would make them a Billy Joel on piano.

But in both cases, it doesn’t.

Again, you must first make room for the new learning.

2. Extinguish bad behavior by calling them out on it.

You can’t stop bad behavior like greeting a shopper with Can I help you? by just telling someone to stop. You must help the learner see that what they have been doing is not working.

They must unlearn the bad behavior and get the old behavior to stop driving the show. In the training world, this is known as extinction.

And make no mistake, when it comes to new learning, few employees empty their own cup of habits.

In fact, most hold tightly onto that full cup. It’s their false sense of job security.

That’s because new learning will mean new expectations that they might be unable to meet. That causes stress.

Associates need an outside source, a manager or training leader, to helpfully force them to empty their bad habit cup.

That will give them enough space for new learning to have a fighting chance.

3. Present new, bite-size learning.

Then you give them bite-sized nuggets of what you want them to do and how you want them to do it. One point with deliverables.

This is where thousands find my invaluable to their retail sales training system.

But again, simply knowing the correct information isn’t enough.

4. Role play off the sales floor to increase comprehension and confidence.

The new learning must then be role-played and met with success in order for enough synapses to fire and start a new path to the new learning.

5. Give time between lessons for the new learning to sink in.

Make no mistake, the old superhighway of the wrong way will still be easy to revert back to over the one-lane road of the new learning.

That’s why you need to give learners enough time and practice to try out their new fragile skills away from real shoppers, so the new learning can take hold.

That’s why someone has to manage the training.

There is no set and forget training.


Someone must inspect what is expected or nothing changes.

And that person must know what the new learning should look like themselves. From that, they can see the muscle memory of the body and hear the voice when the learner reverts to what is familiar, not what they just learned.

See also, Is SalesRX Online Retail Sales Training Right For My Stores?

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In Sum

The fundamental question your retail sales training must answer for the learner is: Where should I be and what should I do?

Most training is thought of as something to get through so the trainer can move on and proclaim success.

In order to alter the behavior of your retail associates, you must approach learning in a methodical way, look at training as ongoing, and not consider training as something you do once

Great employees never want to stop learning even if it takes multiple exposures to rid themselves of bad selling habits.

We are pleased to announce that the Retail Doctor (who has contributed to BRA with outstanding articles like this one and so many others that we have reposted over the past twelve months) recently contributed to BRA monetarily and is now a Supporting Vendor Partner of BRA. We value his relevant retail insight and encourage you to learn more about his offerings on his website:

– Doug Works, Executive Director BRA

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