How to Train Retail Staff: 8 Pieces of Advice from the Pros

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

You may have heard this quote before (we’ll get to who said it in a moment). But probably not during a retail training session. As you’ll see below, that’s a huge oversight.

And it’s not the only one. When it comes to employee training, retail staff often get short-changed. Retail training is rarely as well thought-out and planned as training in other areas.

That’s bad for everyone.

Poorly trained retail staff may still meet their sales goals. But they’ll miss out on opportunities for upselling, cross-selling, and relationship-building.

With proper training, retail employees can be a credit to your company.

When you’re training retail staff, keep these eight points in mind. Both your retail staff and your customers will thank you.

1. Focus on a Service Attitude

Here’s where we come to the quote from above. Maya Angelou may have been talking about authorship, or art, but the idea holds in the retail industry.

Many discussions of retail training leave this concept out—even though it’s one of the central concepts of good sales. Providing great customer service helps differentiate your brand. That’s true if you’re selling Gucci or grapefruit.

Do you want lifelong repeat customers?

Then your retail employees need to make your patrons feel appreciated, valued, and important.

Cultivating a service attitude among retail employees begins before training, though. It should be one of the most important things you look for in your hiring process.

Attitude is difficult to teach. Hirees that already have the attitude you’re looking for makes the process easier.

SurveyMonkey lists eight requisite characteristics for great customer service:

  • empathy
  • patience
  • consistency
  • adaptability
  • clear communication
  • work ethic
  • knowledge
  • thick skin

Each step of your retail training should link to one of these concepts.

During retail trainings, regardless of your method or focus, be sure that customer service comes first.

2. Have a Plan to Maximize Effectiveness

This is especially important for smaller retailers. Even if you have plenty of retail training ideas, it’s easy to walk into a session with only a vague idea of what you’re going to cover. That minimizes the effectiveness of your training. Instead, have a concrete plan of what you’re going to teach.

For example, you might show a video of a great customer interaction, then have trainees roleplay to put those principles into action. After that, you might tell a story and have them roleplay again. Finally, each new employee could shadow an experienced retail staff member to see how they deal with daily issues.

This is a full day of training, and you may only have an hour. But you get the idea. No matter the format of your training, break it down into discrete sections that focus on one point.

Of course, not every company has the luxury of dedicating days or weeks to retail training. Sometimes salespeople get thrown in the deep end because there’s no other choice. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a plan. On-the-job training can benefit from planning, too.

It might take some creative thinking communicate the concepts to the trainee in a beneficial way. But if you have a specific set of goals, you can ensure that your training meets them.

3. Use Training Modules to Save Time

Large corporations have time to sufficiently train their salespeople. Smaller organizations will probably have to send them out to do their jobs before the full training is complete.

Modular training can be a big help in this endeavor. Set up training modules using your preferred learning management solution, and make it clear in which order they need to be completed in.

For example, you might start with product knowledge, then move to a module on good communication practices, then selling, then display creation. Your new staff member could start working after completing the first module. But they should make it a priority to complete the others as soon as they can, and in the preferred order.

The modules that you use should be tailored to your business. A bike shop might need a training module on bike fitting, for example. An art store could have a module on types of paint. An office supplier may have a module on upselling office equipment.

Another advantage of training modules is that shorter sessions of training result in better retention. It’s difficult to pay attention and learn for hours on end. Keep sessions short and simple.

4. Choose the Right Platform

There are lots of different ways you can deliver your training—and different methods that will suit your particular situation.

For example, retail workers are often on the move. And we find that they appreciate our mobile-friendly platform because they exclusively get training from their tablets. With a less mobile solution, their completion rates would be much lower.

Video is a great platform for training, because it boosts retention. It creates emotional connections with viewers and shares more information. It also lends itself to the creation of modules and easy distribution.

Find out how a video-based learning system can improve your retail training

However, while most people learn well from videos, it’s a good idea to provide text to supplement it.

And no matter what kind of training materials you use, actually putting the training into practice is the best way to help people remember it. Roleplaying with trainers and trainees helps solidify the concepts that you first share in video, lecture, or text.

Vary the methods you use throughout your training to maximize engagement and retention. If you’ve used several videos, try giving employees a quiz. Or assigning a reading. If you’ve been roleplaying, have employees take part in a company webinar.

The more variety you can provide, the better your employees will learn.

5. Continue Training After Onboarding

Training your employees right after they’re hired is great. But that shouldn’t be the end. In fact, it should be the beginning.

There are two different ways that you can make learning a continuous process. The first is to hold training events regularly. Many companies hold retreats or other events once or twice a year to check in with employees, build team spirit, and engage in more training.

These events are perfect to discuss new customer service practices, roleplay, and present new information on your product or service.

The second method is to offer an environment where learning can be continuous. A learning platform that offers training modules can be used outside of standard training times. Encourage employees to continue their professional development, and you might be surprised at how many do.

No matter which method you use for encouraging continuous learning, be sure to communicate that it’s a high priority. Setting high expectations and providing the resources employees need to meet them is a recipe for success.

6. Emphasize Flexibility (or Not)

Giving your retail staff the ability to make decisions for themselves is empowering. That empowerment leads to improved engagement and results. So be sure to let your retail employees know that they have the power to solve problems on their own.

At the same time, point out rules and practices that need to be followed. Your return policy might not be flexible, for example. Or you could let you employees give out discounts to customers, but never over a certain percentage.

Not every company policy is enforced with the same amount of rigor, and letting your employees know that upfront is helpful.

7. Be Clear About Expectations and Responsibilities

If you’ve ever gone through retail training, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced this scenario:

You run through some quick training; you’re given documents to read, or videos to watch, or just some advice. Then you’re thrown out onto the sales floor and expected to bring in money for the company.

But you have no idea what, exactly, you’re supposed to be doing. What are you aiming for? What are your goals? What are you responsible for in the company? In trying to figure all this out, you’re likely to either miss those goals or spend so much time figuring them out that you miss out on sales opportunities.

Solving this problem is easy: be very clear about your expectations for retail staff and their responsibilities.

One way that some companies make this easier on employees and management is to have scheduled check-ins after onboarding. You might meet 30 days after the employee has started to discuss how things are going and make sure that they’ve learned your point-of-sale system.

Then, 60 days after start, you can make sure that their product knowledge is satisfactory. After 90 days, maybe you want them to have made a certain number of sales or built up a list of clients.

Whatever the goals are, they should be tailored to your business and communicated to the employee. This is a lot like the process for onboarding a CxO: you’ve hired a capable person that will have a positive effect on your business. But they need to have guidance on what they should be doing in the beginning.

Goals and scheduled check-ins create the structure that helps people succeed.

8. Give Constructive Feedback

Absorbing information is only part of learning. Trying, failing, experimenting, and getting feedback are also crucial parts of the process. Give your retail staff space to put their learning into action, try new things, and experiment with sales techniques. Then give them feedback (or pair them with an experienced member of your retail staff to do the same).

Feedback can be given on many different training methods; roleplaying is one of the most common in retail training. But shadowing, assessment questions, and any other interactive training method can be improved with feedback.

This is crucial: be sure that feedback is constructive.

Simply criticizing someone’s actions or telling them they could have done a better job won’t cut it. Read this guide to giving constructive feedback to learn how to do it from the pros.

Invest in Retail Training and See a Return

You might think that all these changes to your training process are going to take a lot of time. And you’re right. Improving your training system or creating a new one is time- and effort-intensive.

But the return on investment can be big. Your retail staff is the front line of your business. They deal with customers every day, and their interactions can create lifelong repeat customers. Or they can create angry Twitter users out to raise hell.

Which would you rather have?

Focus on a service attitude throughout training.  Make sure trainees are given the resources they need to constantly improve. If you can do those two things, you’ll be setting them (and your company) up for success.

Dann is a long-time freelance writer with a passion for doing more with less. He writes about productivity and efficiency for businesses of all sizes.