Are You Missing These 4 Key Training Principles That Lead To Retail Success?

By Bob Phibbs



I was tired after my 12-hr journey to get home. I called and ordered a pizza from the local Italian restaurant. While I was a bit annoyed I had to repeat myself several times, I was told it would be ready in 15 min.

When I got there 15 minutes later, I went to the counter and asked for my pizza. I had to repeat the order and my name twice.

The counter girl yelled back to another girl with blonde hair, “Do you have the ½ meat lovers, ½ Hawaiian for Fibs?” The blonde looked at the boxes, said No and asked a guy next to her when it would be out. He shrugged his shoulders.

After another 15 minutes, I returned to the counter and asked, “Where is my pizza? I ordered it over 30 minutes ago.” The girl with the blonde hair asked me for my name again, scanned the boxes, then started opening them, finally closed one and handed it to me. “Here you go.” It didn’t have my name on the outside of the box.

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“Wait a minute,” I said. “I’ve been standing here for 15 minutes and you had it all along?” She retorted, “You can’t speak to me that way. It wasn’t my fault.”

At this point, I should let you know there were at least eight other teenagers also behind the counter, their faces looking like confused Meerkats. What did he say? Who’s going to respond? Am I in trouble? they were all wondering.

The cashier jumped in, “We’re all in training.”

“Don’t care,” I said. I asked the blonde, “Can I speak to a manager?” Now the employees all turned to one young woman who was only a bit older – I assume some type of a shift lead.

While she was less than 8 feet in front of me, she stayed in front of a pizza she was making and asked the blonde, “What does he want?” The girl replied, “He had to wait for his pizza, and now he wants to talk to a manager.”

The shift lead finally looked up from making the pizza long enough to ask me, “Do you want a credit or for us to remake it?" 

“Nevermind,” I said as I took my almost-cold pizza and left with the cashier’s words we’re all in training echoing in my ears.

No, they were not in training. They were in catch-as-catch-can, use whatever methods or instincts they could. That is not training.

What is training?

Training is a detailed program built on four fundamentals:

  • Excellent knowledge.
  • Practice.
  • Role-playing.
  • Accountability.

It’s time we be honest, retailers. You’re not training retail sales staff until you’ve taken the time to craft a process and drill on that process.

Until then, you’re merely exposing employees to materials.

It’s like you just watching a golf game and then saying, “I know how to play golf.” 

It’s like you watching The Great British Baking Show and thinking you can open a shop making wedding cakes.

Exposure is not training.

I run into this many times when talking with prospective clients about SalesRX, my virtual retail training program. There are other sales training programs out there promising effortless and easy; a set and forget system.

But training takes work. It takes commitment, and it takes accountability. 

But many retailers from the largest chains to the smallest boutiques no longer hold employees accountable.

They’ll let sloppy employees make shoppers repeat themselves.

They’ll let bored employees stand behind the counter, hands firmly on their phone, looking towards their crotch while shoppers mill about their department. 

You know the joke?

Supervisors will say, “Well, they were trained!”

No they weren’t.

Someone exposed them to a dusty old employee manual or had them watch a DVD or YouTube video, or had a trainer work with them to learn on the job for one shift. 

None of that is training. It is still only exposure.

And that’s why so many retailers approach training as something to get through, rather than master.

Training is something you do, not something you did.

Just trying to get someone on the salesfloor, rather than trying to get someone on the salesfloor who is trained, has led many customers to have similar experiences to what I had in the pizza shop.

Would you get in an Uber without knowing the driver had a license? I doubt it. 

Would you trust a restaurant that had failed a health inspection? I doubt it. 

Here’s what it takes to make sure every employee, both new and seasoned, are trained.

Here are 4 proven techniques to help you conduct a successful retail sales training program:

1. Great knowledge. You can’t have a successful training program unless you have a sales process that is easily duplicatable. The best training materials will come from someone who has actually sold merchandise in a retail store. I have that experience, and I am shocked by the level of inefficient materials out there put together by people who have never actually sold a product in a store before. Because they’ve never worked in an employee’s shoes to sell the merchandise, they come up with retail training modules filled with platitudes like we value every guest and poor directions so associates never understand what their expected behaviors are supposed to actually look like.

2. Practice. Repetition is the key. You can watch someone make bread but until you learn that mixing the ingredients out of order gives you different results, you won’t be able to be consistent. Breaking your training down to bite-sized pieces so employees can have quick wins while practicing each basic piece lays a foundation of creating an exceptional experience. 

It’s a balance between sharing new information on new retail sales training topics and allowing the time to practice each one. There should be no shame in the associate taking lessons over and over until they can duplicate it on the salesfloor without thinking. We call that being unconsciously competent.


3. Role-play. Once employees have been through a lesson and have begun to master it, they need to have the ability to think on their feet. That’s where role-play comes in. The What if someone came in with x and did y? role-play only works if you have given them a foundation of what an exceptional experience looks like. Otherwise, you end up with Meerkats doing the best they can without a compass, just like my experience in the pizza store. 

Role-play is best used by writing down a scenario for one employee to act out. This can work well in a morning huddle where you pick two employees to role-play while the rest of the crew watches. Afterwards, you debrief and discuss how they did. Your main interest is to see, even if you throw them a bit of a curve, the selling process is intact. Until it is, your employees are still untrained. 

4. Accountability. How will you know if they actually understood and learned the concepts? How do you hold them accountable? During the initial sales training lessons, you must ask questions throughout to make sure they understand key points. You also have to test them at the end of each lesson to certify their knowledge. But just testing isn’t enough. And you can’t, like many retailers do, settle for just showing them a training video; you have to hold them accountable for what was taught through testing and then again where it matters...on the salesfloor.

For example, if you train that after every purchase, associates are to walk around the counter and deliver the purchase while saying Thank you and offering a farewell that invites the shopper back every time, and the associate only does it occasionally, that associate is not trained.

That employee is still simply exposed to the training; they have been shown what to do but aren’t doing it.

For that reason, your store culture mantra must be that training with accountability never stops. And if they can’t hold themselves to being accountable for what you trained, then you hold them accountable by letting them go. Period.

See also, 5 Employee Training Methods For Slow Times

In Sum

We’re in training season right now. Unemployment is way down. Consumer confidence is way up. Gen Z is reported to be eager to shop in brick and mortar retailers just like Baby Boomers.

Unless you seriously approach training with great knowledge, practice, role-play, and accountability, your crew will be Meerkats, unable to deliver the sales you need to compete with online retailers. That's because their aversion to selling and customer service will dictate how they engage your customers.

If you’d like to discuss how my innovative retail sales training techniques - the same training that increased a luxury watch retailer’s sales 21%, the same training that received the highest increase from the number one mall in America, and the same training major brands have used for years with their dealer networks - let’s make a date to discuss training programs for retail employees and your unique needs for your brand.

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