Years ago manufacturers of retail products had one path – especially for more complex sales of things like luxury watches, cameras, hot tubs - or even flooring.
They would bring in dealers – or call on them directly with knowledgeable sales representatives - and give them all the knowledge they had along with their marketing materials.
Those dealers were to carry the knowledge back from the brand direct to their stores.
From there the retailer would be charged with making sure his or her crew understood all the parameters of the brand from its’ history, to the methods of manufacturing and, of course, all the specifications.
In time these highly knowledgeable retail salespeople became veritable geniuses when it came to a brand’s products.
Those product knowledge specialists were revered, prized, and compensated for their extreme knowledge.
Some even called them brand ambassadors before the phrase was used to include anyone with a smartphone.
That’s all changed…
All of that product knowledge …and then some…can now be found online.
Those unique product specs can be judged and reviewed by everyone from the best writer for Mashable to some blogger with Cheetos fingers.
What used to be a retailers’ defining unique selling proposition has become a commodity.
And that’s a big problem for retailers …
The very things these retailers and brands were built on – product knowledge - are now readily available with a casual Siri search.
And it gets worse…
Because those product specialists were used to having people turn to them for the knowledge, instead of them having to engage a customer first, those specialists' soft skills atrophied.
The very qualities those product geniuses scorned about other employees who were too general about products are now what’s most needed.
In a world where information is everywhere, you need the generalist who can unearth the hidden opportunities BEFORE trying to pitch the features of a product. They help a customer relax and be open to possibilities. They become a trusted advisor who can promise to find the perfect product for that unique individual.
Your salespeople have to be able to connect the specific reasons a customer will find thatproduct the perfect answer to their needs and wants.
And not just vomit a litany of specifications which can make a visitor to their jewelry shop, their camera shop, their flooring store or their hot tub store, feel stupid.
When shopper Meghan comes in looking for product X because Jane’s Boffo Blog said it was the bomb, you need someone who can understand that just because Meghan asked for it – especially if you don’t have it – doesn’t mean you can’t get the sale.
Your specialists can actually thwart the shopper who was interested enough to drive out of their way to your brick and mortar store looking to buy what you sell.
That’s because when a shopper meets a specialist, that specialist’s innate knowledge can add complexity. They can offer too many choices and features.
In essence they can make the simple, more complex.
They’ll ask a bunch of questions trying to analyze exactly what the customer wants. While that might work well if I’m comparing a Nikon D800 to a Canon EOS Mark III, it’s too soon in the sales process for that.
Think of it like the guy who knows all about the ins and outs of a complex boardgame but exhibits none of the fun of actually playing the game.
Also, specialists without a good foundation of retail sales training can’t pivot and keep an interaction jargon-free.
Think of it like a saleswoman who can identify all the points about what makes a diamond special without first connecting to how it will make the wearer feel.
You need the generalities first...
What in general were they looking to do with the product?
What have they found in an online search?
You get the idea…
Once a salesperson builds trust that they will be able to get the customer what they came in for – maybe even better - then you can pivot to the specifics.
But in-between building trust and before pivoting to reams of product knowledge, the salesperson needs to use their product knowledge wisdom to be able to compare and contrast in a friendly manner.
The exceptional retailer will be able to train their specialists to be able to engage a shopper and build rapport without waiting for the customer to come to them for the specifics.
As Peter Smith, author of Hiring Squirrels commented, "If you give product information to a non-salesperson, you have an educated non-salesperson. If you give product knowledge to a salesperson (with the appropriate wiring), you have an educated salesperson. One word difference but entirely different people."
Is it the end of the road for product specialists?
Before you think you have to get rid of your specialists who carry the weight of your product knowledge, pause. Without their product knowledge that really understands your better products, generalist salespeople will pretty much be selling based on what anyone can see from the packaging or POP.
That results in customers saying they can’t find anyone who knows more than they do about a product.
The thrust of this post is that you need to train your specialist salespeople how to engage customers first, not just answer specific product questions when asked.
Further, you want those specialists to share the more common product knowledge answers with your generalist salespeople or salespeople from other departments. When you do that, you are continually improving your retail sales process.
When you give those personality types who thrive on product nuances solid retail sales training they will be able to approach, engage, draw a customer close and whisper this is the one for you.