7 Retail Customer Service Skills Your Employees Need to Succeed

Customer service skills in pet store

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Retail customer service skills are essential to your store’s bottom line. Skilled employees set you apart from the competition.

I was with a friend who was looking for a new pair of sneakers at Dick’s Sporting Goods. He found an associate and told him what he was looking for.

The associate escorted him to the Adidas section. My friend picked up a pair and asked if they had them in 11. The associate whipped out his small tablet, scanned the SKU of the shoe, touched 11, said they did, and was off.

He came back, handed him the shoes, and left. As an old shoe dog who put myself through college selling shoes, I was a bit put off by the lack of customer service skills in this interaction. I had expected him to take out the shoes and put them on his feet to make sure they fit. 

Instead, my friend tried them on alone. Too small.

Retail customer service measurement and success

He then waited to catch the eye of the associate. “I guess I need an 11.5.” They too were too small until my friend finally got a size 12. And still not a word of connection between the associate and my friend.

Efficient: yes. Friendly: no.

Looking at a register right there in the department, my friend asked, “Can I just pay you here?” The associate said, “No, go to any register” and was off again.

While his attitude was fine, this was not customer service. Yes, he got the shoes and my friend purchased them, but that was it.

And while there were Brannock foot-measuring devices scattered under the small benches in this beautiful store, I didn’t see one associate using them. And on a busy Saturday, most shoppers who were trying on shoes received the same zero customer service. Big miss for such a big store.

There's no doubt the retail industry has seen extraordinary changes since I worked the floor two decades ago.

Yet one constant remains: You still need to realize the critical importance of great customer service if you want shoppers to return to you for their next purchase instead of going to their smartphones.

Now that every prospective customer can shop in the comfort of their own home - or anywhere else - it's imperative that brick and mortar retailers offer something e-commerce outlets can never match ...

Peerless, human-to-human customer service, from the beginning of the experience to the end.

A high standard, to be certain.

Reaching this level of customer service requires the participation of informed and motivated staff members. One key element of successful retail customer service training is the identification of the core customer service skills your staff members need to succeed.

Teach these 7 essential retail customer service skills for highly successful employees

Any employee can be a stellar salesperson if they can master just a few core skills. These simple techniques go a long way in building a positive, memorable customer experience, boosting your store’s reputation, and growing your repeat customer base. 

1. Empathy for the customer experience

In today's hyper-connected, social media-driven world, everyone has access to a megaphone. One negative customer experience - even if it's the result of good faith miscommunication - can cause damage to your reputation.

This is why empathy for what the customer is experiencing is essential. As a retail employee, it's easy to get lost or consumed by the demands of the job. But you should always take pains to monitor how a shopper is processing a situation.

If you're picking up signals that frustration is building - verbal or non-verbal - you should take action to remove any feelings of frustration. Often, a simple acknowledgment of someone's concerns - and a stated desire to help - is enough to ease customer frustration and tension.

What to teach? We've all been that frustrated customer at some point, so it shouldn't be hard to empathize.

2. A positive attitude

Did you know that emotions are contagious? Researchers have demonstrated that we have a tendency to involuntarily mimic the emotional reactions of those around us.

This will come as little surprise to teachers, who know that one misbehaving student can set the tone for a whole room. Yet it's also critically important to understand this happens in your retail store as well.

Your attitude is infectious, for better or worse. If customers are approached by a friendly, happy, and enthusiastic employee, the odds are good that those qualities will be reciprocated, and the customer will leave the experience satisfied. Try to fake it and be phony and they’ll pick that up too. Then you start blaming the customer for receiving bad customer service when it started with your attitude.

What to teach? If you put out the negative, it will come back to you so find it in yourself to genuinely have a positive attitude.

3. An unflappable nature, even under duress

You don't have to have a dangerous job to exhibit grace under pressure. As anyone who has ever worked retail can tell you that a busy Saturday and every day during the holiday season can be quite a challenge. Stores are exceedingly busy, inventory is often quickly depleted, and customers have to deal with the added stress of large crowds.

All of those factors, if left unaddressed, can cause your customers’ shopping experience to suffer. Yet by displaying an unflappable nature and refusing to allow circumstances to dictate your attitude, you can help put customers at ease even during the busiest retail seasons.

What to teach? Commiserating with shoppers isn’t the answer but if you present a positive attitude even when something goes wrong, it will go a long way.

4. An ability to show individual skills in a team context

In any retail endeavor, strong teamwork is a must. Yet you shouldn't lose sight of the importance of your individual qualities either. This is especially true in retail, where one-on-one service is the core of the customer experience.

Great retail associates find ways to shine individually without disrupting the harmony of the team.

What to teach? Within your retail sales process, there must be the flexibility that lets associates add their own personalities so they feel genuine in their presentation skills.

5. The ability to prioritize customers

Sure, it might be tempting to disappear into the task you're assigned whether you are folding clothes, doing inventory, or putting something away. Yet if you're too locked in, you will miss the opportunity to assist a customer who needs help and can't find any.

The ability to focus on what's important in any given moment and shift your priorities accordingly often makes the difference between losing a customer and keeping her for life.

What to teach? The shopper is always your most important priority in the store. Drop everything to make sure they are helped and not left hanging.

6. Insatiable curiosity

One of the best things about curiosity is that it sparks engagement and enthusiasm, two things that are critical in customer service. Great associates are irresistibly drawn toward learning about new products, ideas, and processes. They use what they've learned to improve their own processes and interactions.

This curiosity should also extend to the needs of your customers. By cultivating a staff that exhibits this kind of insatiable curiosity, you're one step closer to delivering consistently great service.

What to teach? Ask yourself, Why is this shopper in our store today and what problem are they looking to solve, rather than just asking what product they want to purchase.

7. Improvisational thinking

Improvise, adapt, and overcome has long been an organizational mantra in the U.S. Marine Corps. Yet you don't need to be a soldier or a jazz musician to adopt an improvisational, problem-solving mindset.

Sometimes you need to be creative to help a customer find exactly what they want. He might tell you he's looking for a sport coat, but his true goal is to impress a date that evening. You show him the sport coat but also point out his shoes are raggedy and show him a bow tie that has flair and will make him stand out. It all hinges on your ability to creatively help him see what she will see.

What to teach? Creative thinking and improvisation can help ensure that your customer's feelings - and the merchandise you're selling - are in alignment.

See also: 10 Easily Overlooked Customer Service Tips

Do retail customer service skills still matter?

Stellar customer service is the only thing you really have as a differentiator to win over today's always-on consumer. By emphasizing the customer care tips outlined above, you can ensure that your staff has the skills necessary to delight customers and foster long-term relationships instead of leaving them on their own.

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