Defensive Selling Isn't Customer Service: Insights for Retail Managers

man with sale sign in store

Access My FREE 5-Part Retail Sales Training Email Course!

Defensive selling is a sales approach typically driven by a sales associate's anxiety and the assumption that a customer will only make a purchase if the salesperson is proactive to perceived customer objections.

Salespeople feel it is customer service, but often, it is a business dis-service.

Defensive selling is the bane of sales managers worldwide and is usually spoken about in relation to manufacturer’s sales representatives who give aggressive discounts because they believe it is the only way to compete.

The technique is also common in retail stores – particularly for big-ticket items that are purchased infrequently, like jewelry, furniture, flooring, luxury automobiles, premium electronics, appliances, outdoor equipment, boats and RVs, art, and luxury watches.

With this strategy, salespeople often act out of fear of losing the sale, so they preemptively offer discounts or special deals. They do this because they believe that the customer will not buy without these incentives. After all, they wouldn’t.

Often, these salespeople are selling from their own wallets. The moment you add a zero behind an average product’s price tag, the employee feels ill-equipped to be able to sell it. Rather than attempting to sell the best, they build rapport with the customers by helping them find the cheapest deals.

Megan, our Manager of Customer Success at SalesRX, was recently at an Ulta store. Having previously purchased Drunk Elephant rose glow drops, she picked up a $60 bottle of their lotion. An associate came over and said, “Many people say it smells like Play-Doh and don’t like it.” The young woman dealt with an objection before it had been asked and exemplified an employee who has decided features of your premium products are not worth it, so they won’t try to sell them.

Upon a bit more conversation, Megan found this person was responsible for training several of their stores in the area. Geez.

These are examples of defensive selling statements from retail employees:

  • “Go to our website and download the coupon.”
  • “Let me search our closeouts and see if we have enough.”
  • “We have a sale coming up in two weeks when it is 20% off. You should come back then.”

This passive approach results in a salesperson constantly trying to accommodate the customer, often at the expense of profit margins.

Empowering Your Employees

What’s needed in a time of softening demand are salespeople who can balance between being responsive to customer needs and building enough rapport to showcase their merchandise.

You must earn the customer's trust before you can sell the product.

The best salespeople avoid discounting as a primary tool, instead focusing on building relationships, understanding customer needs, and demonstrating value.

Their job is to build desire and intrigue. That's the reason we buy anything new at all. 

Weak salespeople sell down due to a lack of confidence in their own abilities to justify the price.

What's Changed In Retail

Let’s face it, since the pandemic, if a salesperson could say, “We have it in stock,” they could sell almost anything. Retailers could start a new salesperson on the floor with minimal training post-Covid, and they could still deliver once-in-a-lifetime sales.

But now that demand has returned to normal, a lot of merchandise is sitting on the sales floor and clogging up the warehouses. That lack of training has come back to bite many retailers.

And as those who were little more than order takers look around, they see they can’t make the bonuses they used to and leave.

Imagine walking into a furniture store. You're met with various home options and an overwhelming sense of possibility. An associate looks up from a desk and asks, "What are you looking for?" The question comes off as impersonal and uninterested. It's a missed opportunity to build rapport and understand customer needs.

While the shopper may say what specifically they were looking for or brush them off, the salesperson failed to engage in a meaningful conversation. They missed the chance to personalize the shopping experience.

They squandered the opportunity for the shopper to discover something they hadn’t expected to find when they began their search online. That's a brick-and-mortar stores strategic weapon against online - the thrill of discovery. 

Over time, defensive selling can affect your customer's perception of the business. It may create a sense that your business is desperate or lacks confidence in its own products, which can erode trust over time.

Adopting an alternative to defensive selling is often called consultative selling or relationship selling. These strategies promote building rapport before pitching a product, understanding customer needs, and building relationships rather than discounting.

In the face of normalizing demand, we can see how a lack of proper training in these alternative selling strategies has returned to bite many retailers.

Implement this three-step system that works together to counteract defensive selling:

1. Better Employee Training

Equip staff with the skills to interact authentically with customers. Train - not just instruct - them how to have a back-and-forth conversation. Encourage them to ask open-ended questions that allow customers to express their needs and preferences. This way, they can provide personalized recommendations and improve customer satisfaction.

2. Value-Driven Selling

Instead of focusing on discounts, train staff to sell the value of products. Find something they spend a lot of money on and ask why. Get to their beliefs about money and value. Then, explaining why a product is worth its original price can help justify less discounts and retain more profits.

3. Employee Incentivization

To motivate employees to sell better, implement performance-based incentives. This could encourage them to take more interest in customer interactions and strive to make value-driven sales. Use caution and monitor the ongoing effect on customer service, as bonusing or incenting them should be a small part of their success, not the only reason they do their job.

Where to start to stop defensive selling in your stores?

At the top. Your Retail Management must develop a culture that doesn't promote defensive selling. Managers must create an environment in your stores that encourages learning, confidence-building, and the development of selling skills, not order-taking. That starts with onboarding and can go a long way in moving away from a defensive sales approach.

I ran a poll on LinkedIn recently, and 70% of respondents said they had not purchased something in a store because the associate undersold them or only pitched a sale price.

Think how much money that equates to for all retailers…

By transforming your approach to customer interaction and sales, you can enhance the shopping experience, increase profits, and ensure the longevity of your business.

Better employee training starts with a robust sales training system that increases your competitive advantage. Find out more about my program, SalesRX Online Retail Sales Training.

Download the SalesRX Brochure & Outline