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Fine-Tuning Your Sales Techniques

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Fine-Tuning Your Sales TechniquesDoes your store lose sales because your employees (and you!) are afraid to hear the word "no"? Have you "serviced" your customers but missed a $20 sale, or the chance to turn it into a $75 sale? This month, Andrea Waltz, co-owner of Portland-based Courage Crafters Inc, discusses selling styles and behaviors—and how to correct some of your less-than-perfect sales techniques. Waltz's consulting firm teaches organizations how to achieve breakthrough performance in sales, management and customer service.

Q. What do you mean by "courageous leadership," and why is it a key trait for independent retailers to possess?

A. Courageous leadership has to do with proactively leading your store team the right way. Courage is not the absence of fear; it is really about making tough decisions proactively and doing the things you know are right, despite the many fears you might have. This means looking at your business and being willing to make changes to improve it. …For a small business owner, this might mean letting go an employee who is not giving the kind of customer service you want, despite the fact you don't have a replacement for him or her. Being a courageous leader is critical in today’s environment because business decisions and results must come faster than ever. There needs to be a sense of urgency about leadership since it could be the difference between success and failure, or between surviving and thriving.

Q. What sorts of less-than-perfect traits or selling styles can be improved?

A. People must be challenged to overcome self-imposed limitations. Remember that these are human traits, and there's nothing wrong with them. One of the biggest limitations my partner Rich Fenton I see in our workshops is that salespeople and some owners, too, are generally afraid to hear customers tell them "no." When they're not willing to be turned down, they tend to not suggest merchandise, additional services and more.

A huge limitation is the idea that we don't want to look pushy or like we're selling something! Gift retailers can sometimes be more interested in getting cute merchandise and thinking they can have a pretty store and things will sell themselves. This can mean they don't really engage the customer, ask good questions and recommend items.

There's another universal trait that we call "spending from your wallet." Let's say a customer is shopping for a baby shower and getting a teddy bear and blanket for $75. You know you also sell a personalized rattle. But since you would never spend more than $75 on a baby shower gift, you figure that's enough and your sales job is done. This trait is based on two aspects: 1. How much money you actually have in your pocket. It would be difficult for a staffer who is in college and barely getting by to suggest that a customer spend more money. 2. Your own personal values about the things on which you will spend money. When I was in college I worked at a small gift store that carried Lladros. I didn't understand their value and thought, "This is a lot of money!" As a result, I didn't do a great job in selling or recommending them to customers.

Q. How do hiring and training impact sales?

A. They're part of an entire cycle that includes hiring, training, creating standards, communicating, coaching, giving feedback and expecting accountability. Retailers must be able to set high standards for their employees, expect people to follow them and then hold them accountable if they don't. This is all part of courageous leadership.

So why don't retailers deal with poor performance? No one enjoys having that conversation with an employee. The biggest fear is that she/he will be upset with you. Or worse, you tell her, "Hey, I want you to do this," and she quits. Plus, if you're the owner and have to work with this employee 40 hours a week, you don't want (that person) in a bad mood. So rather than saying something, you keep quiet.

By the way, we've found that men and women have these same fears (in equal shares); the only difference is that women are more likely to admit them. (Instead,) have the courage to communicate with that employee. Accept the reality, the idea, the fear that things may get worse or the person will quit. But people are not as bad as we make them out to be in our minds. By communicating more often, a staffer is more likely to say "Okay" when asked to correct his/her performance. If you communicate, it's a win-win all around.

Q. Explain the four selling styles an employee can have and which style is ideal for a small gift store?

A. Salespeople have two major concerns: to be liked by the customer, to build relationships and make friends; and to make the sale and get results. If you cross-reference these two concerns against each other, four distinct styles emerge. They are concern for results, but not relationships (we call this style Shark); concern for relationships, but not results (Retriever); neither concern for results nor relationships (Hippo); and concern for both results and relationships (Lion). By the way, this is NOT a physical description—or a label. These styles are based around the attitudes and more important the behaviors of the person.

The goal is to become the Lion, the type of salesperson who is concerned about relationships and results simultaneously. Lions greet and engage customers who walk in your door, ask questions, make recommendations, suggest additional merchandise, commenting on a customer's selection and thanking customers when they leave.

Most retail salespeople, especially in a small gift environment, are Retrievers. They are so into customer service, and the idea that if they are polite and nice, sales will magically happen. They need to be more proactive. Retrievers require coaching, challenging and follow-up on the part of the owner/manager to help change some of these behaviors.

Q. So, why would many retailers and their employees likely insist they are proactive with customers?

A. That's because most only react to a customer's inquiry. Let's say a customer walks in and circles the store. The staffer may have greeted the customer, but didn't engage her by asking questions. [Retrievers] are good with customers in a reactive way. If the customer approaches the salesperson and says "I'm looking for a birthday gift," the Retriever is given permission to start selling. Now, he says "Tell me more. What does this person like?"

The "aha" moment is the idea that selling and service are one and the same. [Many retailers] get this intellectually but have so many defenses as to why this won't work. One might say "My store is different." They may get lucky and be in a great tourist location or have a couple of Lions on their team. But what a retailer is really looking at is how good they could be. Are you just interested in survival? Or do you really want to take your business to the next level?

Q. What roles do coaching and celebrating play in fostering Lions?

A. Coaching is the next step [above] the rah-rah factor of cheering (which doesn't give people any real skills) and start teaching them how to do things. Coaching and teaching employees skills will save time in the long run and also get you better sales results. Also if you coach people and then when they don’t do the things you want them to, you now know it is a matter of will—not skill.

From the employees' perspective, you have actually helped them grow and develop their skills. This is valuable to them and they will feel more appreciative of you as an employer, thus more committed and less likely to up and leave. Additionally, coaching can reduce the employee’s stress and frustration of not having the skills needed to succeed in your environment. A note about coaching: If you as an owner don't feel comfortable with a particular skill like suggesting additional merchandise to customers, it will be very difficult to coach someone else on how to do it.

Learn these skills and practice them before coaching. For example, teach employees the process of turning a $20 gift item sale into a $50 gift basket. Role play it out and encourage them to start trying [it in the store]. Celebrating involves praising "success behaviors" regardless of the result. For example: A customer comes in and gets a card for his wife. The employee asks if he’d like to get her a chocolate truffle to go with it. He says "no." The employee asks if he’d like to be on the store’s email newsletter list, he says "no." This is what it means to “go for no.” Don’t be afraid of hearing "no"… ask!

When the customer leaves, the owner should celebrate this! Tell the employee: "Great job! You asked some good questions!" We don’t have control over the customer or what they’ll say or do but we do have control over what behaviors we engage in with our customers. Your success behaviors are whatever you determine they should be: The key is to do them!

Recommended Resources: Retail Selling Ain’t Brain Surgery by James Dion The Run with the Lions Sales Safari by Richard Fenton & Andrea Waltz How to Avoid Just Looking… by Terry Kennon Retail Selling Made Easy by Ron Marin (

Note: You can reach Waltz at (800) 290-5028 or

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