Be more than “just a whatever” to yourself and the companies you work for

Surviving_Retail_Teamwork-083011Recently, I was in a store trying on shoes and asked the salesperson when a new delivery of shoes might be expected as they were out of my size. He looked at me and replied, “I honestly don’t know, I’m just a sales person and the buyers don’t work weekends.”

His response was troubling to me, but not because he did not know the answer (though if I were the store buyers, I might want to take note and be sure my weekend crews are well versed on where to find answers regarding product arrival queries). His response was troubling because I find too often these days whenever I ask a question a receptionist, sales clerk, intern or (fill in the blank) can’t answer, I hear in response “I don’t know, I’m just a…” (fill in the blank e.g. intern, receptionist, sales rep, warehouse employee, stocker, cashier, delivery person, etc.)

“I am just a…” What does that mean, really? Isn’t everyone more important than “just a” something or other. Shouldn’t everyone, from a salesperson to a receptionist to a janitor to an intern, feel more pride in their job and feel more importance than to be inspired to describe themselves as “just a…” i.e. implying they have no power and aren’t important or knowledgeable enough to help a customer or answer a question?

I would argue that at no time should anyone ever say they are “just a” when referring to anything they do. Every job is important to a company, or they would not have the job in the first place. Henceforth, each employee (and, yes, intern) is important, just as the way each performs his or her job is, and each should take pride in that job since each carries just as much weight and import as the CEO’s – albeit on a slightly different pay scale.

I’ve witnessed many companies collapse under the weight of poor morale and weak employee performance, often because too many members of the team thought of their job as “just a…” and as a result, never felt important enough to learn more, do more, and be more in their job.

Next time you have occasion to describe what it is you do, swell your chest a bit, and say with pride, “I’m an intern,” or “I’m a cashier,” or “I’m on the night shift clean-up crew.” You are important to your company. You are, quite simply, important. And the sooner you begin acting like it, and believing it, and understanding why it is you are important, the better you will begin to feel about all of the things you do. And, your performance at work, and in life, will become a living monument to your contributions. Make every minute count because they are ticking by, even as you are reading this.

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I’m glad you think YOU’RE special…but it’s not about you

In a specialty outdoor retailer I visited recently, I was witness to the store’s assistant manager essentially getting into a debate with a customer. It was friendly enough, but the more the customer suggested how a product might be improved or have features that would make it, in her opinion, more attractive, the more he found various ways to show her that she was wrong and her suggestions of no value. Eventually, she put the product down, frustrated, and walked away.

The assistant manager was so intent on proving he knew more than she did about outdoor products, especially those in his store, he stepped all over her ideas, and missed the point: She was there to look for something to satisfy her needs and to buy; he was simply there to make it easy for her.

Had he listened to her with his ego in check, he might have managed to do the most important thing the manager and owner of the store count on him for each day – make a sale. She was not happy with some of the features of the product she had in her hand and was clearly pointing out ways it didn’t seem right for her, plus ways she felt the product might be improved. The assistant manager had an open door to empathize with her, understand her, and suggest other products in the store that might better meet her needs.

Working the sales floor is not about being a star

Overhearing the assistant manager again later, though, as he touted his own product knowledge and incomparable experience in the outdoor industry to someone else, it became obvious that making sales were an afterthought for him. He was there in that store to be the big star on his own little fantasy stage, in a performance that he likely acts out each day on the sales floor with him as the lead and customers always in the supporting cast.

Trouble is, I’ve seen this same tired play in reruns all over the country and the result is always the same: frustrated, alienated customers who end up not buying from the store and, worse, never coming back to the store again.

It’s the customer who needs to feel special

Being a veteran of the outdoor industry, and someone who has immense product knowledge is great, but only when that experience and knowledge are used to add value to a customer’s shopping experience in the store.

That assistant manager should be the leading sales person for the company, not just his store, given his obvious perception of his experience and worth. But I am willing to bet he’s not even the best sales person in the store.

He could be if everyday he would just remember one thing when he walks through the front door of the store: Today is not about me. Today is about making every customer who walks through the front door of our store feel special.

That means listening to a customer … really listening. That means responding to a customer’s needs by asking open-ended questions that allow a customer to provide valuable feedback about what they like and don’t like in a product. That means never giving a customer the feeling that they are inferior to you in any way. That means being able to share your experience with the products you are selling with humility and in a way that makes the customer feel encouraged and welcome and eager to buy from you.

And if you feel that you can’t put the customer first every minute of every day? That means you need to find another line of work because retail sales is not for you.