Wisdom//

Everything I Needed To Know About Dealing with People I Learned Working Retail

I was "just looking" for spending money, and I got an interpersonal skills Masterclass.

igor kisselev, www.close-up.biz/ Getty Images
igor kisselev, www.close-up.biz/ Getty Images

During Spring and Summer breaks in college, I worked at a higher-end, commission-based women’s clothing store. A large part of each sales associate’s job was to be a charismatic peddler of the wares in the store. I didn’t know it at the time, but this job, often thought of as a way to earn extra cash, was much more than that. This job was forcing me to fine-tune my emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills.

After much reflection, I’ve mapped out the three biggest lessons I learned at this job. These tips and tricks are things I still use every day in my professional work as a television producer.

Don’t Act. Put Yourself In A Position To React.

One rule of the store was that the salesperson must greet a guest within the first 20 seconds of entering. Everyone’s been to a store like this: They ask you a zillion questions about what you’re shopping for, tell you about the latest sales, and insist to start you a fitting room the first time you remotely express interest in an item. Not to show you too much of what’s behind the curtain, but this isn’t a reflex. The regional manager of my store had a motto that attempted to motivate us to ask questions. She said that “there is no such thing as ‘just looking'”. It was paramount that we ask questions and follow-up questions to find out what the customer was shopping for or was inclined to buy.

This tactic is off-putting, and I saw that it often disrupted the shopping experience. No one wants to ask for help from someone who’s been annoying them for the past twenty minutes. I started to go against the rules and allow the customer to tell and show me the level of involvement they desired. Rather than greet them with a pre-prepared script of questions, I said hello and asked if they were looking for anything in particular. This gave them the power to either dismiss me by saying “I’m just looking,” or tell me what it was they were hoping to find in the store. Instead of pouncing on them, I put myself in the position to react to their energy. By doing this, I avoided sounding like the pre-prepared script. I humanized myself in a way that allowed the customer to show me who they were before showing them who I was.

By giving them the lead, I was able to gauge a few things. I could gather the degree to which they wanted my help, general mood, and level of interest in actually buying something. Based on these variables, we’d select garments to try on (more on the selection process later). Then, things headed to the fitting rooms.

Another rule of the store was to always compliment the client. Like clockwork, each customer emerging from the fitting rooms got hit with a volley of “you look amazing!” by every salesperson within the tri-state area. This barrage of compliments worked temporarily, but problems arose when other customers got hit with the same ovation. It was especially damaging when everyone in the room knew the dress wasn’t a match.

Instead of adding to this volley of knee-jerk compliments, I continued to put myself in the position to react to the client’s energy. I would ask the client what they thought. Again, I was relinquishing power to the customer. I allowed them to tell me how they felt about a certain garment and reacted accordingly. No matter how they felt, I was able to receive a true, genuine reaction and could course-correct as needed. Rather than trying to force the customer into a state of approval, I was putting myself in the position to react to the other person’s feelings. This gave me the upper-hand throughout the shopping experience.

Gaining Trust Is More Important Than Making A Sale

It’s easy to be distrustful of a sales associate. Our jobs were to talk you into buying clothes that you most likely didn’t need or couldn’t afford. Most people assumed the worst of us, and the constant chorus of empty compliments didn’t help. Although it was strictly forbidden, I found that by telling clients that I actually didn’t like certain pieces on them, they were more prone to trust me. This helped them get out of their own heads and try options they wouldn’t normally reach for. I found that I was much more successful by being honest and positive than by fibbing my way to a sale.

I made the personal rule that I would not lie to a client. When someone walked out of the dressing room in a dress that was a no, I would allow them to tell me how they felt. If they were unsure or didn’t enjoy the outfit, I would say one truth about the garment: “I like the pattern.” “I enjoy the color on you.” In a subtle way, I was able to communicate that I wasn’t thrilled with the choice, either. I kept things positive without doing cartwheels trying to convince them that they should buy something. This showed my clients that I wanted to find them an outfit they were happy with.

Once we found a dress that I thought was a winner, it was easy for me to sell it to them because I’d give them the big reaction. They would see my eyes light up and could hear the approval in my voice. My positive reaction meant something because I wasn’t doing a song and dance about every garment.

One pro tip: Trust is contagious. Other customers passed my clients into the dressing room hallway and saw satisfaction. Soon they’d be coming to me with questions, even though they had one of my co-workers helping them. These customers would ask me for a second opinion because they knew I’d shoot it to them straight.

Garnering trust with clients also helped in the way of referrals. Clients often brought in with friends and family members. They gushed about how I helped them find the perfect dress. By worrying more about the client’s experience and less about the dollar amount of a potential sale, my client was doing half my work for me. The client, not I, was getting someone new in the door and into my dressing room.

Know the content inside and out

Someone very famous on Food Network (Bobby Flay) once said: “There is no substitute for experience.” Regardless of my selling style, I needed to be knowledgeable about the merchandise I was selling. This was not a job where you could fake it until you made it. There were hundreds of pieces in the store, each with its own unique features. I needed to be able to pull things for the client with confidence and be correct in my selections. I could charm the client all day long, but my job was to style them in the hopes of making a sale. If I couldn’t deliver on that, no amount of personality and flair would make up for it.

To know the merchandise better, I studied it inside and out. I turned a mundane task, organizing the clothing racks, into a learning experience. We would go through the racks of clothes, pull pieces out, and volunteer who would wear them and to where. The salespeople practiced selling garments to each other, and we made it a game. This helped us learn how to sell less-desirable or super-unique garments and allowed us to swap selling strategies. We’d familiarize ourselves with garments we hadn’t seen before or that didn’t seem to sell.

When a customer told me what they needed, I could select the best options with ease. I wasn’t running around, rummaging through racks without direction. Instead, I amassed five or so of my favorite appropriate pieces for the event in question. Before they knew it, the customer had a rack of good options waiting for them in a dressing room. By doing my homework and knowing the content on an expert level, I didn’t need to do backflips to prove my competency. My work was able to speak for itself.

The things I learned while working in retail are valuable skills that I still use today. I let others speak first, putting myself in a position to react. I gain trust even if it doesn’t lead to an immediate pay off (don’t worry, it will in the long run). I do research to make sure I’m confident in what I’m doing. Yes, it was a job I did for extra cash, but commission-based retail was a mini-masterclass on dealing with people. It was an invaluable experience I’ll continue to draw knowledge from for the rest of my life. 

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