You’re hired

May 01, 2008 9:30 PM  By

It’s so annoying. A shopper is trying to check out, and the sales clerk is chatting on the phone or staring into space. Does this happen to your customers? It wouldn’t if you hired the right kind of retail help. But that’s a tall order for a manager who may be more used to selecting catalog telephone service representatives.

Catalog customer service reps need good phone manners and the ability to input orders. But in-store clerks need face-to-face communication skills and the ability to run the cash wrap.

At the same time, retail employees tend to be younger — they don’t see this as their career.

So what do you do? Here are some tips from experts on how to hire and train top notch sales clerks.

Look in the right places

Newspaper ads are old news. Smart employers now advertise on social Websites like Facebook (www.facebook.com), on professional networking sites like LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com), and on job boards like Monster.com or Craigslist (www.craigslist.com).

You can also hang fliers where potential recruits congregate, such as the gym, the local coffee shop or a place of worship, says Roberta Chinsky Matuson, president of consultancy Human Resource Solutions.

And don’t forget colleges. Sarah Johnson, CEO of accessories merchant Luna Boston, reaches out to local fashion-design schools.

Recruit your own customers.

Want to attract people who already know who you are? Send a note to your customer list to announce that you’re hiring for your store.

“Word-of-mouth works very well,” says Melissa Nieberding, district/visual manager of apparel merchant Soft Surroundings. “That’s a key method of recruiting — connecting with and hiring your customers.”

You can also reward your employees for referring new hires. “Market it constantly,” says Matuson. “The incentive can be as simple as movie tickets, or you can spice it up by having a drawing once a month for an iPhone or a trip, depending on what your resources are.”

Hire older workers.

Don’t limit yourself to college kids. On the contrary, hire seniors or moms who are re-entering the workforce.

“Mature workers are terrific,” Matuson says. “You don’t have to worry about them not showing up.”

They can also help if your store targets an older market.

“When I’m 80, I don’t think I want to ask a 17-year-old where the Depends are,” Matuson says. “Have people who look like your customers.”

And don’t think you have to offer high pay. Older workers are often more interested in discounts and a flexible schedule, she adds.

Know what you want.

Make sure you’re clear on what you want in an employee before you conduct the job interviews.

“I try to remind myself before every interview what is important for us in an employee,” Johnson says. “You’ll never get a perfect employee, but what can you live with as far as positive and negative attributes?”

For Luna Boston, the most important attribute is a positive attitude. Sales clerks may do everything from serving customers to packing boxes — they need to remain flexible and upbeat.

How do you find out? Johnson asks potential hires what they did or didn’t like about their previous employers, and steers clear of “downers” who complain about past jobs.

In addition, she asks questions that will give clues to the applicant’s attitude toward work and the store.

“I like to dig into what people really think about retail,” Johnson adds. “Some people work in it because they love it, and others think they can do it to bring in money while they wait for their real job.”

Johnson also asks why the applicant is interested in her company.

“If they can’t answer that, that means they haven’t done a ton of research about us, and they may not have the passion for the job that gets you through those crazy days,” she says.

Observe.

Pay attention to the candidate’s answers and body language. And don’t ignore red flags, no matter how desperate you are to make the hire.

Johnson admits that she once hired an employee who gave great answers but slouched during the interview.

“That casualness came back at us,” Johnson says. “The employee was less professional than we wanted her to be.”

Her advice? Don’t “rationalize something that rubbed you wrong in the interview process because you need a warm body.”

Train your new employee.

Okay, you’ve found the right person (you think). Now it’s time to do what Matuson calls “onboarding,” or getting the person acclimated to the business before the job even starts.

One Matuson client, Winston Flowers, puts recruits through a three-day boot camp. They learn “the philosophy behind the company, the service we offer, our computer software and our seven steps to customer relationship management,” says Gregory Comfort, director of training and development for the Boston-based florist chain.

They’re even told where to get lunch. And they have their business cards before they set foot in the store.

“We feel it’s important that when someone comes into this company, they understand who they’re working for,” Comfort says. “It makes people feel connected.”

Buddy up.

Don’t stop with training. You should hook up the new hire with a more experienced employee. Winston Flowers, for instance, pays its workers $1 more per hour to serve as buddies.

“We choose the perfect employee who really have a knack for teaching and mentoring,” Comfort says. “We even send them letters telling them why they were chosen; we make it an important thing for them so they feel honored and proud.”

The buddies’ job? Take the new employees under their wings for seven days and sign off on important procedures as the new hires master them.

Empower new reps.

Some managers waste energy telling staffers what they can’t do. A better strategy would be to tell them what they can do — and then empower them to do it.

“At McDonald’s, if order-takers are short-changed by 30 cents, they have to get a manager with keys,” says Michael D. Brown, a customer service consultant and author of Fresh Customer Service: Treat the Employee as #1 and the Customer as #2 and You Will Get Customers for Life (Acanthus Publishing, 2007). “What kind of empowerment do your front line employees have to make it right for the customer? ‘Make it right’ training tells the employees what they’re entitled to do.”

Can your retail employees solve customer complaints on their own? Take returns or void transactions without calling on a manager? Make decisions that cost up to X dollars? Make sure to outline these capabilities in your employee training manual. It will help your employees feel empowered — and save you a lot of hassle.

Give it time.

Some managers underestimate how much time it takes to fully train a new employee.

“In order to completely cover all the ins and outs of retail — or at least the basics — you need at least two to three full days of one-on-one training,” says Nieberding of Soft Surroundings. “Five to 10 days are needed to train a supervisor. So, simply speaking, 48 hours of training is needed for a sales associate — 24 for the trainer and 24 for the trainee — and 80 to 160 hours for a manager or supervisor. This is costly, and usually not figured when calculating the payroll dollars allowed for stores.”

Get clear on what you need, be creative in finding the right people, and train them well. You’ll have happy, long-term workers who are a credit to your retail operation.


Linda Formichelli is a freelance writer based in Concord, NH.