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A Tricky Situation

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One of the keys to success for any pet retailer is the ability to sell the average customer more than he or she came into the store to buy. Retailers might think of it as the “while I’m here” purchase: “I came in to get dog food, but while I’m here I’ll get a chew toy.”

Profits are built on purchases like this, and the effort to make them happen is commonly known as upselling. A problem for retailers, though, is training their employees, many of whom have no particular sales skills or experience to speak of, to upsell customers.

Without an understanding of how to approach it, upselling can quickly become an awkward and off-putting experience for customers. And, in fairness to retail employees, most of whom are not trained sales professionals, simply being told to upsell with no solid training can sound like being given an assignment to be pushy.

Writing for Canada’s Talent Egg, Christina Pellegrini urges retail employees to ease customers into potential added purchases, not by pressuring them, but by engaging in friendly conversation that deals in their needs and their interests.

“Get your customers talking by asking them open-ended questions,” Pellegrini wrote. “You don’t want their response to be ‘yes’ or ‘no’ because you can’t learn anything about them, how they plan to use the product or how much they’re able to spend. This process will reveal products or services that the customers didn’t intend to buy.”

With that knowledge in hand, Pellegrini said, employees can suggest products that might show the self-identified needs of a customer. She also suggests walking customers to the checkout lane, and being sure to guide them through sections of the store that might pique their interest based on what they’ve said.

Writing for Monster.com, Malcolm Fleschner quotes author Andrea Waltz as urging retail employees to ask open-ended questions that can only lead somewhere positive. That’s as opposed to a question that will likely bring a quick end to the conversation, such as, “Would you like anything else with that?”

Once the likely answer comes, which is ‘no,’ there is nowhere for the employee to go with the conversation without getting pushy. A better thing to say, Waltz said, is something like, “I’ve got something great to show you.” It’s OK to be more specific, though, especially if there’s something a customer will need in order to get full value out of the main product being purchased.

Be Careful

Parsing language to get the desired answer from a customer can be a tricky endeavor, though. A well-known coffee retailer instructed its employees for some time to respond to customer orders with, “And what else can I get you?” That put the onus on customers to explain sheepishly if the answer was nothing, and had a tendency to make customers feel they were disappointing the retailer by buying too little.

Gradually the technique was retired.

Ultimately it comes down to an employee’s willingness and ability to engage effectively with customers. That fact always presents the reality that some retail employees are naturally more inclined than others to do well with interpersonal skills.

Retailers need to consider the people skills of their employees when making assignments. One employee might have the ability to handle the checkout station, and might have enough basic interpersonal skills to give a customer a pleasant enough experience when checking out, but that same employee might not have enough personal initiative to be able to engage employees on the floor.

That assignment might fall to another employee, who doesn’t do as well with operating a cash register, or logging information, but is a whiz at engaging people and gently leading them to consider additional purchases.

By the way, don’t overlook the need to train employees in this area, not only on upselling techniques but also on the products being offered in the store. If employees are not knowledgeable about the products, they can’t very well be expected to upsell them. New employees should receive general training to give them knowledge of the products in the store.

When a decision is made to start carrying a new product, every employee should at least receive a basic training session on the product,  how it works, what its value is and why the store decided its customer base would likely be interested in it.

Finally, recognize that upselling is not necessarily something that will be met with customer reluctance. Many customers welcome knowledgeable employees who can help them better understand what a store’s products have to offer. They know what they are willing and able to spend after all, and it might be more than an employee assumes.

The employee’s job is to gently educate the customer about what the products being offered can do for them and their pets. The customer will always make the final call, of course, but any customer is more likely to buy more if a knowledgeable employee has shared the information that shows them why it could be a good idea.

- Dan Calabrese

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