How to Turn Underperforming Retail Associates into A-Players

Your front-line employees play a critical role in the success of your retail business. Sales associates are often the first live touchpoint the shoppers have with your brand when they walk into your store. They can influence a customer’s mood, shape their perception, and ultimately impact a shopper’s purchase decision. 

For this reason, you need to ensure that your sales associates bring their A-game at every turn. 

Here are 7 tips on how to do that. 

1. Build a culture that paves the way for top performance 

If your sales team isn’t performing at the most optimal level, one of the first things you should do is to evaluate your work environment. Are you cultivating a culture of top performance or complacency? Are your team members motivating each other or are they apathetic towards the company’s goals?

Take an honest look at your store’s work environment and take the necessary steps to improve.

For instance, a good way to foster a culture where people motivate each other is to promote peer-to-peer recognition. Encourage your staff to call out the great things that their colleagues are doing. If possible, use employee appreciation software like 15Five, Kudos, or Preciate to make it easy for them to do it.

Another proven way to cultivate a culture of excellence is to hire A-players to begin with. Research shows that the presence of top performers can motivate the rest of the group to up their game. 

According to the Harvard Business Review:

On average, department-level output increases by 54% after the arrival of a star. A significant fraction of the star effect is indirect: after removing the direct contribution of the star, department level output still increases by 48%.

The takeaway? Work culture plays an important role in performance. While there are many strategies you could implement to improve the work of your team (which we’ll discuss below), understand that boosting your associates’ output starts with having the right team culture. 

2. Recognize that each person has different motivations

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The tricky thing about motivating your staff is that each person is driven by different things. 

As Beth Zurn, leadership consultant and client lead at Talent Plus, Inc., points out, “competitive salespeople love contests and thrive when they see their name at the top of the leaderboard. While others are far more engaged when you spell out the mission for the company and why their contribution plays a significant role in helping the company.”

Zurn says that the key to elevating the performance of your sales associates is to know their “hot buttons.”

How do you do that?

She recommends that managers have one-on-one conversations with each team member. “Ask simple questions,” she says. “‘How do you like to be recognized?’ ‘What are your personal goals?’ ‘Describe a day when you felt successful?’ Then develop a recognition plan for each of your employees.”

Taking this step, according to Zurn, will most likely result in “a boost in sales productivity for the majority of your employees, not to mention increased engagement and employee morale across the board.”

So, if you haven’t done this yet, schedule individual catch-ups with your staff to review their situation and goals. Get to know their key drivers, identify their “hot buttons” and use those insights to motivate them going forward. 

3. Coach your employees

We’ve talked about the importance of training before on the Compliant IA blog, and for good reason: training is a MUST for any associate who wants to perform better.

You can have the smartest and most talented team, but if they don’t have the knowledge and skills they need to serve your customers well, they won’t be able to perform at a high level. 

There are a lot of things you could cover in your training, but here are some of the essential areas in which to coach your team:

Brand guidelines – Educate your employees on how to behave “on brand.” What does your company stand for? How do you want customers to feel? How can each associate embody the brand or message you want to promote? The answers to these questions will help you communicate what “on brand” means in your business. 

Product knowledge – See to it that each team member knows your product catalog inside and out. Walk them through your merchandise and educate them on the features and benefits of your products. And whenever a new item is brought in, take the time to introduce it to your team so they know what it is — and how to sell it properly. 

Sales – There’s a lot of things to unpack when it comes to sales training, so we’re not going to get into too much detail. The training you provide also depends on your business. A luxury retailer’s sales practices are vastly different from a mom-and-pop store. 

The key is to figure out the sales techniques that work best in your store, and then coach your employees on how to implement them. Coaching can come in many forms, including role-playing, video training, shadowing, and more. Determine what works for each employee and go from there. 

Then once you’ve rolled out your training programs, make it a point to audit them regularly. In addition to ensuring that your initiatives are actually being carried out, auditing your training programs allows you to spot areas of weaknesses, so you can continue improving and be more targeted with your coaching. 

Pro tip: Compliant IA has a robust retail audit platform to help you evaluate your training programs and ensure that your staff members are performing at their best. Find out more.

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4. Tie goals to a specific purpose

The sales and marketing expert Grant Cardone said, “Your persistence on any given endeavor is determined by the clarity of your purpose.” 

Purpose, as Cardone points out, is a determining factor in someone’s performance. Having the right goals is great, but if you truly want to fuel someone’s drive and persistence towards achieving it, you need to tie that goal to a strong outcome or purpose. In other words, you need to give people a clear reason for what they’re doing. 

How do you do that?

Start by identifying your brand’s “WHY”. Why are you in business? What do you want to achieve? The answers to these questions will enable you to determine your company’s purpose, which you can then convey to your employees.

Disney does an excellent job at this. When a new Cast Member is brought on board, the first thing that Disney does is educate new members about the company’s mission, which is to create happiness.

“Instead of first providing them the technical skills they will need to complete the tasks of their new roles, we share with them the big picture—their purpose, which is to create happiness,” writes Bruce Jones, senior programming director at Disney Institute. “Sharing our common purpose empowers each and every Cast Member right from the start to begin providing outstanding service to guests.”

Strive to do something similar in your business. Identify a compelling purpose for your company and share it with your staff members. 

5. Help them with their career

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Develop an interest in each team member’s career objectives, and find ways to help them achieve their goals. 

Talk to them about their career trajectory and where they want to be in 3, 5, or even 10 years. From there, discuss how their existing role can help them get there (or find ways to do it.)

For instance, if someone wants to grow into a managerial role, then you could start giving them more insights into what it takes to be a good retail manager — while tying it back to their current position. 

When your employees know that you’re helping them get to where they need to be, they will be much more motivated to work harder and do well in the company.

6. Offer incentives

“The hardest thing for a retail manager is getting the store associates to care. A retail job is often perceived as a “stepping stone” or a “stop-gap,” says Chris Edelen, client development director at Culver Careers.

According to Edelen, an effective way to boost the output of your associates is “to add incentives for helping customers.”

In other words, reward your team members to motivate them to bring their best selves to work. 

“Examples would be a sales contest or adding commissions to goods sold,” Edelen adds. 

Like most things, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach here.  The right incentives program depends on your company and culture. For some retailers, performance-based incentives such as bonuses are a good way to go. Others have found success in incentive travel programs. Perks such as additional time off should also be considered.

But no matter what structure you decide to adopt, be sure to iron out all the details carefully, including:

  • The type of reward or incentives that you’ll offer
  • The metrics and KPIs that you’ll measure
  • The timeframe of the program
  • The tools or methodology you’ll use to track performance

Also, ensure that all team members are kept in the loop by communicating and documenting the program. Having regular check-ins to see how people are doing will help keep everyone on the same page. 

7. Arm your team with the right tools

Outdated and cumbersome tools not only hinder staff efficiency, but they also cause frustration among team members — which further curbs productivity and performance. That’s why it’s important to give your staff members the tools they need to do their jobs well. 

How you implement this step depends on your business. For some retailers, this could mean updating their apps and platforms. For others, it means revamping their hardware and software suite. Look into your company’s technological weaknesses and shortcomings then find ways to level up. 

Not sure where to start? Consider the following:

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Grab the opportunity to take your team — and business to the next level

Having underperforming team members obviously isn’t ideal, but rather than bemoaning the situation, view it as a chance to improve. 

When employees aren’t reaching their potential, it could indicate a need to make changes to your work environment, training programs, communication practices, or all of the above. In some instances, underperformance gives you the opportunity to get to know your employees better and build stronger relationships. 

Whatever the case, see this as an opportunity and use it to take your team and business to the next level. 

For more, see our blog 9 Ways to Turn Your Seasonals Employees into Top Performers.

About the author:

francesanicasioFrancesca Nicasio is a freelance writer and content strategist who’s dedicated to writing about retail trends and tips that help merchants increase sales, improve customer service, and be better retailers overall. Her work has been featured in top retail industry publications including Retail TouchPointsStreet FightRetail Customer ExperienceVEND, and more. She’s also a featured thought leader on LinkedIn, and is followed by over 300,000 professionals on the site.


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