The Definitive Guide to Retail Sales Training

When it comes to retail sales training, technology has redefined the way that companies do business over the last decade or so.

From mobile checkout devices to social media marketing to more effective anti-theft tags, today’s retail success toolkit is more tech-based – and more expansive – than ever.

The reach of technology’s efficiency-boosting potential extends beyond front of house operations, though, and if they haven’t done so already, retailers would be well-advised to consider how technology can help update their employee training and development processes.

Indeed, data suggest that customer service failures are one of the primary drags on corporate retail performance. Of course, customer service depends not only on the quality of employees you hire, but on the quality of training you provide during onboarding and beyond. Inspiring, informative training is critical to managing employee satisfaction, and in a retail landscape defined by cutthroat competition and rapid workforce turnover, retailers must do everything they can to retain their best talent.

So, what’s the most effective way for modern retailers to secure – or produce – the kind of top sales talent needed to satisfy sky-high consumer expectations? The answer rests with technology, specifically, innovative workplace learning software. With a powerful learning management system (LMS), retailers can elevate employee onboarding and ongoing training into an enjoyable, productive endeavor that not only builds skills but culture and buy-in as well. If properly deployed, an LMS has the ability to transform customer service from a significant liability to an under-the-radar business driver.

The State of Retail Sales Training

Retail poses unique challenges when it comes to training and professional development. Logistically, the high cost of management retreats and retail sales employee training events is enough to frustrate many business owners into opting out of quality retail sales training programs entirely. The sales floor inefficiencies and high employee turnover rates that stem from doing so exhibit why neglecting this aspect of workforce management is, unequivocally, a mistake. Fortunately, most retailers understand the value of basic employee training. Some 87.2% of part-time retail employees receive initial workplace training, a figure only slightly below the 89.7% of full-time employees who receive training. Unfortunately, the prevalence of employee training in the retail sector is more a response to the harsh realities of the industry than a proactive business decision. Consider just a couple of the challenges with which retailers must contend:

  • Lack of suitable candidates: When asked, “What percentage of applicants are suitable candidates for positions your company offers,” a mere 8.6% of retailers responded with “75-99%.” Conversely, over 60% of respondents claimed that between 0% and 24% of candidates were qualified for the positions for which they applied. Shockingly, more than one in ten (11.4%) retailers reported that only 0-9% of their applicants were properly qualified. These fairly dismal numbers stem in large part from significant skills gaps. 21% of all respondents claimed that a “lack of required skills among the candidate pool” represented the greatest barrier to finding suitable employees, second only to the “ability to offer competitive compensation” (24%).
  • Difficulty retaining employees: The struggle to build a competent sales team doesn’t stop once retailers have made their hires. It’s not unusual for even the most promising retail sales associates to end up underperforming, and most companies can’t afford to rest on their laurels and ignore repeated or prolonged failures. A plurality of 31% of retailers claim that poor attitude is the greatest challenge to employee retention, but this plurality is actually surpassed by the collective of those retailers who report lack of training (12%), inadequate interpersonal skills (12%), and inadequate communication skills (8%) as the greatest challenge to retention. All three of these shortcomings can be rectified to some degree or another with improved onboarding and employee development programs.

Simply put, retailers hoping to assemble a top-notch sales team must accept that, in most cases, they’re going to have to build it from the ground up. There just aren’t that many well-qualified retail workers out there, and the top talent tends to get snatched up incredibly quickly by companies willing and/or able to pay premium wages. This reality is made evident by the fact that only 1% of retailers would automatically disqualify an applicant for a “lack of previous training,” a figure that pales in comparison to the number of companies that would disqualify an applicant for a poor interview (30%), a bad attitude (29%), or a subpar résumé (11%).

In short, retailers often have no choice but to develop the borderline-(un)qualified applicants they receive. Encouragingly, a fair number of retailers have already begun to recognize the potential of tech-facilitated workplace learning. Though a quarter of retail companies incorporate little or no e-learning into their training processes, 34% report a training regimen that is between 51% and 75% e-learning and 31% report a regimen that is between 76% and 100% e-learning. Despite still being in the minority, a solid 42% of retailers report using an LMS to host and deliver their training materials.

How an LMS Helps Improve Retail Sales Training

As hinted at above, in today’s hyper-competitive markets, retailers must do everything they can to ensure that their customers have a positive in-store experience. That being said, anyone who has worked in retail can tell you that the job entails much more than living by the mantra, “the customer is always right.” Even entry-level retail workers contribute to loss-prevention, inventory management, and basic administrative processes.

As such, inadequate retail sales training can undermine a business in ways that go far beyond the creation of frustrated customers. It is therefore critically important that retailers invest in thorough training processes that cover not only customer service, but the full slate of responsibilities with which employees will be tasked. This won’t look the same for every retailer, but a powerful, flexible LMS goes a long way toward motivating a sales team and developing a competent, business-driving workforce, regardless of whether every member was a top-of-the-line candidate when hired.

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Here are a few ways that an LMS can improve the retail sales training process:

  1. Delivering training materials with maximum efficiency

Especially for larger, less nimble retail chains, training typically consists of a combination of a one-time manager-led session, tragically outdated and cheesy instructional videos, and text-heavy company policy booklets that no employee is ever going to actually read. Make no mistake, face-to-face training certainly has its place, but in reality it is no longer the most efficient – nor effective – way to prepare employees for the sales floor. What’s more, this kind of classroom-based instruction requires that branch managers and floating training managers must attend instructional seminars of their own every few months in order to polish teaching skills that may or may not come naturally to them. Not only does this cost money in terms of transportation expenses and seminar instructor fees, it also means that branches have to do without their leadership for several days every year.

By using an LMS that allows for learning modules to be accessed anytime, anywhere, retailers can guarantee that employees get the information they need both during and beyond orientation. Whether it’s encouraging employees to run through materials at home in exchange for a small workplace reward – flexible scheduling, slightly longer breaks for a week, or even a simple shout-out at the next all-hands meeting – or facilitating ongoing learning at certain tenure intervals – one month, three months, a year – there are many ways that retailers can leverage the power of an LMS to move beyond a one-and-done training program.

  1. Identifying individual employees’ learning needs

The flexibility offered by many top LMSs is actually a significant benefit unto itself. The average retail workforce includes a wide range of experience levels, meaning one-size-fits-all training is a recipe for inefficiency. Some employees may have completed health and safety compliance training at another job, others may already have comprehensive product knowledge, and making any of them revisit material they already know is a waste of everyone’s time and energy.

Of course, personalized training requires accurate skills gap analyses, as it’s impossible to tailor learning materials to an individual’s needs if you don’t know for certain what those needs are. Most retail-optimized LMSs come equipped with testing and reporting functions that enable managers to assess each employee’s unique needs and deliver the right supplementary materials at the right time. This allows companies to provide adequately in-depth training to the new hires that need it while simultaneously putting the rare all-star recruit to work as quickly as possible.

  1. Creating “learning campaigns” for individual issues

Even if you meticulously craft an industry-leading training program, chances are you’re going to have to – and indeed should – provide additional training units down the line. Regulations change. Best practices change. Especially in an increasingly tech-defined retail landscape, it’s unreasonable to expect that a training course can or should remain up-to-date for much more than a year or so. This by no means implies that new hire training is a waste of time, but only that it shouldn’t be treated as a self-contained, finite process.

A dynamic LMS affords management teams the option to build company-specific tutorials that can help employees quickly learn a new inventory management procedure or gain insight into a new product or policy. Not only does this maximize sales floor efficiency, it also helps prevent unnecessary expenses like reprinting updated corporate manuals.

  1. Facilitating informal, on-the-job learning

While no one is going to dispute the necessity of formal training, research shows that retail employees only learn 10% of what they need to know during orientation. In retail – as in many industries – on-the-job learning is queen. Unfortunately, since this kind of instruction is difficult to anticipate and orchestrate, many managers tend to ignore it altogether.

Though picking up skills on-the-job will always include an element of spontaneity, certain LMSs have social learning capabilities that encourage and facilitate knowledge sharing by more seasoned employees. By leveraging these capabilities, retailers can foster a culture of collaborative learning that goes a long way toward building a knowledgeable, highly-skilled customer service team.

Selecting the Right LMS

At this point, the numerous benefits an LMS has to offer to retailers of all sizes and configurations should be clear, but some of you might be asking – perhaps fairly – what makes a good retail LMS? There are over 700 LMS platforms currently on the market, and some are much better suited to the demands of a retail environment than others. Here are some major features retailers should be looking for when shopping for their LMS:

  • Cloud-hosted: The average retail branch doesn’t have many computers aside from those located at the cash wrap and in the manager's’ office – neither of which is a particularly good environment for open-hours training. Cloud-based LMSs enable employees to complete training wherever, on whatever device they choose, lending a critical level of flexibility to the process that a (download required) software-based LMS simply can’t deliver.
  • Intuitive user interface (for both employees and managers): First and foremost, workplace learning must be easy. If a retailer’s LMS is confusing and hard to use, employees are going to check out and fail to absorb the necessary information from the learning materials. Similarly, if an LMS’ content creation process is excessively complicated, managers are going to be hesitant to create their own modules, resulting in reliance on cookie-cutter materials that may or may not be helpful for employees.
  • Centralizing capabilities: Retail sales training has to cover a variety of topics – health and safety, product knowledge, customer service skills, corporate policies, etc. – and a good retail LMS is capable of housing content pertinent to all of these topics in one place.
  • White-labeling: The retail industry is all about branding, and this is just as true in the back of the house as in the front. The best employees know how to exude their brand’s essence, and this skill is grounded in the strength and comprehensiveness of the brand’s corporate philosophy. Simply put, using a retail sales training platform that doesn’t look and feel like it aligns with the brand is a bad look.
  • Scalability: Retail is an inherently volatile business. Certain times of year always deliver higher traffic, and retailers typically adjust for this by hiring seasonal workers. A cost-effective LMS will be able to easily scale up and down to meet these variable training needs.
  • Blended learning: As mentioned several times above, retail sales training will almost always include both an in-person and an e-learning component. An LMS should obviously be able to contribute to the latter, but the best platforms also deliver scheduling and follow-up functions related to the former.

Choosing the best LMS will depend upon a retailer’s unique needs, but at Continu, we’ve designed our platform to be flexible enough to satisfy just about any requirement without losing its potency. Our forward-thinking LMS was built to reflect what the next-generation workforce will look like: connected, integrated, mobile, and social. As retail continues to evolve thanks to ever-improving technology, Continu will be ready to deliver a cutting-edge workplace learning experience regardless of what the future holds.

Our mission is to solve workplace problems with simple, intuitive solutions that empower our clients – in the retail industry and elsewhere – to provide industry-leading onboarding and ongoing training. We’d love to answer any and all questions you might have about retail training specifically or LMS use in general, so please feel free to drop us a line or, better yet, request a demo of our system.

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