Here’s a question to ponder: What’s the main role of a retail associate? Sales person? Product expert? Brand ambassador?

In today’s omnichannel environment, where the store is often a retailer’s best single expression of its brand identity, the most accurate response is “All of the above.”

Just as the function of the store has expanded over the last decade from fulfillment center to customer experience hub, the role of store associates has moved beyond simply ringing up customers to curating the in-store experience. Successful retailers understand the untapped potential of in-store teams and strive to capitalize on this to create a competitive advantage.  

This post will shed light on how retailers are creating value by reimagining the store associate function, and offer actionable tips on how to empower your store teams to rise to the challenge of 21st Century retailing.

Let’s get started.

1. Have a compelling “why”

Simon Sinek, the author of Start with Why famously said that “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” The same thing can be said when you’re training (or re-training) retail store staff.

If you want to empower your associates to go beyond the role of salespeople, you’ll need to give them a compelling reason to do so. Make sure you have a strong “why” behind your efforts and communicate it effectively.

For example, when Apple onboards its in-store Geniuses, the phrase “enriching people’s lives” comes up repeatedly throughout the training experience. Why? Because Apple wants its employees to understand that what they’re doing goes beyond sales and customer service. As Business Insider puts it, The idea is to instill in employees the notion that they are doing something far grander than just selling or fixing products.

You can also apply the notion of “why” to more specific parts of your training. Let’s say you’re teaching a certain in-store process. Rather than just telling your employees what to do, communicate why it’s integral to the customer experience.

“Retailers should amend their current training to include explanations of why things should be done a certain way, instead of only focusing on what to do and how to do it,” says Chris Guillot, the founder of Merchant Method. “Storytelling, case studies, photos, and customer feedback are multi-dimensional ways to train leaders and teach brand values.”

She adds, “This deeper approach to recruiting, hiring, training, and developing a store team will elevate every customer’s brand experience. By making active brand stewardship an all-staff responsibility through this adjustment in practices, retailers can ensure alignment between brand values and customer experience.”

2. Go beyond sales incentives

Shifting from being sales-focused to customer-centric can be difficult if you’re only incentivizing the former. If you’re looking to encourage your staff to be more service-focused and build relationships, start by identifying new KPIs that align with your desired customer experience and then incentivize your staff to change their approach.

For instance, to improve customer engagement, Origins Skincare introduced compensation plans that rewarded staff based on how well they collected customer information.

Other retailers are empowering their employees to be better brand advocates. For example, when Walgreens unveiled its “Happy and Healthy” rebrand in 2013, the company came up with a creative way to ensure that employees represented its new message. Walgreens introduced a trivia game that quizzed staff on their knowledge of what it means to be “Happy and Healthy.”

Once the trivia was completed, users were given a sweepstakes entry for a fitness-centric prize. They were also asked to send a statement about how they would encourage shoppers to stay “Happy and Healthy.”

3. Don’t be too rigid

Building relationships and connecting with customers requires creativity. Each shopper is different, so give your associates the freedom to interact with customers in an authentic way, with their own personal style.

This doesn’t mean giving them free rein; it’s important to establish your brand values and offer general customer guidelines. But avoid pushing rigid scripts.

Take Trader Joe’s. TJ’s is known for having friendly and helpful associates who perfectly embody the chain’s “quirky cool” image. They’re one of the reasons behind the company’s impressive sales performance and productivity.

What’s noteworthy is that Trader Joe’s doesn’t impose inflexible policies to get employees to act the way they do.

A Trader Joe’s associate told Business Insider that “there’s no script” at their job: “As long as I make sure the customer is having a great time, and I’m emphasizing Trader Joe’s values, I can talk to people about whatever I want.”  

4. Emphasize product and customer knowledge

Consumers today are extremely well-informed. Seventy-nine percent of shoppers research products before purchasing in-store, and nearly 60% use their phones in-store to do further research, compare prices, and more. But even with all these tools and resources at your customers’ fingertips, there’s still a critical role for store associates to play as product experts and evangelists.

First, leverage the power of stories. Your customers can easily find product features and reviews online, but store staff can offer deeper, more compelling tidbits and stories behind your merchandise and designers.

When you’re educating your team about your store’s assortment, be sure to highlight the little-known details and anecdotes behind each item. Elevator, an accessories retailer in Toronto, for example, holds unboxing sessions whenever new collections arrive at the store. This gives the Elevator team the opportunity to examine products in more detail and talk about the what makes each item unique.

Another way to elevate the expertise of your staff? Make them experts on your customers. Having product knowledge is essential, but pairing that with customer information is a skill that’s sure to impress shoppers.

Your associates should go beyond memorizing features and benefits. Encourage them to get to know their customer so they can personalize each conversation and provide tailored recommendations. If available, give them access to your CRM and encourage them to get to know shoppers better during their interactions.

5. Make learning and development a continuous process

Staff training isn’t a one and done activity. Shoppers are constantly evolving, and no matter what market you’re in, there are always new trends to explore. Stay curious; make it a point to keep up with industry developments, and take your associates along with you.

This can manifest itself in a number of ways. For some retailers, staff development involves bringing in product designers or category managers to train the staff. For others, it could mean attending trade shows that showcase new products and trends.

The key here is to continuously learn and develop. Find what works for you and your team then go from there.