How Product Knowledge Affects Sales Execution

Store associates need to be prepared

Retail Execution
November 5, 2019

From the 10,000-foot view, retail is simple: You sell stuff for more than it costs you to buy it.

While that’s basically true, a lot goes on in between, especially in today’s retail environment, where customers come to brick-and-mortar stores to fulfill a need they couldn’t satisfy with an online purchase. Maybe they need something right now and can’t wait for shipping. Other times, their motivation is more human: They want the face-to-face connection of working with a salesperson to come up with a personalized solution. Or maybe they have questions they couldn’t resolve online. 

That’s why lack of product knowledge can be a deal-breaker, especially in speciality products. Take fishing, for instance. If a customer is planning a weekend of ice fishing with his college buddies and the salesperson can’t help him select the right tackle and gear, he’ll go somewhere else.

But that doesn’t mean product knowledge isn’t important for broader consumer goods. Someone shopping for clothes might want to know if a “wash and wear” garment really comes out of the dryer unwrinkled, or if it still needs to be ironed despite what the label says. Dog owners might want to know how well their breed tolerates a brand of dog food, since some breeds have sensitivities to certain ingredients.

Whatever their motivation may be, customers want to talk to someone with a certain level of expertise. In fact, one study conducted in 2014 revealed that more than half of shoppers look for advice at brick-and-mortar stores, and stores whose employees can provide that advice generate 69% more revenue than those who don’t. 

Since then, of course, technology has changed the way we shop, and customers now research products online before they visit a store. But that doesn’t mean knowledgeable employees are no longer important. To the contrary – they’re more important than ever. It’s estimated that, after conducting their own research, 44% of customers realize they know more about a product than the sales staff does. That’s the kind of “oops” that can make a customer leave in search of a store whose employees are better informed.

Lack of knowledge leads to lack of execution

Just like so many things in retail, it comes down to execution. Retailers depend on store teams to guide customers through the last few steps of the customer journey: choosing the right product and taking it home with them. When employees don’t execute those last few steps, it’s not because they don’t care. It’s usually because they don’t know enough about the product.

Get better execution by putting product knowledge in your store teams’ hands

Some companies, like REI, go all-in: Not only do they train store employees on what their products are for and how to use them, they even pick up the tab for employees who want to take “field trips” where they use REI products in the real outdoors. 

But not everybody can do that. Not every retailer is lucky enough to have employees who are naturally passionate about the products they sell. And big-box retailers with many different departments may have trouble scheduling specialists for every shift.

Nonetheless, product knowledge is no longer optional. In a time when people can buy just about anything online, shopping at a brick-and-mortar store is about more than acquiring a product. Customers who leave the comfort of home and make their way to a physical store are seeking something they can’t get online: a face-to-face conversation with a real person, talking about the features and benefits of various cameras, for example, or which shoes go better with the dress they’ve chosen. 

In other words, they expect store employees to be trusted advisors, meeting their needs for authentic engagement while answering all of their questions about the product.

To fulfill the role of trusted advisor, employees need a deep understanding of the products they’re selling and which will best meet a customer’s needs. If a customer is shopping for a camera, the employee needs to be able to find out what the customer really wants from a camera  —  ease of use, a variety of shooting modes, ample storage, Bluetooth connectivity, etc. — and to then steer them to the right camera. Someone buying perfume, on the other hand, might really be buying an image of how they want to be seen. A really good salesperson with deep product knowledge can help make that connection.

Best practices for improving sales execution through product knowledge

We’ve established that retailers get better results from knowledgeable employees. Now let’s take a look at some best practices for putting product knowledge in employees hands:

Plan ahead for rolling out new products

Before you roll out a new product or product line, get your store teams up-to-speed not only with the details of the product, but also why you chose that product: Is it a product that customers have been asking for? Or is it replacing an existing product? If so, why? 

Is it more sustainable? Does it meet Fair Trade standards? Is it a matter of price and quality?

These might not be points you always want employees to use when talking to customers, but they provide context for why a product is in your stores and therefore gives your associates more to work with.

Depending on the complexity of the product (a high-tech drone vs. a pair of jeans, for example), you might want to start communicating about the new product several weeks in advance, giving you time to disseminate the information in chunks through an email drip campaign instead of sending it all at once. 

In addition, if you add those emails to your knowledge library and make them easily accessible,  employees can always go back and refresh their knowledge. Chunking and archiving are especially important for reaching part-timers who may only work a few hours each week.

Fill employees in on campaigns and promotions

Make sure employees are familiar with any promotional ads you’re running, from Instagram to YouTube.

That goes double for major ad campaigns. When a customer mentions something they saw on YouTube or Instagram and the employee knows nothing about it, it undermines confidence in the employee and the brand. 

Sharing this kind of information can be as simple as a weekly digest informing the store team of what’s going on that week.

Use a survey or quiz to get a sense of how much employees know about a product or product line

Surveys and quizzes are a great way to get a sense of what employees remember about a product or product line. Try doing it right before a new product line roles out to see if employees absorbed enough of the pre-rollout information to sell the new products 

Request promotional materials from your vendors

They’re the experts on their products, and it’s in their best interest to help your employees sell them. You can put these materials in the office or, if you get them in digital form, in your resource library. You may also be able to get shelf tags or displays that help customers educate themselves and that employees can use as talking points. (In some cases, vendors will even send representatives to stores to teach employees how to sell their products).

Go mobile

If employees are allowed to use either their personal phones or company-issued devices on the sales floor, give them access to an app where they can pull up additional information about a product. They can even hand the device to the customer so they can read the information themselves.

Even better? Create videos showing real people using (or wearing) the product, and make it easy for employees to pull those videos up and show them to customers. (Just remember that these videos should be created for customers, not employees. They should engage customers and address their needs and questions.)

Put the product in your employees’ hands

Finally, nothing beats getting the product in your employees’ hands. You won’t find any Android devices at an Apple store, for example, and many retailers offer their employees deep discounts to wear their clothing while at work. At stores like Sephora, employees can use downtime to try out different cosmetics and skin care products, so they can answer questions from firsthand experience. 

From power tools to cosmetics, having employees who can say “I use this myself” is a huge competitive advantage.

Product knowledge is the key to sales execution

There’s no debate that equipping employees with easily accessible product information increases sales. But how do you do that without your product emails getting lost in the flood of task and informational emails employees have to sort through?

The answer is a communication and task management platform like Retail Zipline. Retail Zipline is made for retail, by retail. It’s designed to create, segment, and send messages about daily tasks, offering both visibility and accountability. Moreover, messages can be tagged so that store teams can easily see whether they’re about store ops, marketing, product information, etc.

But it’s also great for delivering messages about products, whether that means a video from a vendor or an email drip campaign that delivers information in bite-sized chunks that employees can read in between customers. 

Even better, the info and attachments from those messages can be stored in a searchable resource library so that part-timers, for instance, can catch up on what they missed. 

Today, it’s all about the customer experience, and Retail Zipline’s communication and task execution platform can help you deliver, whether it’s changing shelf tags or learning all about a new product line.

Reach out today to schedule a demo