Secrets of Retail Sales Superstars

We polled some of the nation’s best jewelry trainers and salespeople to learn how to be a top performer. Hint: Product has very little to do with it.

Delivering top-notch customer service is the most important aspect of selling, according to sales stars and training experts. It’s more important than retail location, more crucial than targeted advertising, and, arguably, more central to the deal than the product itself. In fact, adept salespeople maintain that the art of the sale all comes down to superior customer service.

Customer care is also one of the hardest aspects of the business to get right—a ceaseless challenge with a continuous flow of variables as diverse as mankind. Too often, it’s overlooked.

There isn’t a magic key to providing great customer ­service, say the experts. Rather, you need a knack for knowing when to ask questions, smile, or leave a shopper alone. Being able to serve with a sense of honor and respect plays a significant role, as does possessing superior product knowledge. (Though knowing more than the customers is something of a rarity these days, at least in their eyes.) Honesty is another critical factor, and being able to roll with the punches doesn’t hurt either.

To excel in customer service, you don’t necessarily have to be a born people person or a born salesperson, but you have to be willing to learn to be both. Your success will make the difference between a good business and a great one.

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Professional sales trainer Leonard Zell’s golden rule? “Sell as you would like to be sold.”

Hiring well-qualified people and investing in their professional growth is part of the secret sauce. Many stores hire sales associates not knowing whether they are any good at the selling game, nor do they give them the tools to succeed, says Brad Huisken, sales trainer and consultant at IAS Training, based in Lakewood, Colo. Educating sales staff on the product, empowering them with technology such as a tablet or smartphone, and establishing and following service standards and sales techniques are too often ignored, he says.

“Training is very expensive if you don’t do it and inexpensive if you do do it,” Huisken says.

He estimates most retailers are doing half the business they could be doing if managers and owners took the time to train and educate sales staff. “It will more than pay for itself on return on investment.”

Some of the experts JCK interviewed recommend following a simple blueprint, such as Leonard Zell’s golden rule. The owner of Professional Jewelry Sales Training has logged 30 years of training sales associates and advises them to “sell as you would like to be sold,” he says. “If it doesn’t pass that test, it may still work okay, but it won’t work well. You’ll get a lot of rejection.” Zell also counsels people to record themselves, listen to the audio, and make adjustments accordingly.

Best practices like asking the right questions can help boost sales. For example, if it’s holiday time, ask customers what else is on their shopping list. If there’s an upcoming wedding, a salesperson should inquire whether any thought has been given to the wedding rings or to engagement party items. Even philosophical questions such as “What does value mean to you?” can yield good results. Value means different things to different people; let your customers tell you what it means to them.

The No. 1 secret, says Jean-Louis Desjardins, owner of Desjardins-Rochon Jewelers in Rutland, Vt.: “to be a good listener.” Desjardins hails from a long line of artisans with people skills. The family was once known as “jewelers to the royal family” of France after Louis XIV declared the then crown-makers the finest jewelers in the world. “Most people come in knowing what they’re looking for and with a lot of information,” he explains. “I just listen and treat them with respect, listen for certain key words, and help them focus. That works for me.”

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Being a strong seller often comes down to being a good listener.

There are plenty of opportunities for thinking outside the box in terms of employee and customer relations. If a sales associate has a personality conflict with a customer or can’t relate to him or her because of gender or socioeconomic differences, for instance, why not hand over the business to a colleague?

Practicalities aside, many sales stars cite an organic, almost spiritual, approach to their customer relationships: Do the right thing, not as a means to an end, but because it is the right thing to do. It’s the ultimate paradox: By focusing on everything but the sale of the product itself—that is, putting energy into building trust with the customer—sales mavericks end up selling.

“When a customer first shops, they’re not looking for jewelry, they’re looking for the person from whom to buy the jewelry,” Huisken says. “It’s because there’s so much competition out there.”

The product is the least important part of the sale, echoes Zell. “People come in and they’re looking for the connection,” he says. “How many [sales associates] smile? I ask a room of 300 store owners this question and almost nobody raises their hand. Your best friend is your smile. Treat a first-time customer like a friend in your home. There’s no science. It’s very simple common sense.”

Jorge Adeler, owner of Adeler ­Jewelers in Great Falls, Va., says the reason the deal comes down to emotion instead of numbers is the inherent nature of fine jewelry. “We need food, shelter, clothing,” he says. “Like music, art, and faith, jewelry feeds the soul, not the body. And if you want to tackle the permanent aspect of jewelry, it’s emotion.”

Adeler believes it is his job to interpret customers’ dreams and work within their budgets. If he doesn’t live up to the task, Adeler isn’t shy about telling customers they shouldn’t buy from him. “I tell them, ‘I don’t want to sell you anything. I want you to want to buy it. I’m not after one sell. I’m after your respect and trust, and you will meet me many times in my lifetime.’” Adeler says this philosophy has pushed the company’s sales into double-digit growth every year since 1995 (he concedes two dips, one in 2008, and another in 2010).

Building trust doesn’t always refer to the conventional relationship between the salesperson and the consumer. Sometimes the bond is between the brand and the consumer.

Quality and price have always driven brand loyalty, but today’s consumer is looking for something more. A recent Wirthlin Worldwide study concluded that 80 percent of customers base a fair portion of their buying decision on the perception of a company’s ethics. ­Businesses are increasingly emphasizing ethical business practices, which are of particular ­interest to millennials.

“We do our best to educate the customer, and being able to answer questions in a thoughtful, concise, and truthful manner helps get them excited about their purchase,” says Elisa Olufson, co-owner of Olufson Designs Fine Jewelers in Corvallis, Ore., which carries multiple lines of fair-trade jewelry. “This is so they know that ­environmental laws are being followed and workers are treated fairly. Younger shoppers, particularly brides, want the gemstones that fit with their values and beliefs.”

Gucci recently announced that it is ethically sourcing materials, reducing emissions by 25 percent, and complying with international labor laws—insisting none of it is a marketing ploy. “In the long term, our commitment toward social responsibility will enhance our brand reputation, and eventually consumers will buy more into the brand,” Gucci’s chief Patrizio di Marco said at a WWD apparel and retail CEO summit last October. “But that is the long term. [We do it] because it is the right thing to do.”

Last, don’t forget that traditional sales technique of giving people permission to buy. Consumers need assurances they are making the right choice, says Philip Burton, a third-generation owner of Burton Jewelers in Anacortes, Wash.

Ultimately, however, relationships will prevail. “When you represent products honestly and completely and it goes off the way it should, I still get chills,” Burton says. “You feel that connection. It’s not about the money. It’s about being associated with happy celebrations in life, whether birthdays, engagements, or Christmas. It’s about connecting with people.”

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