Six Ways Working Retail Helps Me (and You) Sell Products and Services Online

 Boost online marketing intiatives with sales tips from retailers

Boost online marketing with sales tips from retailers


Everything I know about sales I learned working retail. Well, not entirely. Some things I learned as a recruiter. Unexpected, right?

Regardless of career path, we all pick up valuable skills that transfer. I had a wildly successful stint as a sales lead at women’s specialty retailer White House Black Market before transitioning into Internet marketing. Here’s how that lower-level retail management job helps me every day as an Internet marketer–and how these insights can help your small business.1. Determine your purpose, intent. It seemed so intangible; some days I could sell anything to anyone. Other days it seemed that customers didn’t want to be within three feet of me. The difference was all in my mindset, which affected how I approached others. My biggest sales days happened when I decided I was going to sell x articles on clothing or sell x amount. What I thought and believed in that moment dictated whether I pick up a customer or not.

The first step is deciding what you want out of the situation. One thing retail and online marketing have in common is the ability to get distracted by all of the moving parts.  Who hasn’t gotten a little carried away tweeting or goofing around on Facebook? Is this activity productive, does it relate to a strategic initiative? Assess analytics data to determine next steps and define what your effort, campaign, initiative is going to do, why it is an effective choice. Deciding is the first step to making it happen.

2. Customer focus/positioning. When I worked as a recruiter, my boss was the number one salesperson in the office, perhaps in the company at the time. He had a quiet, easygoing manner; you just wanted to confide in him. Why? He listened. He listened and asked questions for what seemed like an eternity. And only when he understood every last hope, fear, must have, favorite color and ice cream flavor of his prospect, only then did he explain how his job opportunities fit into those categories. Why it would be a good opportunity for his candidate. In retail, we found out as much as we could about our customers’ lives: a business trip this month, vacation and a wedding in August? Perfect. I suggested options that could be worn for all of these events. This added items to the sale.

You can’t sell anything unless you really know your customer: how they think, what they do, how they behave. You can find out good information by monitoring conversations on social media sites, but here’s another opportunity to show you are listening: reference common problems customers experience on your website. Cite common solutions, explain how they will benefit from your product or service.

Online, this kind of information is vital, essential. Between Google’s Panda, Penguin and semantic search algorithm updates, your Web content has a better chance of being found if it relates to the context of a search. People generally look to the Internet for entertainment or to find out how to solve a problem. Educating your website audience, explaining how to do something, increases the quality score attributed to your site and its ability to rank in search results.

3. Know your sales funnel. As a recruiter, I worked with notecards, newspapers, phone books and other sourcing materials, colored pens and a phone. I cold called organizations and had to figure out how to bypass reception, find hiring managers and determine what and how to persuade them. We placed ads for candidates with stellar skill sets and pitched them to companies for placement. I had to think on my feet, just as I did in retail. Basic training was quick–there was no substitute for diving in the deep end. It’s just you, the customer and a room full of clothes. Now go sell something.

In both scenarios, I experienced customers’ varying degrees of interest during the sales process. Prospects aren’t always ready to buy during that your first encounter. It takes a certain number of conversations, interviews, outfits to try on. What matters most is your understanding of the customer’s sense of urgency: what is their deadline, why is it a deadline? As a salesperson, you have to expect this. Be patient and learn how to encourage prospects with information they need at each stage of their decision making process.

There is a real opportunity to let your content do a lot of the selling for you online. According to the 2012 Digital Influence Index research, Eighty-nine percent of consumers surveyed use Internet search engines to make purchasing decisions, released by Fleishman-Hillard International Communications and Harris Interactive. And while 42 percent of those surveyed engage in social media sites to follow a friend or brand, 79 percent are motivated by a desire to learn more about the brand.

Your mission is clear: help them find information about you! Create e-books and white papers, how to videos, case studies, presentations–there is an almost endless amount of content you can create to show your audience you understand their problems and know how to solve them. Educate prospects on solutions and how your product/service is the only one they’ll ever need. This is how you warm up leads until they are hot, ready to buy.

4. You never call, you never write. My strength in retail was initiating relationships, not maintaining them. I was much happier greeting customers at the front of the store, being in the moment, developing a situation, making something happen. I was the number two seller in that boutique. Our number one seller was a master at calling her regular customers, scheduling appointments, informing them of promotions and special opportunities. Her clientele was rock solid–these customers wouldn’t shop with any other salesperson.

The moral? Give your prospects a reason to come back! You fought to get their attention in a crowded online space. Perhaps they downloaded an e-book or guide. Keep in touch with them. Establish lead nurturing campaigns, a series of emails that continue to suggest resources and incentives for your products and services. Tell them what they need–regularly.

5. Tell the customer what they need, don’t ask them what they want. Most new sales associates struggled with this concept until they saw it in action: people don’t really know what they want. This is why you ask a lot of questions. Get to know your customers, get to know what is going on in their lives. Very common scenario: a customer tells me they just want a pair of jeans. But while chatting, I’d find out that they’ve lost 30 lbs. and don’t have any work clothes that fit. Remember that business trip, vacation and wedding set to happen four months apart? How can I let this opportunity pass by? Once I gathered information about the big picture, I built outfits relevant for each event, preferably pieces that could be dressed up and down, complete with shoes and accessories. That’s what turns a $50 sale into a $2200 sale. People do what you tell them to do when they understand why your suggestion is to their advantage. The reason someone will fork over two thousand dollars for clothes in the above scenario? I’ve just helped them find outfits they can wear for four major occasions at (usually) a discount. For many women, avoiding the stress of shopping is reason enough. Now they don’t have to shop until the next season or two, I’ve taken away pain the customer wasn’t even thinking about.

You have that same power online. Direct your audience with conviction. Tell them what the solution to their problem is. “Get a free quote” “Call now for 30 minute consulting session” “Schedule session with an expert.” Use these calls-to-action; physically take users to the landing page where they can download this or access that. Give them something, free content, to get their contact information. Use that contact information to send regular email communications. People will do what you tell them to do, but you have to tell them to do something!

6. Everyone needs a partner in crime. Remember my frenemy, sales associate #1? She and I had a stealthy tag team approach to add items to each other’s sales. The fitting room was usually a fun, action-packed place, because when women see themselves transformed by a really flattering outfit, they just light up. Everyone catches that positive energy. So it’s very natural for a co-worker to compliment my customer and suggest something, a necklace, a cardigan, a belt to make her look even better! Worked like a charm. Another way to add items to my sale. Yes, it’s a sales move and my motivation was to make money, but I couldn’t feel bad when my customer is walking on air feeling like a million dollars.

When you solve a customer’s problem, it can make them feel just as good, regardless of your industry or business. How can partnerships make your company more effective? Internally, it makes sense to encourage strong collaboration between departments, especially sales and marketing. But it’s also worth thinking about how your company could add complementary services by partnering with another organization.

What sales techniques works in your organization? Let’s talk about how we can use that information to bolster its online presence and your Internet marketing initiatives. 

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