Putting Professionalism Into Practice

The young, relatively inexperienced staff members that many pet specialty stores depend on often need a crash-course on the fundamentals of professional retailing.


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Enthusiastic but inexperienced young employees make up an important part of the workforce for many independent pet retailers. Helping these new hires move through the learning curve as quickly as possible is fundamental to their success—and to a pet store’s.

For high schoolers starting what may be their very first job, “professionalism” is an SAT vocabulary word, not a set of attitudes and behaviors. To new employees—and even some experienced team members—a store’s policies may seem arbitrary or overly controlling.

But even the most inexperienced workers should understand that happy customers are essential to a retailer’s success. Putting the following fundamentals in the context of customer service will help team members understand why a store has specific policies—the first step in putting professionalism into practice.


Appearing Professional
What associates wear is part of customers’ retail experience when shopping in a pet store. Sales associates have only a few minutes to interact with each customer—sometimes only a few seconds—so the first impression may be the only impression. Employees’ appearance can make or break a sale and help determine if shoppers return in the future.

Whether retailers have a formal, written dress code, or verbally communicate this information to new hires, they should be sure to explain why their professional appearance is critical to a good shopping experience. Following the store’s dress code:

• Makes it easy for customers to quickly find someone who can help them, saving time and aggravation.

• Makes associates look more approachable, so customers feel comfortable asking for help.

• Helps associates reinforce the store’s image and brand.

• Makes associates look and feel like part of the team.

What associates wear is only part of a professional appearance; good grooming counts too. Showering regularly, using deodorant, and having fresh breath and clean hands all seem like basic common sense—until a storeowner is forced to have an awkward conversation with an employee who doesn’t meet these standards. Having a written policy and defining expectations in advance can help retailers avoid uncomfortable confrontations.


Having a Service Attitude
How associates look is only part of making a good impression. Having the right attitude and being focused on service are also critical. When associates sincerely believe that customers are the most important part of their job, it shows in everything they do.

Sales associates who have a service attitude and act professionally impact a store’s image and help set the stage for a positive shopping experience that encourages customers to stay longer, buy more, and return again and again.

Associates show their service attitude in how they act and what they do. Examples of a great service attitude include:

• Smiling to welcome customers and showing that that they are happy to work with them.

• Having positive, energetic body language.

• Listening carefully to shoppers and co-workers.

• Being focused on each customer and ignoring potential distractions.

Employees with a good service attitude are alert to buyers’ needs and ready to help at all times. They realize that texting, eating and talking with co-workers while customers are waiting all show they are not putting customers first. Professionals take pride in what they do, keeping a careful eye out for things that don’t fit the store’s image, such as items that are out of place or dusty shelves.


Reporting to Work
Showing up on time and when scheuled should be a no-brainer, but almost every retailer has stories to tell about associates—often former associates—who just didn’t get it. Explaining how customer service is affected by policies on scheduling, time tracking and requesting time off can encourage new hires to comply.

When employees don’t show up, arrive late or leave early, they leave the sales floor short-staffed. Other team members have to cover for the missing workers, meaning they can’t provide the best service to shoppers in the store or complete assignments that will affect future customers’ satisfaction. Being chronically late is bad for team morale, as associates who do follow the rules become resentful and less willing to help out, negatively affecting the customer experience.

Arriving ready to work is as important as arriving on time. Shoppers expect associates to be energetic, enthusiastic and ready to help. Retailers should encourage new employees to get in the habit of leaving their worries behind when they walk in the store’s door, so they can focus on the customer.


Interacting With Customers
Professional sales associates treat every shopper respectfully. But what does respect actually look like? Key components include monitoring body language, being considerate of customers’ time, listening carefully and fulfilling commitments.

Associates may not realize just how much their body language and non-verbal signals actually reveal. Standing up straight with uncrossed arms, talking in an upbeat tone, and animated facial expressions all show that they are engaged and eager to help. Crossed arms, a monotone voice or a bored expression tell customers that an employee doesn’t want to talk to them.

Professionals are considerate of other people’s time. They offer help but know when to back off. Professional sales associates understand that customers hate to wait and take the time to acknowledge waiting shoppers by making eye contact, smiling and saying, “I’ll be right with you.” Professionals also show they respect the shopper by asking if they have time to look at possible solutions or hear about a new product before, instead of making that assumption.

Professionals deliver on their commitments. When associates commit to doing something, they are making a promise from the store to that customer. Whether that commitment is to have someone call the customer with an answer to his question or to email her when an out-of-stock item arrives in the store, professionalism requires that associates do what they said they would.


Role-Playing Professionalism
As retailers incorporate professionalism fundamentals into their store’s training, they should be sure to provide a safe space for new hires to practice, make mistakes and build confidence. Role-playing exercises are a great way to reinforce lessons on having a good service attitude and interacting with customers.

Because there are so many possible situations when dealing with customers, there’s no way to prepare associates for all of them. However, role-playing the most common scenarios allows a retailer to coach employees on behaving professionally in a controlled environment.

Storeowners can ask a new hire to play the customer for the first run-through to see how an experienced employee handles a specific situation. The trainer should explain what they did and why, then switch roles to give the new employee a chance to demonstrate what they’ve learned. It is important to provide encouraging feedback on what they did well and what needs more work. Then the scenario can be role-played again, until the new hire feels comfortable putting professionalism into practice.


Stephanie A. Kaplan is the director of online education for the Pet Industry Distributors Association. She manages PIDA’s free online training program, Pet Store Pro, which offers brand-neutral training on critical skills for associates, managers and owners. Pet Store Pro is free to qualified retailers; visit petstorepro.com to register and begin using the program.

This article was adapted from “Pet Retail Basics,” one of 24 chapters available as part of Pet Store Pro’s online training. In addition to lessons on appearance, attitude and interacting with customers, “Pet Retail Basics” also covers the importance of product knowledge, dealing with different types of shoppers, helping customers over the phone, and understanding how pet stores make money.

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