How I got an “F” in Retail

A few months ago I had the opportunity to work retail in a fly shop. I was so geeked out: not only did I get to do what I loved most (play with product), I also got to put my mad sales skills to work.
At least, I thought I had mad sales skills.
The Scenario:
Two girls walk into the fly shop. Yep, you heard me, girls. From my quick assessment, it looked to be a mom-and-daughter combo. I jumped on it. Made eye contact and, from Mom’s body language and tone of voice, I gathered she was frustrated. Her questions: “Do you have any Patagonia jackets? My daughter,” the girl standing next to her, “left her North Face jacket at home and we need to go on a hike.”
That was a lot of information at once, and I knew we didn’t have Patagonia jackets—but we did have SIMMS. Without asking any questions (my “F”), I went right to the SIMMS jacket at the comparable price to North Face or Patagonia. 
Immediately the mom grew even more frustrated with my epic sales skills and countered with, “I don’t want to pay for another jacket when her North Face is at home and we just need something to keep her warm on our hike.” My reaction: panic. I knew in that moment I had lost the connection. 

Instead of pausing to gather more information, I made even more assumptions. My excitement to sell overpowered my ability to listen. Thankfully, my co-worker was in the background, heard me drowning, and came in like a superhero: he made Mom happy, kept Daughter warm and fashionable, and taught me a few things about my lack of sales skills.  

You see, I couldn’t hear over my assumptions that day. I didn’t connect because my assumption that I had an immediate connection (we are women in a fly shop) was not enough. Ultimately I would have lost the sale, but my co-worker (a male) saved the day, and I was reminded that it takes a village.
Last month, I talked about recognizing retail’s therapeutic role in 21st century life. This mother-daughter duo wasn’t on the traditional shopping spree, but they still expected a certain scenario: quick service and astute recommendations based on effective listening. When I didn’t give that to them, their shopping experience turned sour. Retail therapy isn’t just about coddling or creating a luxurious experience; at its core, it’s about listening and adjusting your reaction to the customer’s specific needs. That’s theirtherapy.
Lessons: 
1.   Assuming has no place in sales. 
The moment we stop asking questions and start making assumptions, we have lost the art of true
selling. We preach again and again the value in being curious, and I failed to practice our own lessons
that day.
Why did mom and daughter come into a fly-fishing store? It was the closest store to the hotel and they saw a familiar brand name:  Patagonia. What did they need? Something to keep her daughter warm, quickly and with little expense—notthe $350 SIMMS jacket or the $150 fleece pull-over from Orvis.
There were so many more questions I could have asked that would have led me to the best choice for this family. Was the daughter into sports? That could impact her choice of technical versus comfort clothing. What hike were they doing?  Elevation is important to know when outfitting someone in a jacket. Where are you from? How often do you hike? In other words, what kind of use is this jacket going to get moving forward. All these questions would have led me to a more accurate conclusion: she needed a technical base layer in a small budget that would be reusable for sports. 
2.  Gender doesn’t equal connection. 
Just because you are the same gender in a male dominant sport doesn’t mean you have an instant connection—you still have to build rapport. While the mother and daughter gravitated towards me and quickly made eye contact, my actions caused me to swiftly lose that initial connection based on gender alone. Why wasn’t that bond enough to hold us together? After all, I too am a mom of a high school girl who also forgets things.
You see, this mom didn’t know I was a mom. I went right to my own story, and projected my story on the mom and daughter, which immediately created irritation rather than rapport. I did that by disrupting the mom’s full story. Instead of fully listening to what she was really saying, I projected my own story, “I need a jacket for my daughter who left her North Face at home,” onto her, and then translated it to hear, “Jacket + North Face = Money.” These assumptions resulted in me pulling a jacket that was way off course for them. 
Mom quickly brought me back to reality by doing two things: 1. She said, “I don’t want to spend that much on a jacket when she has one at home.”  And 2. “Is this the women’s section? We will just look around.” I knew immediately what I had done, and that takes me to my third lesson.
 3.  It takes a village. 
Thankfully my co-worker and I had been working in the women’s section that morning and he heard it all go down. His insightful questions built the rapport I destroyed and created a genuine connection, which translated into the perfect sale. The lesson here is that when we break rapport, we have to call for a lifeline. We have to ask for help. 

My “F” in retail that day showed me a whole series of valuable lessons. No matter your tenure in sales, you can always learn to ask more questions. Don’t ever assume you have a connection because of your gender. Always use your lifeline.

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