What do you mean?

There are many phrases and words used every day, both in the stores and in corporate offices, to describe some action or expectation:

“Get to this quickly.”
“Be more proactive.”
“Run the business like you own it.”
“You should get the merchandise on the floor faster.”
“You have to tell a story here.”

If you’re lucky, someone will ask the clarifying question: what do you mean?More often than not, though, people interpret the general or vague phrase for themselves, and that may or may not be the meaning you intended. The result can be costly: confusion, frustration, wasted effort and even the loss of talented employees.

Communication skills can be a tool for adapting your management style to a range of associate personalities and motivations that you are coaching.

For example, let’s say you, as the retail manager, are concerned that an associate isn’t asking customers enough questions to really understand their needs. Instead of the vague phrase, “You need to ask customers more questions,” consider the intent and desired result first.

Why are you making that general statement?

  • Intent: Increase scope of communication.
  • Desired result(s): Ensure associate is determining the entire range of customers’ needs.

Now you can take a step back and think about a more productive and effective way to communicate with the associate. We recommend focusing on the specific actions you’re expecting as well as their impact.

So rather than the general directive to ask more questions, you might say:

  • “Ask open-ended questions to get broader information from the customer. Then, use close-ended questions to narrow down the information. That way, you’ll make recommendations that truly meet the customer’s stated needs and won’t feel like you’re being pushy.”

Retail Communication Skills Playing Out In the Store

Here’s a great real-life example from a manager at a national apparel chain who has been through our Retail Store Leadership training program and used our after-session RSL+ reinforcement tool to keep the concepts and skills fresh.

The manager needed to have a conversation with an associate about improving the person’s below-standard performance. But, as any of us who has ever been involved in any kind of performance discussion knows, these situations can be rife with ambiguities, uncertainties and feelings that you’re not being heard—no matter which side of the conversation you’re on.

When the manager took the time to describe specific actions and their impact as well as listen to learn what the associate’s perspective was and ask for her input, the conversation turned into a much more productive interaction.

In fact, to the manager’s surprise, the associate, who is a quiet person and doesn’t typically engage much, had lots of questions for her: “Little did I know she had all these curiosities about the store and the position!”

What an opportunity for both of them that this manager took the time not only to be clear but to adapt to the associate’s style.

“In the end, I think we were both relieved, and she’s feeling more comfortable,” the manager says. “We came up with a game plan to teach her a little bit at a time each time she works.”

The ROI of Clarity at the Retail Leadership Level

One of the ironies of an improving economy is that retail turnover rates often go up as a result. Whether voluntary or not, turnover is costly for retailers, particularly when you take into account the resources involved in recruiting, hiring, training and retaining new staff.

Retail leaders who have the skills to communicate effectively with their associates will be better able to manage and coach people to continually improved performance, but that’s not all. When people feel their managers care about their success, they’ll be more motivated, productive and engaged—and increased retention rates are only one of the benefits. Studies have shown that the more engaged store associates are, the more sales they generate.

If it seems like it takes a little longer to think through how you’re communicating and what your intent is, in fact, it’s a very small investment of time on the front end that ultimately saves time, money and a lot of unnecessary frustration for everyone.

What are you doing to improve the return on leadership communications? Share in the comments or tweet us @mohrretail.


About Michael Patrick

Michael held positions in retail management, merchandising, and human resources before joining MOHR Retail’s predecessor in 1986. In 1990 he purchased the retail division of that firm to form today’s MOHR Retail. Michael holds true to his retail roots by delivering learning that changes behavior—providing both immediate and lasting business impact. In addition to facilitating MOHR Retail training programs, he offers executive-level coaching in one-on-one sessions dealing with critical strategic issues such as succession strategies and executive team development. The author of “The New Negotiation Mindset: Guarantee A Bigger Slice,” Michael is a longstanding member of NRF as well as ISA: The Association of Learning Providers. He has a B.A. from San Diego State University, completed Master’s level work at Arizona State University, and lives with his family in New Jersey.