Working in a retail outlet is never easy, especially in the harsh economic climate we experience today. And yet, having an exemplary service attitude is mandatory for the survival of not only the retail outlet, but the career of the retail salesperson as well.

In the course of the same day, I have experienced two extremes of retail service.

I was at a large electronics supermart to shop for a new fridge as the current one is near its end. As soon as I walked towards a fridge I wanted to check out, a tall slim young man approached and pestered me with the usual, “can I help you?” spiel. Of course, I declined and told him I did not need his help. I started examining the various technical specifications (including physical dimensions to fit into my narrow space), and shortlisted two models. The same salesperson kept coming back to introduce another brand’s model, and insisted that I should choose that instead. That particular model simply did not fit my needs, and he started pushing other models of the same brand, leading me to believe he wasn’t keen to serve the needs of a customer, but rather, his own commission.

After that, I needed to look for ingredients for dinner, and checked out a small new shop selling pasta and sphaghetti. A young man came to serve us and was polite, knowledgeable, and sensitive to our needs. We bought some pasta. In fact, we returned later another day to purchase even more pasta to give to family members.

Some people insist that salespeople can be “trained”. You can teach good salespeople the necessary product and technical knowledge so that they can serve customers better, but you really can’t “train” someone to be salespeople. What does that mean?

The right salespeople are those who are sensitive to people and their needs. They are communicative, sociable, warm and friendly. They are ernest and eager to learn, and hardworking. Above all, they realize that only truly serving the needs of others result in the success of their own careers. The truly great salespeople are people with the right personality mix with the above attributes. You can’t “train” someone to be warm – at most, you can merely “train” someone to “appear” warm. You can’t “train” someone to be sociable either. A person is sociable to begin with, or he is not. Likewise, you can’t force someone to learn. That person should want to and desire to learn on his own. No amount of incentivizing can transform a laggard into a performer.

When I was in human resource development (HRD) since the 1980s right up to now, I realized over the course of time that you can only do much for people who either value their jobs, or are there to pass time.

In short, sieve out the personalities and character attributes that are already present in an individual, and groom such an individual with opportunities for learning, serving others, and this individual will shine. Don’t try to recruit people simply by a submitted curriculum vitae, or to meet numbers. Recruit the right type of individuals for the right jobs. And reward the brilliant individuals appropriately, and transfer those who simply can’t fit into particular roles away.

You are accountable for the success or failure of the company, as well as the livelihood for all the employees. Different people fit into different jobs, and not everyone is meant to do sales, just as not everyone is meant to be chief executives or office administrators. And remember, in the fierce retail sales front, every customer encounter counts – at the cash register.