Sales assistants are on the march - becoming 'smarter' and more skilled, says Roger Trapp
When the empowerment juggernaut started to roll a few years back, the accepted wisdom was that junior employees would be only too eager to jump at the opportunity to take more responsibility. After all, did not everybody want to strive away at the job rather than just do an honest day's work for an honest day's pay?

Then the rhetoric died down and it seemed to become all right for shelf packers, for example, to content themselves with packing shelves - albeit in teams and with ever-rising targets.

Now some of that "make-life-more-interesting" approach is returning. A report published this week from the Institute for Employment Studies shows the role of the sales assistant to be increasingly demanding. They are required to cover a wider range of tasks and to have a greater depth of knowledge in a variety of areas. In particular, there is a growing need for such people to follow other groups in working "smarter", more efficiently and flexibly.

Sally Dench, IES research fellow and one of the authors of the report, says: "Retailing is very competitive. Price is just one factor on which firms compete. Increasingly, quality of service is seen as a source of advantage, and sales assistants are central to its achievement.

"It is no longer acceptable simply to be 'available'; sales assistants are expected to acknowledge customers and respond to their needs and demands. Shop floor staff are on the 'front line', and managers are paying more attention to their recruitment, training and development, and the monitoring of their performance."

The study, Trading Skills for Sales Assistants, adds that managers are trying to raise the status and self-esteem of sales assistants - and move away from such attitudes as, "I am just a sales assistant."

Sales assistants are increasingly expected to take more responsibility, with "flexibility" and "initiative" being the watchwords here as elsewhere.

Though managers must also keep costs under control, they are acknowledging that meeting the needs of increasingly demanding customers aware of their rights requires training and motivation.

As part of this, they have identified the main skills and abilities required of sales assistants. Besides the right attitude and outlook - wanting to work with and serve people - and basic literacy and numeracy skills, they should have customer service and selling skills.

Different companies have different approaches - with greeting the customer as he or she enters the store being an article of faith at the US stores group The Gap, for instance, while others are much lower-key - but increasingly sales assistants are expected to recognise when a customer wants help and then to put themselves out to satisfy them. Likewise, it is accepted that in Britain, unlike the United States, most people do not appreciate a "hard sell". But more attention is being paid to ensure that assistants know how to make a sale and to follow it through.

Perhaps more importantly, businesses, especially those in the financial services industry, are learning that those same customers who are becoming more demanding about service want to know a lot more about what they are buying.

Businesses are making greater use of various assessment methods - including psychometric testing - in order to recruit the right type of people. They are then building on this by teaching them technical skills alongside induction in the particular methods, or culture, of the business concerned.

Indeed, the research - carried out as part of the Department for Education and Employment's Skills Review Programme - suggests many organisations are making their training and development much more focused on their own, rather than general, needs.

Although there has been an improvement in the general level of training, there is a significant concern about ensuring that it is delivered to everybody - a particular problem in a field where many people work only a few hours a week.

And there is also a warning. "There are some excellent sales assistants who like dealing with people and have quickly adapted to new ways of working. However, not everyone finds the new ways easy to work with," it says.

"Furthermore, it was frequently reported that any gaps are as much a failing on the part of managers as sales assistants themselves. Demands made of sales assistants have been changing and expanding. It takes time to embed the necessary cultural changes promoting these roles, and for suitable training and development to take effect"n