Counter offensive

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: Graduate Developer - Surrey - £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Graduate Developer - Croy...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Marketing & Social Media Executive

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a Marketing Graduate or...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Developer (Trainee) - City, London

£25000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A large financial services company...

Recruitment Genius: Financial Services Graduate Training Scheme

£20000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are a successful and establ...

SPONSORED FEATURES

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory