These shoppers know too damn much!
This was an actual quote that I heard on a recent shopping excursion to a consumer electronics store. The speaker was a harried and frazzled sales rep, who was ranting to a couple of his fellow reps as they were gathered together in a little huddle near the entrance to an employee break room.
He was talking about information asymmetry, the term used to describe a situation where one party to a deal has vastly better information than the other party.
It used to be that information asymmetry always redounded to the benefit of the sales rep. A crash course in consumer electronics, combined with a pinch of smoothness and dash of objection handling, were enough to enable most sales reps to seal the deal. But today, the web-enabled, smartphone-toting customer almost always has the informational upper hand.
Besides reprimanding their sales reps for complaining about how hyper-informed are, what can retail managers do to rectify information asymmetry? Working from a consumer electronics example, here are some suggestions:
1) Better employee education: Instead of a crash course on consumer electronics and a set of condescending or self-promoting platitudes (“Well, sir, you can try calibrating the picture yourself, but our technicians would do a much better job”), better employee education would mean setting aside maybe 10 hours a week so that sales reps could immerse themselves into and engage with the latest blog postings, product reviews, technical manuals, social media chatter, and user generated how-to videos–in short, the very material that customers are consulting prior to visiting.
2) Encourage off-site immersion: If losing 10 hours per week to research and product immersion for each sales rep is too much for a manager to swallow, then he can encourage his employees to immerse themselves in blogs, reviews, and how-to videos on their own personal time. Genuine passion for consumer electronics is hard to compel, but it always helps to have employees who are “geeked out” about the products to begin with. You can tell when you’re talking to a sales rep who is genuinely passionate about consumer electronics, because their eyes light up when describing really cool features and functions (as opposed to reps whose eyes light up with little dollar signs when your attention turns to the most expensive LED screen).
3) Put mobile devices in sales reps’ hands: There’s a lot of buzz about this one lately, and arming sales reps with the same tools that customers have could ultimately emerge as the best way to combat information asymmetry. But I don’t see it succeeding without a corresponding increase in the amount of latitude and empowerment afforded to the sales rep. If a customer complains that the price for a laptop is $200 cheaper on an e-commerce site, sure the sales rep can pull up the offer and verify whether the customer is telling the truth, but can he price match on the spot? If a customer cites an online review that contradicts what the sales rep is saying, sure he can retrieve the review and skim the content, but will he be allowed to spend the 30 minutes necessary to go through the article with the customer and refute the negative arguments point by point?
4) Crowdsource part of the heavy lifting: What if the sales rep doesn’t know the answer to a customer’s question, but another shopper in the store does? Can that other shopper interpose themselves into the shopper-sales rep exchange to fill in any blanks in the sales rep’s field of knowledge? How can these other shoppers be alerted to the fact that their help is needed? How can they be incentivized to save the sale?
By no means is this an exhaustive list, but retail managers have got to get thinking about information asymmetry, otherwise there are going to be a lot more overwhelmed and ill-prepared sales reps, spilling out their frustrations within earshot of customers.