Transitioning to a sales career can happen in a variety of ways, and it can be difficult to ascertain which roles are right for you. However, few roles can set you up for a successful career in sales like a sales associate role can.
In a world where outbound sales tactics are less effective and inbound sales is on the rise, customer experience and service are paramount.
What is a sales associate?
A sales associate is typically a B2C sales person — often in a retail environment — who engages with potential customers and helps them find products that fit their needs.
The sales associate role is distinct from other sales positions in that there is less emphasis on prospecting and pipeline management and more emphasis on consultation and shopping experience.
Often, this manifests as the primary way that the organization interfaces with and provides service to customers.
As a sales associate, you are often the first touch point potential customers have to your company, providing valuable experience that can set you up well for your career. Not only do you get hands-on experience selling directly to consumers, but you have the opportunity to represent your company and gain valuable knowledge about their products and services.
What does a sales associate do?
The primary responsibilities of a sales associate varies from position to position, but some of the key responsibilities include informing customers of ongoing promotions, directing them to merchandise, managing inventory and visual merchandising, and providing a high level of service.
Sales Associate Skills
Here are the key skills every sales associate needs to crush it at their job.
1. Communication and Interpersonal Skills When Interfacing With Customers
As a sales associate, you are interacting with people all day long. Between helping customers, taking direction from your manager, and providing feedback to your colleagues, having good communication skills is the foundation of your success as a sales associate.
When working in a customer-facing role, you will engage with a wide variety of people of all different backgrounds and communication styles, often helping them solve some sort of problem.
Improve your communication skills by asking colleagues and customers for feedback on your ability to actively listen and provide helpful recommendations.
For example, if you work in retail, you might ask a colleague to listen while you greet a customer and inquire whether they’re looking for anything in particular; then have that colleague provide feedback on the interaction.
2. Experience With CRM or POS Software
The ability to use a CRM (customer relationship management) is an essential skill for salespeople. Many sales professionals rely heavily on their CRM to help them manage their contacts and deals.
Using a CRM is a more efficient way to maintain contact information than a spreadsheet or document because it allows for segmentation and automation. This means you reach the right people at the right time without searching for their information. If you do not have experience using a CRM, check out this ultimate guide to learn the basics.
For sales associates working in a retail environment, use of a CRM may not be necessary. Working with a point of sale system (also known as POS), where customer transactions are processed and logged, is a more common practice for retail sales associates.
3. Customer-Centric Mindset
There is one thing all businesses have in common: they offer a product or service that aims to solve a problem for their customers. As a sales associate, you are often the first touchpoint a potential customer has with your company, and their experience with you heavily influences their opinion of the brand. Successful sales associates should have a customer-focused mindset and strive to help their potential customers find the best solution to their problem — even if that's not with your company.
Having a customer-focused mindset involves prioritizing the wants and needs of the customer at the center of what you do on the job. As a sales associate in retail, having a customer-focused mindset could look like dedicating time during your shift to engage with customers instead of focusing solely on your company’s product.
As a sales associate outside of a retail setting, it helps to be in regular communication with your customers, asking them for feedback and serving as a guide to help your customers make the best possible decision to help them overcome their challenge or problem.
4. Deep Knowledge in Product or Inventory
When you are working in a customer-facing role, it is imperative that you have a solid understanding of your company’s products and services. Often times, sales associates are tasked with answering potential customer’s questions and performing troubleshooting. Starting with a solid foundation of product knowledge will help you better serve your potential customers and buyers so they feel supported and empowered to purchase and evangelize your company’s offerings.
As a new employee, take some time to familiarize yourself with your company’s product offerings — get really clear on what the features of the products are and how your customers will benefit from using it. For example if you are a sales associate working for a company that sells mattresses directly to consumers, familiarize yourself with the features of your company’s mattresses, understand what kind of sleepers would most benefit from your company’s products, and be very clear on what differentiates your company’s offerings from competitors.
You can gain product knowledge by conducting informational interviews with members of the product team at your company, researching competitors to understand what makes your company’s offering different, or using the product yourself to have first-hand experience.
For example, if you work at a car dealership, taking a customer-first mindset might mean you start by asking about the customer’s lifestyle, their plans for the next few years, and how their car fits into those goals, before you start selling a specific make and model.
5. Genuine Enthusiasm for the Company and Products
Having a solid understanding of your company’s products and services is imperative to your success as a sales associate. However, if you really want to crush it, knowledge alone isn’t enough.
Sales associates who have a genuine enthusiasm about the products and services their company provides are able to go the extra mile because they truly understand the value of their company's offering. When sales associates have palpable energy and excitement for what they sell, potential customers have a better sense of how the offering can serve them as well.
When you encounter repeat customers, ask them why they love using your company’s offering and what keeps them coming back. This will help you build enthusiasm for and knowledge of your company’s products beyond simply relying on personal experience (although as mentioned above, personal experience is a great place to start).
6. Creative Problem Solving & Decision Making When Dealing With Customer Issues
Sales associates are often required to solve problems quickly and decisively. To be successful at this, a solution-oriented mindset and creative approach are key.
For example, sales associates are usually the first point of contact for customers experiencing a problem with you company's product. If the same problems keep surfacing for customers, you may want to prepare troubleshooting solutions or language that you can use (and help your teammates use) repeatedly.
You might also share this feedback with your engineering or production team, so that they can address user-experience issues and improve your offering.
Your ability to help customers troubleshoot their issue can give them a better overall experience and still think favorably of your company.
7. Empathic Attitude
As mentioned above, every business seeks to help its customers solve a problem. Sales associates are on the front lines with customers helping them find the right solution.
Empathy is required to best serve your buyer. When you can genuinely empathize with a prospect’s problems you’re better able to relate and find a solution for them.
Practice empathy by imagining yourself in the position of the customer as they look for a solution to solve their needs. What kind of assistance would you like to receive if you were working through the same issue? What would you share with someone who was trying to help you? Can you ask the customer thoughtful questions to obtain this information?
8. Ability to Adapt & Prioritize Across Multiple Tasks and Unexpected Situations
Sales associates juggle various tasks and work against tight deadlines with competing priorities. Adaptability is key to thriving in this environment. The ability to adjust to whatever's thrown your way and reprioritize on the fly is critical to your success.
Show adaptability by reacting to unexpected situations in a calm manner, remaining open to trying new ideas if an initial solution you offer doesn’t work, and by taking on new roles or responsibilities when needed.
For example, if a prospect asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, remain calm and reply, “You know, I don’t know the answer to that offhand, but I’ll find out and follow up with an email by the end of the day.”
9. Active Listening and Trust-Building
To help your buyers solve their problem (your key objective as a sales associate), you must understand what challenges they are facing. This requires excellent active listening skills, where you’re listening to your buyer to understand, instead of listening to respond.
Additionally, many sales associates work in a team environment where giving and receiving feedback is normal. The ability to give and receive valuable feedback relies heavily on having strong active listening skills.
If you want to improve your active listening skills, incorporate practices such as listening to your prospect’ wants and challenges fully before offering solutions, repeat back what you hear to ensure you heard them state the problem you are helping them solve, and ask thoughtful follow up questions to confirm understanding and build trust.
In practice, this conversation might look like:
Prospect: “I’m looking to buy a commuter bike to replace the one I have.”
Sales associate: “Great. You’ve come to the right place. Tell me about the bike you’re replacing.”
Prospect: “Well, I bought a used mountain bike a few years ago, but it was never very comfortable on my long commute. I also use it to go on longer rides around town over the weekends, and I’d love something that’s a better fit.”
Sales associate: “Thanks for explaining. What I’m hearing is that your long commute, and longer weekend road rides are leaving you pretty uncomfortable. Have you ever considered a road bike? They’re better suited to longer pavement rides and should help you feel more comfortable.”
10. Basic Math and Money Handling
The ability to properly facilitate POS transactions is especially important for retail sales associates.
Basic math and money handling skills ensure your customers and company are in alignment financially. Brush up on addition and subtraction, so you are able to accurately perform fast math when working with cash.
If you have a colleague who is proficient at using POS systems and performing transactions, shadow them to learn best practices. As you build your money handling skills, it may also be helpful to count the amount of change back to the customer to ensure you are giving them the proper amount.
For example, if a customer gives you a twenty-dollar bill for a $5.50 transaction, you might practice give them their $.50 change first, then counting as you give them the ten-dollar bill and four one-dollar bills.
11. Time Management
In sales, there are always tasks competing for sales associates’ attention. That's why time management is crucial.
Learn how to prioritize multiple tasks while balancing the right amount of time spent with each prospect — and know when to break up with a deal gone cold.
For example, if you work in a retail environment with a busy rush of customers, you will need to determine if your time is best spent engaging with those who just walked into your store or performing inventory to stock the shelves. While both tasks are important, as a sales associate you will need to determine which task needs to be prioritized and which can wait.
12. Ability to Learn Quickly and Accept Feedback
Customer-facing roles can be unpredictable. You'll often be expected to learn new selling techniques and product information, and the ability to quickly master new skills can help you succeed.
Solicit feedback from more senior members of your team, and implement their feedback quickly. If you're a hiring manager, learn more about creating a smooth onboarding process for sales professionals with the ultimate guide for training new salespeople.
13. Retail Sales Experience
If you don’t have sales experience, a retail position can be a great place to start. Working as a retail sales associate can introduce you to a variety of useful skills including customer service best practices, inventory management, commission-based sales techniques, and visual merchandising.
As you prepare to apply for retail positions, update your resume to include skills such as leadership or working with others. If you have organized events, participated in customer-service focused volunteer work, or lead group projects, include these valuable experiences in your resume.
14. Personal Autonomy
A strong sense of personal autonomy will set you up for success as a sales associates. When you have specific sales targets to reach and are working independently to achieve them, personal responsibility will keep you focused on and in alignment with your greater goals each day.
Foster a sense of personal autonomy by performing tasks or duties independently — without being instructed to do so. This might look like volunteering to come in on a Saturday to fold and stock new inventory or creating a training document for an onboarding process that's been overlooked.
15. Genuine Persuasiveness
The ability to persuade prospects that your product or service is the ideal solution for their problem is important for sales associates.
Practice becoming more persuasive with customers by implementing the following best practices:
- Keep an empathetic tone even when addressing customer objections.
- See customer objections as an opportunity to ask more questions and keep the conversation going.
- Frame your responses as solutions to help the customer overcome their problem or challenge.
Once you’ve built trust with potential customers, you are better able to persuade them that your company’s offering is the best solution for them. Successful sales associates are able to apply a variety of different skills to best serve their customers.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in September 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Jul 23, 2020 1:45:00 PM, updated October 08 2020