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 are on the rise, customer experience and service are paramount.
In this guide, we’re going to deep dive into what it really takes to be a successful sales associate. And if you’re short on time, click on one of these headlines to jump to the section you need most.
- What is a sales associate?
- What does a sales associate do?
- Sales Associate Skills
- How to Become a Sales Associate
- How to Be a Better Sales Associate
What is a sales associate?
A sales associate is typically a B2C salesperson — 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’s less emphasis on prospecting and pipeline management and more emphasis on consultation and shopping experience.
Often, this manifests as the primary way organizations interface with and provide service to customers.
As a sales associate, you’re often the first touchpoint 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 its products and services.
What does a sales associate do?
The key responsibilities of a sales associate include engaging with customers, highlighting promotions, responding to customer inquiries, visual merchandising, managing inventory, carrying out transactions, and guiding customers through the buying process.
A sales associate’s daily tasks may vary from position to position, but generally, focus on providing remarkable customer service and achieving predetermined sales goals.
Sales Associate Skills
Here are the key skills every sales associate needs to crush it at their job.
1. Communication and Interpersonal Skills
As a sales associate, you’re 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 manage 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 don’t have experience using a CRM, check out this ultimate guide to learn the basics.
For sales associates working in a retail environment, the 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-Focused Mindset
There’s 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’re 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 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:
- Centering the wants and needs of the customer at the center of what you do on the job
- Making it a priority to build trust with the customer during the sales process
- Going above and beyond with customer service
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.
An Apple recruiting manager has said, “We’ve learned to value magnetic personality just as much as proficiency.” when they look to hire their retail sales associates.
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 their guide for making the best decision possible that will help them overcome a challenge or problem.
4. Deep Knowledge in Product or Inventory
Kraig Kleeman, the founder of The Sales Cadence, once said, “There is incredible power in leading with research and leading with relevance.”
When you’re working in a customer-facing role, you must have a solid understanding of your company’s products and services. Oftentimes, sales associates are tasked with answering customer’s questions and performing troubleshooting. Starting with a solid foundation of product knowledge will help you better serve your potential customers 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 products — get clear on what the features of the products are and how your customers will benefit from using them.
Some ways you can gain product knowledge are by:
- Conducting informational interviews with members of the product team at your company
- Researching competitors to understand what makes your company’s offering different
- Using the product yourself to have a first-hand experience
For example, if you’re 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.
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 can 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, a solution-oriented mindset and a creative approach are key.
For example, in some settings sales associates are the first point of contact for customers experiencing a problem with your 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 issues 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.
The late William Clement Stone, a famous philanthropist and businessman, once said, “Sales are contingent on the attitude of the salesperson, not the attitude of the prospect.”
Practice empathy by imagining yourself in the position of the customer as they look for a solution to their problem. 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 success.
Show adaptability by reacting to unexpected situations calmly, remaining open to trying new ideas if an initial solution doesn’t work, and 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’re 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’s wants and challenges before offering solutions, repeating back what you hear to ensure you understand the problem you’re helping them solve, and asking thoughtful follow-up questions to confirm understanding and build trust.
In practice, this conversation might look like this:
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 can accurately perform fast math when working with cash.
If you have a colleague who’s 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’re giving them the proper amount.
For example, if a customer gives you a twenty-dollar bill for a $5.50 transaction, you might practice giving 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
Former chairman and CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, once said, “Change before you have to.”
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 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 associate. 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 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.
Now that we know the skills needed to be a great sales associate, we’ll discuss how to begin your career and become one.
How to Become a Sales Associate
- Look at your educational background.
- Build your resume.
- Research for open sales associate positions.
- Get ready to interview.
To become a sales associate, you need to obtain the right qualifications and actively seek out the position that’s right for you. Here’s three things to consider when striving to become a sales associate:
1. Look at your educational background.
A typical sales associate has a high school diploma or GED, or college degree in Business, Communications, or another major that has portable skills.
For those looking to expand their educational background and become a sales associate, there are many virtual or in-person sales training programs that provide the tools needed to grow as a salesperson.
2. Build your resume.
Build up your current sales resume to highlight any relevant educational and professional background you’ve had. Whether you choose to list beginner retail roles, internships, or a more unique position, let the recruiter know you gained transferable skills from the experience and that you understand how to apply them moving forward.
3. Research for open sales associate positions.
A career in sales is a career full of possibilities. Every industry calls for a team of capable sales associates and finding a product or service you have a passion for can assist you in finding the right company to join.
When searching for a sales associate role, look towards well-trusted job search sites to find out who’s hiring in your area and if you have an interest in their company.
4. Get ready to interview.
When you get the opportunity to interview for a sales associate position, you’ll have to be prepared. Focus on conveying your communication skills and your previous work experience. If your work experience isn’t directly sales-related — tell the interviewer what transferable skills you gained then.
With HubSpot’s Global Sales Team, it’s not uncommon to come from a background outside of sales, as anyone can flourish if they are willing to learn. Listen to their stories in the video below.
When you’ve completed the interview, send a thank you email for their time, and we wish you the best of luck.
How to be a Better Sales Associate
Becoming a better sales associate doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a professional that’s equipped with strong communication and organizational skills. Better sales associates also have interpersonal skills, and can make customers feel at ease, welcome, and even anticipate customer responses. These are all essential to improving your performance and establishing trust in the client relationship.
Once you’ve built trust with potential customers, you’re 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.