How to Shift Your Employees' Focus to the Customer
Boosting retail sales margins
by Ken Edmunds

Imagine this scenario: The owner of a home medical equipment (HME) store finds an old dusty bottle while cleaning out her storage area. As she rubs the dust off, a genie appears and says, “I will grant you one wish, but I will also double this wish for your closest competitor.”

The owner thinks for a moment and says, “I would like to lose 50% of my sales.”

It sounds like the punchline of a joke—but what would you do if you really lost half of your retail sales? In far too many of the stores I visit, that is reality. What can you do about it? What if you could increase in-store sales by 50% instead?

Missed Opportunities

Here’s another scenario that’s more likely to be true: When the front entrance bell announces a customer entering the store, Greg is on an apparently unending call qualifying insurance; he has 30 minutes to get drop ships out before lunch. At the same time, a noon cutoff time for compression orders looms, and insurance paperwork and data entry keep piling up. 

The customer seems to know what they want and finds it easily. “Will that be all for you today?” Greg asks as they approach the main desk. Greg rings up the compression hosiery and bed pad they’re buying and throws a distracted thank-you their way.

Could this be happening in your store? Only you know the answer to that question. Greg isn’t a slacker; he’s performing his daily tasks as he believes he should. Unfortunately, I often see customers handled in a similar fashion.

In all likelihood, the bell on your front door isn’t ringing as often these days. Given that, it is more important than ever—and crucial for the future of your cash business—to uncover all of your customers’ needs, rather than just selling them the one thing that brought them through your door. 

While engaging the customer in a conversation from the start is still the best way to learn their needs, even simply paying attention to what they came into the store for can provide clues. For example, in the scenario above, the customer came in to purchase compression hosiery. Many patients using compression have also been prescribed a diuretic that can instigate periods of incontinence. Further supporting that informal diagnosis was their purchase of a bed pad. If Greg hadn’t been so consumed with his paperwork and deadlines, he may have been able to lead the customer over to the disposable incontinence products section and make some gentle suggestions. If each person visiting you gets this kind of guidance and counsel, you are likely to see retail sales climb out of the slump that you may have thought was just the way it is.

Teaching Employees to Talk 

One of the challenges that many store owners face is getting their employees motivated to take this kind of consultative approach. When I talk to the “Gregs” I meet around the country about their approach to working more with in-store customers, I often hear phrases like “I’m too busy,” “I don’t like selling,” or, my favorite, “That’s not my job.”

A great place to start working toward a new retail strategy is with you, the boss. Updating job descriptions and titles to reflect a more sales-oriented focus can help employees understand that customers are their top priority. A person in the store trumps the ringing phone, the impending deadline and the paperwork screaming to be filed or faxed. Equally important is that when recruiting, you look for people who enjoy interacting with customers, genuinely want to help and understand that it is a key component of the position. Generally speaking, most of the other responsibilities you will be giving them can be taught—but people skills and passion are something the applicant must bring to the table. 

The truth is that paperwork, insurance verifications and other administrative work are necessary to run your business. They are time consuming and we can all agree they detract from the time available to interact in a consultative manner with visiting customers. But don’t forget why you have a store, not just an office. At some point, you decided that you wanted to be a part of your community and sell medical products and equipment in a retail environment (and enjoy retail-level profits). After all, aren’t the margins on your retail sales higher than the margins on the insurance business swallowing up your employees’ time and attention?

Some of the stores I’ve visited recently have started to restructure their employees’ daily schedules to accommodate both of these business channels. One opted for a staggered schedule, which allowed their two employees to alternate one hour to run lead on visitors with one hour to handle phone and other less retail-oriented tasks. The owner even held sales contests and set up a commission structure to help incentivize employees to embrace a more retail-focused approach.

To capture more retail sales, you do actually have to make selling a bigger part of your employees’ day. That said, it likely centers around why I bet you got into this chaotic, ever-changing business in the first place—because you like to help people. While some of us might not like “selling,” we all like to help people and feel like we made a difference in someone’s life.

Ken Edmunds has been active in the adult incontinence industry for more than 22 years and continues to be one of the leading advocates for person-centered incontinence care. Edmunds’ expertise has been shaped by years in long-term care and the memory care world and now extends to the homecare realm as key account manager for Abena.