I spent the first decade of the 21st century working as a manager for a national retail bookstore chain. During my tenure, I learned a counterintuitive truth: people who love to read books don’t always make great booksellers.

In fact, people who love books often make lousy booksellers—at least, in a large retail store that has to meet sales goals.

I think the reason lies in these qualitative Pew Research survey results, which are answers to the question, “Why do you read?”

  • “The pleasures of escaping reality.”
  • “Relaxing...while having quiet time.”
  • “I love being able to get outside myself.”
  • “Living a life of the mind.”

According to Pew, many voracious readers need a break from the rest of the humans, which becomes impossible in a retail environment. There’s nothing wrong with people who need to enjoy quiet time, but “leave me alone” doesn’t translate into sales. In fact, neither product knowledge nor sales experience are good predictors of sales effectiveness. So how can companies identify which people have what it takes for retail?

Retail Sales: Who Succeeds?

According to research from David Mayer and Herbert M. Greenberg of Harvard Business Review, you should look for two qualities when you hire for sales. They call these qualities empathy and ego drive. Here’s how they define the terms:

  • Empathy. Empathic people sense what the customer is feeling, and they modify their sales conversation on the spot to adjust to the customer’s messages. They aren’t trapped by a script. They’re sensitive to what the customer needs.
  • Ego drive. People with strong ego drive close sales because winning matters to their self-image. They have enough self-esteem to withstand failure, but they also need the sale to feel good about themselves.

A retail employee with empathy but little ego drive picks up on the customer’s feelings, but that employee isn’t comfortable capitalizing on that insight to persuade the customer to buy. Alternatively, the employee with ego drive but no empathy pushes hard to get the sale. Ultimately, this person might bully some customers into buying, but more customers will say, “No thanks.”

Does Training Help?

People who have a good empathy-ego drive balance can learn product knowledge through training. They can also become better at selling. To teach empathy, however, takes an extraordinary amount of time and practice, much more than any retailer can afford.

And really, when someone isn’t hungry to sell, no training program can ever instill that need. Neither can big commissions or rah-rahs about sales goals. Retail workers need an intrinsic drive to sell.

Finding the Right People

Many of the best booksellers I ever worked with weren’t avid readers when they started the job. The lesson is this: To grow your retail business, hire people who have both empathy and ego drive. Also, seek out people who fit your culture.

Remember, these qualities don’t always show up on a resume, and people who have retail experience don’t necessarily have these qualities. Check out how Urban Outfitters has used on-demand video interviews to find people with the goods for retail sales.

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