In the April 2015 issue of the Music & Sound Retailer, I talked about user reviews and how bad customer service experiences in stores have led to the breakdown of trust between customers and service representatives, driving those customers to online resources for information because they can no longer trust salespeople in stores. This is primarily an issue many of us have observed in big-box stores, and continues to be an ongoing problem today. Building trust between sales staff and customers is a glaring issue in retail. Gone are the assumptions of expertise and ascendant are user forums for every product imaginable. Given this rift that has appeared, one might begin to ask what the value is in having a highly knowledgeable, trained sales staff. After all, big-box stores — even most of the ones who supposedly specialize in musical instruments — mostly employ minimum wage, part-time employees who can look things up online as easily as the next person. What then is the virtue in being an expert, or in making sure your staff is well trained?

When I visited Sweetwater a few months ago, one of the things that was stressed by each and every person I talked to was the breadth of expertise in the building, and the extensive training all the staff have in every part of the MI retail industry, so when fielding calls from customers they can answer with confidence and offer knowledge and support to the person on the other end of the phone. And, while not everyone can be a true expert in every field, there’s plenty of information sharing and no one is ever afraid to ask for help from a fellow staff member.

I’ve been in MI retail for what feels to me like a long time, and seems like a long time among most of my friends, to hold the same position. Suffice to say, I’ve picked up some things in that time, but I’m by no means an expert on every facet of this business. For instance, I know enough to answer basic questions about school band instruments, to tell if a trumpet’s valves aren’t being oiled enough or a clarinet’s pads are torn, but I can’t show you how to play those instruments or speak with any authority about the differences between most of them the way I can guitars. So, while I can certainly help many of my customers, I am keenly aware that there’s a ceiling to the service I’m able to provide without assistance. For this reason alone, not to mention the many school accounts we service, we absolutely require a school band instrument expert on staff.

We, in fact, have two experts and two repair technicians. All these people are resources I can tap into if I’m stumped, and I often do. Because I have these resources, I can focus on other areas in which I can best serve my customers while still meeting the needs of most of the band instrument crowd. You don’t have to be an expert in every field, but having them around sure does help. It’s also helpful to understand the virtue of handing a customer over to an expert when the situation calls for it.

Commission, by nature, breeds competition, so making sure staff feel comfortable handing off a sale to a more knowledgeable staff member, instead of risking the loss of one by trying to hold for fear of losing money, can be challenging. By attempting to hold on to a small part of their paycheck, they may in fact be losing your store money.

Reward systems have to reward diligence and not just dollars. Sometimes, doing what’s best for the customer, and to ensure the store gets the sale, is handing them off to someone who is able to better serve their needs. I don’t mean to imply this is some great selfless behavior. In fact, it’s the opposite: self-preservation. If your own ego or fear of a lower paycheck costs a sale, it’s costing a sale from your whole team. The entire bottom line is affected, not just your paycheck, so it’s important to see the bigger picture. While you may lose your 5 percent in the short term, the overall growth of the store is more important.

It’s important to acknowledge that exercising good judgment also contributes to the bottom line. There is such a thing as trying to take on customers you shouldn’t, and if you’re more focused on inflating your own check than affecting a positive outcome on the company’s bottom line, you’re sacrificing the overall health of the company — and potentially the future of your own job — for a small reward. The bigger reward is building an atmosphere of teamwork among your staff, where staff members aren’t afraid to watch out for each other, where they know that they don’t have to guard their sales from other people and, instead, can tap into their expertise and share knowledge of their own to benefit everyone.

One of the simplest ways of implementing some knowledge sharing is by talking about areas of expertise with other staff members. I love talking pedals with other staff members, for instance, because I don’t gig anymore and typically don’t experiment with new sounds in a band situation. Gaining insight into that is a valuable resource.

An easy safeguard to make sure you’re the best staff member for a sale is to qualify the customer. By identifying that a customer is a beginning band student or is an advanced player looking for intermediate or professional instruments, I can optimize the likelihood that I can be of service to them. If someone is looking for a basic drum set for a beginner, I can talk him or her through his or her options just fine. If they’re looking to compare the tonal differences of ride cymbals, I introduce them to Dan, our drum guy. If someone comes in with PA or recording questions, Dan introduces them to me. Taking the initiative to do this means each customer is getting the best information possible from the person best equipped to deliver it to them.

What are some steps you’ve taken to ensure that your staff members are sharing information and making sure customers are getting the best service possible from the right person?

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