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Profitable Times Newsletter

Customer Service and Selling Training for Volunteers

Let me begin this article by clearly stating that I believe using volunteers in museum stores can be a tremendous revenue generating, money-saving customer service asset. The key factors that lead to achieving these goals include clear establishment of roles, thorough vetting, proper training, consistent supervision and support, and high and specific expectations. For any store volunteer program to work management must believe the right volunteer, trained and managed properly, can do just about anything as well as a paid staff person.

Establishing Roles and Vetting

The required level of vetting is primarily determined by whether the volunteer will only have customer service duties or will they also be expected to use the point of sale system and handle cash.

If the volunteers will only have a customer service, 'ambassador' role, the most important vetting issues become those closely associated with smiling, energy, pleasant demeanor, willingness to learn about the products and other factors that generally fall under the heading of warm and fuzzy. In a previous retail life I hired an older woman who knew everything about the children's book we sold but was deathly afraid of our rudimentary point of sale system. Since we always had at least two people on the floor, she worked with the children and their parents to select books then, when she was done, she would walk them and their purchases over to the cash-wrap, thank them and graciously tell them that 'Mary' would now complete their purchase. In this scenario the customer got product knowledge, great customer service and a quick and efficient checkout.

As part of the vetting process find out what the potential volunteer likes to do and what they would prefer NOT to do. For example, if they are not thrilled about interacting with customers but love putting their bookkeeping background to work, perhaps receiving products and matching paperwork is a good way to use those skills.

Training

In addition to specific training for the roles and responsibilities assigned to the volunteer, general guidelines for the customer service and selling process (for the entire store team) should be established. This includes three segments: rules, expectations and consequences.

Rules

These are things the volunteers must do. Whatever the rules, it should be made clear that they must be followed exactly as established until they are officially changed. That doesn't mean they can't or won't be changed and suggestions for change are not welcome, but until they are officially changed the rules are the rules. The rules can include not congregating behind the cash-wrap and some specific procedures dealing with cash handling and opening and closing the store.

One frequently repeated complaint about volunteers is management's inability to rely on their attendance. While improving reliability is a complex issue that includes understanding the importance of the store to the museum and team spirit, there is one rule that can help with consistent personnel coverage. Simply described, a roster of store volunteers is distributed to all volunteers. If a volunteer will not be able to fill their shift, they should be required to contact 'x' number of other volunteers to try to find a substitute before contacting store management. When established properly, this helps to assure desired floor coverage, reduces management's need to deal with scheduling issues and builds team cooperation through the gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) pressure of the pool of volunteers on those who do not regularly fulfill their responsibilities.

Expectations

Expectations are those things volunteers are 'expected' to do including some softer 'rules' and chores during slow times. These may include a requirement to approach customers within a specific period of time after entering the store, highlighting specific products to customers, cleaning, straitening, remerchandising, and generally anything that is covered by the "if you can lean you can clean", i.e. find something to do adage.

Another part of setting expectations is managing them. Remember, to make any of this work you need to consistently inspect what you expect. If you want volunteers to sell, give them some guidelines. Instead of simply letting them loose in the store provide some selling guidance that limits their choices of how to proceed, concentrates their efforts on techniques that provide the best results for the effort and allows them to interject some of their personality into the process. Some selling parameters may include:

  • Making sure customers are greeted and acknowledged in a uniformly warm and enthusiastic manner
  • Suggest 'opening lines' that evoke a positive response from the customer and provides some idea about what the customer's goals are while in the store
  • Expect the volunteer to do some add-on/suggestive selling that helps the customer meet their goals, introduces key products and increases revenue

To help support the rules and expectations, make sure volunteers understand:

  • When a customer encounters a volunteer, the volunteer is the store
  • People buy people, they don't just buy product
  • The customer is (almost) always right

Consequences

The store is different than many other parts of the museum where volunteers work. The store handles money and the near equivalent of money in the form of products, often has more interaction with visitors than any other museum department and is frequently part of the last and lasting impression of the museum. For these and other reasons, store management has the responsibility to advise volunteers in advance about the possible consequences if expectations are not met, including reassigning them to other places in the museum.

Support

Like any store personnel, volunteers need to be supported. They need refresher courses on the use of the POS, assistance to stay up with new products, reminders about the rules and expectations and plenty of sincere appreciation, at leased expressed verbally every day.

 
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