Jan 6th 2010 Issue
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Tea Consultant Training Part 1: Theory

Charles Cain - Jan 6th 2010

Instill passion with perspective and the learning never stops

Today I am turning my attention to training our employees. This is an incredibly critical part of the retail model and is, unfortunately, rarely given the attention it deserves. For tea connoisseurs, the quality of your staff and their familiarity with the collection communicates whether or not you are as serious about tea as they are. For customers new to tea, your employees are CRITICAL to helping them make sense of the store and the collection and taken the uncertainty out of the buying process.

A good Tea Consultant, using the APPROPRIATE sales techniques, and equipped with a solid knowledge of tea can and should deliver 50% higher average sales than a very nice, very friendly, but relatively untrained cashier. I've been in a lot of tea shops where I have no question that the right employee training program could increase sales by at least 25% while dramatically improving long term customer loyalty.

In future posts I'll get into the more tactical aspects of employee training, but for this first piece I want to focus on theory. These are the truths that provide the foundation for my approach to employee training:

1. A "good sale" is one in which the customer leaves excited about tea AND is likely to remain so after they begin enjoying the product. Some retail stores attempt simply to maximize the dollar value of the sale and often do so at the expense of the customer experience and the detriment of customer loyalty. If your customer regrets their purchase, they're not likely to return. We will make much greater PROFITS in the long run by feeding our customer's tea habit than on convincing them to buy an overpriced, low margin accessory and never seeing them again.

At the same time, I would suggest that a customer who leaves with one sample of tea is probably not terribly excited about the shop or about the tea either. There is a balance that needs to be struck between maximizing the sale and avoiding a "hard sell" that will turn off the customer. The sales techniques I will propose in future posts focus on building customer excitement and identifying and meeting the customer's needs and desires, not pushing the featured product of the day or badgering them to super size their order. If we can get the customer genuinely excited, they WILL buy more because they WANT to. And they'll tell their friends!

2. We don't sell, we consult. The goal should never be to get the customer to buy what I'm selling, but rather to identify what will make the customer happy. Often what they want will make them happy, but part of the role of a customer is to identify the true drivers and needs of the customer and GUIDE them into a purchase that will make them happy. We're not sales people trying to push our preferences on the customer. We're also not directory assistance simply pointing them in the direction of their inquiry. Our goal is to understand the customer and provide the level of service, information and assistance that they need. Sometimes that involves telling them what to buy as a gift, and sometimes it means knowing enough to just leave the customer alone!

3. It's not about the product, it's about the experience. Developing a deep understanding of tea is important, but probably a lot less so than you think. In fact, the more some employees know, the more they forget the customer and start sounding like an encyclopedia. Customers come in all types. Some are driven by their intellect and may be very interested in the history and production techniques behind a specific tea. Others are driven by their senses and simply want to see, smell and taste the tea. They couldn't care less about where it comes from. Some are driven by their world view and want to buy products that make them feel socially conscious, spiritually aligned or physically healthy. Others are driven by a thirst for luxury and want to buy and experience the very best. Then there are those who want to buy a gift, hate tea themselves and just want to know what's popular and likely to please.

Applying a sales pitch based on luxury to a socially conscious customer will be a disaster. Appealing to the senses of a tea hater who just wants a gift for grandma is equally a waste of time. The most important thing to teach your staff is to quickly identify and understand people. Only then can we choose a consultation approach (or sales technique) that will resonate without alienating.

4. We're mentoring people, not programming robots. As you can start to see the third "truth", many of the skills I aim to teach have applicability far beyond the tea shop. A new employee joins the team with the desire to do enough to please his or her boss, make some money, and hopefully not be miserable along the way. It doesn't take a lot of personal time and attention to tell someone that you care about them and that there is the potential for them to learn deeper lessons and gain a greater sense of fulfillment from the job than they expected. For an employee to be truly effective, I need them to really buy into what we are doing and care about the shop. The best way to accomplish this is to really buy into the employee and care about their development. Whether you are a business owner or just a manager, you are where your employee hopes to be some day. Take them under your wing and they will do their best to learn and apply everything you can teach them.

When a part time employee gets frustrated with the owner for cutting corners on the maintenance of the shop or the customer experience, some owners see insubordination and get angry. Not me. That means they get it, they care, and they are seeing the success or failure of the store as their own personal success or failure. That is POWERFUL!

5. Encourage self study but jealously guard the truth. There is A LOT of bad information out there about tea. There are A LOT of very well respected authors that have written things that, quite simply, are demonstrably false. In a lot of ways we're sitting in the early 1500's when people started to understand that the earth was indeed round but most of the textbooks were still wrong. You WANT your employees to be curious, to read, to blog and to continue learning. At the same time it is imperative that you develop strategies for vetting "new information" and jealously guarding the core truths of tea. A few well intentioned statements from a novice tea consultant eager to share their latest discover can quickly earn your shop a starring role in the derisive blog of a tea snob. :)

Just a couple examples of personal pet peeves that I've seen even in recently published tea books: 1) Black tea is more fermented than Green tea (tea is NEVER fermented). 2) You can remove 70% to 80% of the caffeine in tea with a quick first steeping (It just isn't true!!!). 3) Coffee has 100mg of caffeine, Black tea 50mg, Oolong 30, Green 20 and White 10 (you can insert whatever numbers you read last, but regardless they'll still be REALLY WRONG for more than 50% of the teas in your collection. Did you know that some popular green teas have far more caffeine than most black teas? Or that some popular white teas have some of the highest levels of caffeine found in tea?)

So there's the theory… the basic truths that underlie my approach to training a staff of tea consultants. Check back soon for more tactical and practical approaches to employee training.

Adagio Teas