With customers griping, retailers finally get the message

Unless you shop exclusively online, you've probably sensed a change for the worse in America's sales force. Consider these recent real-life tales from the customer-relations crypt:

• An associate at a consumer- electronics store keeps pitching an extended warranty even after a customer has declined it - twice.

• Under orders, checkout clerks at a growing apparel company demand e-mail addresses from customers.

• A financial-services firm decides to reduce wait times for customers, only to learn later that this was never an issue for clients. What they want, a consultant finds, is more respect.

Customer complaints are way up, according to the latest statistics. And the usual explanations - a worker shortage, Gen-X indifference - seem to fall short. The real issue, some experts say: a lack of effective training.

On that score, there's hope. Pressed to find new ways to gain a competitive edge, firms now appear to be advancing on that front. One indication: The trickle of training dollars, some of it routed into cost-effective, high-tech programs, appears set to become a stream.

"We've had clients lately who have asked us to not just measure customer satisfaction and loyalty but also to help them gain some insight into how to improve their training programs so that their front lines would be more effective," says Jack Mackey, vice president of Service Management Group, a company in Kansas City, Mo., that helps more than 70 brands build loyalty.

The extra training comes none too soon. Consumer complaints to the Better Business Bureau against US retail stores doubled - a jump of 104 percent overall - between 2000 and 2003. Many of those involve customer interactions with sales people.

Companies are waking up to the problem because a positive "people experience" is key to success. For example: Nearly 70 percent of respondents said it matters most in building satisfaction and loyalty, according to a survey by Purdue University's Center for Customer-Driven Quality.

"There simply is no other company" for consumers than the one embodied by workers they meet, Mr. Mackey says.

That's why retailers - from superstores to specialty shops - are sharpening employee training. At big-box retailers, for example, expect more product expertise, says Michael Patrick, president of MOHR Access, a retail-training and consulting firm in Ridgewood, N.J.

Last March, audio-video chain Tweeter teamed up with OutStart, a training firm that uses online instruction. With 2,600 sales and installation associates in 175 stores in 21 states, Tweeter wanted to provide employees with just-in-time access to information about its evolving product line, a spokesman for OutStart explains.

Similar training at Best Buy was found to boost sales of some items by as much as 20 percent, according to a June report by Forrester Research.

At smaller specialty-retail stores and service providers, look for the results of what Mr. Patrick calls "pioneering efforts" to go beyond standard meet-and-greet training.

"One of the things we're seeing is [efforts by firms] to make themselves unique," Patrick says. "More intimate relationships, like fitting-room selling, or more complicated sales, like selling to friends or to multiple parties."

That focus on "unique selling situations," he says, calls for higher levels of training that can be very nuanced.

In the case of the company that was turning off shoppers with its blunt requests for e-mail addresses, for example, Patrick's firm suggested a softer approach: Sales associates began explaining the benefits of joining the electronic mailing list while the customer was still out on the floor. Many cooperated and the database grew.

The push for more training has begun to spread. Among all employee groups, customer-service workers received the greatest percentage of learning expenditures, notching the biggest two-year jump in 2003, the latest year for which figures are available, says a report by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD).

The International Customer Service Association cites increased interest in the CD-ROM-based certification program it sells - and a 10 percent sales increase between 2003 and 2004, says Gretchen Fox, a a senior association assistant at the Chicago organization.

That uptick doesn't yet qualify as a boom, says Brenda Sugrue, author of an ASTD study on training. But as companies boost customer-service efforts, financial performance will improve, she adds. And many more firms are likely to take notice.

But funding alone won't do the job, experts caution. Technology must be paired with quality human interaction.

The primary barriers to successful training, they say: the staggering rate of turnover in frontline jobs (often greater than 100 percent a year), and the lack of buy-in by young workers who have not traditionally felt they had any stake in their employers' success.

Firms with young executives may be best equipped to win such workers over.

"The old boomer mentality says 'Welcome to the job. Let me give you a tour. All this can someday be yours; you can be like me,' " says Eric Chester, a consultant in Lakewood, Colo., and author of a forthcoming book on engaging young workers. "But maybe [as a new hire] you have no such desire at all," he says. "You're not thinking career, you're thinking car."

Plenty of companies have sought to use mentorships, pairing more senior workers with new ones, as a way to engage young workers and sometimes help senior employers embrace technology, Mr. Chester says.

Firms can also help themselves by performing more due diligence during hires, Chester says.

"You look at your current workforce and say 'Who are my prototype employees?' " he says. Find common traits - ones as subtle as involvement in college drama programs, for instance - and then you look for others like them, he suggests.

Firms that know their workforces, Chester and others say, often are more comfortable extending opportunities for independent thinking and self-management.

Take Pal's Sudden Service, a small fast-food company based in Tennessee. Young employees there are allowed to make decisions on such issues as how to compensate dissatisfied customers, Chester says. "They've developed a reputation in their community as the place to send your kids to learn how to work."

Turnover is almost nil. Relationships between workers and managers run deep. Business is strong.

"All of this works," says Chester. "But who's actually doing it?"

A number of firms are, say experts. A customer-service imperative has lifted Southwest Airlines to cult status. Grocery chain Wegmans, just named the No. 1 company to work for by Fortune magazine, calls training a priority.

Wegmans likes to "expose our people to the highest reference point," says Jo Natale, a company spokeswoman. Training is specific and deep. Cheese-shop managers might be sent to Europe to see cheese being made. A seafood specialist learns about species and preparation techniques.

"When people are knowledgeable, they feel more confident," Ms. Natale says. "And they feel better able to help the customer."

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