What is a Sales Associate & How to Be a Great One

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October 8th, 2021.
What is a Sales Associate & How to Be a Great One

Retail is a pillar of the United States' economy — one that's projected to generate an estimated $5.35 trillion in 2025 — and a staple of our day-to-day lives. It's prevalent to the point that we often take both it and the over 4.6 million workers that sustain it for granted.

But that $5.35 trillion in revenue isn't going to generate itself, and the salespeople behind most of it — most commonly known as sales associates — deserve some recognition, understanding, and attention. Here, we'll discuss what a sales associate is, what they typically do, how to become one, and how current sales associates can improve their efforts. Let's jump in.

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You can think of a "sales associate" position as a directly interpersonal sales role with a customer service-oriented edge. In a lot of ways, the line of work is a blend of the two fields. A sales associate's responsibilities are immediate when it comes to solving customer needs.

They're often expected to answer a customer's questions, guide them through their buyer's journey, listen to and address their concerns, and sell them on relevant products — sometimes all in the same conversation.

They operate with an extremely condensed sales process and serve as customer's first point of contact when airing out problems with the retail outlets they work for. Here's a description of one of these roles from a typical sales associate job description.

Sales Associate Job Description

A typical sales associate job description might look something like this:

Responsibilities

  • Answer customers' questions both in-store and over the phone.
  • Greet customers as they enter the store.
  • Track and keep tabs on product inventory levels.
  • Develop extensive knowledge of our company's suite of products.
  • Operate the cash register and process customers' payments.
  • Stamp and tag prices on products.

Requirements

  • A high school diploma or GED
  • At least one year of sales or customer service experience
  • Ability to work nights and weekends
  • Basic math skills
  • Strong verbal communication skills
  • Attention to detail

Now that you have a picture of what a typical sales associate role entails, let's take a closer look at what this kind of salesperson does.

1. They welcome customers.

Sales associates are usually the first line of communication between a retail location and its customers. They're often expected to greet customers as they enter the store. This responsibility requires some degree of enthusiasm and professionalism.

It sets a tone for a customer's retail experience and is one of the key points in shaping their perception of the company itself. That's why the best sales associates can project positivity and attentiveness — connecting with prospects quickly and offering any sort of assistance they might need, right off the bat.

2. They engage and converse with customers to gauge their needs.

Sales associates are a consultative resource for customers. They need to be able to connect with consumers, communicate with them effectively, identify their needs, and provide appropriate suggestions to suit them. That ability rests on a few skills and factors.

For one, sales associates need to know how to listen actively — considering where customers are coming from both quickly and thoughtfully. They also need to be able to have some back and forth with their prospects, teasing out pain points customers might not have even considered.

But as important as those elements are, they don't mean much if they're not supported by extensive product knowledge.

3. They maintain extensive product knowledge to provide recommendations.

The best sales associates know exactly what they're talking about when serving their customers. They have a thorough picture of their store's suite of products and the specific people and needs those products are best suited for.

Even the most empathetic, sensible sales associate can only get so far if they don't know how to apply the insight they gather through their conversations with customers — all of that leans on their ability to maintain solid product knowledge.

4. They help manage inventory.

Inventory management is another key responsibility that typically falls on sales associates. They're often expected to know how much of a certain product is in stock. This allows them to avoid any awkward, unfulfillable requests from customers. It also helps management keep tabs on what it needs to order.

5. They assist with visual merchandising.

Retail locations need to capture potential customers' attention. They're rarely inclined to go to a storefront that looks abandoned or hastily strewn together — no matter how great the products inside are.

The eye shops first, so it serves associates to have a visually appealing space supporting their conversations with customers. That's why visual merchandising is a key component of retail, and it's often on sales associates to put those kinds of displays together.

6. They process payments.

Another key responsibility for sales associates is facilitating customers' payments. That entails operating a cash register, potentially knowing product prices offhand, and giving change for any cash transactions.

7. They inform customers of promotions and sales.

In a similar vein to having product knowledge, sales associates also need to be hip to any promotions or sales their stores might be having. They also need to know when it will be appropriate and productive to inform customers of those deals.

How to Become a Sales Associate

Like virtually any other line of work, you need to obtain the right qualifications and actively seek out the position that’s right for you if you want to become a sales associate. Here are the key points you need to address if you want to pursue one of these roles.

1. Look at your educational background.

A typical sales associate has a high school diploma or GED — or a college degree in Business, Communications, or any other major that lets you develop relevant, portable skills.

For those looking to expand their educational background and become sales associates, there are many virtual or in-person sales training programs that provide the tools needed to grow as a salesperson.

2. Build your resume.

As with any other position, you need to demonstrate that you're capable and qualified to be a sales associate via a well-constructed resume — ideally with some sort of sales experience behind it.

Several sales associate job listings will ask that you have at least one year working in retail sales — but if you're pursuing one of these roles without that kind of experience, don't be too quick to give up.

If you're interested in a sales associate position, try to find other experience you have — whether that be through something like college coursework or working in other fields — and tailor your resume to highlight its elements that will lend themselves to success as a salesperson.

For instance, let's say you've never worked in retail, but you were a hostess at a restaurant. Put that experience on your resume, and stress how your face-to-face experience with diners can translate to effectively communicating with shoppers.

3. Research and seek out open sales associate positions.

You can't find sales associate jobs if you don't search for them — and when you do come across them, try to make sure the company's listing the positions are worth working for and within your wheelhouse.

If a business has a reputation for treating its sales associates poorly, you might want to look past the listing and find a company that won't be a drag to work for. Similarly, if you don't think you'll have the interest or ability to sell a certain employer's products, consider keeping your search going.

4. Get ready to interview.

When you get the opportunity to interview for a sales associate position, you’ll have to prepare accordingly. Focus on conveying your communication skills, personability, listening skills, and relevant work experience. If your previous positions aren't directly sales-related, touch on the transferable skills you gained over your professional history.

How to Be a Better Sales Associate

1. Take the time to thoroughly study the products you sell.

As I mentioned earlier, developing extensive product knowledge is a critical component of a successful career as a sales associate. And it might go without saying, but you can't expect to take on one of these roles and have that kind of insight automatically.

Like any kind of knowledge, product knowledge doesn't come arbitrarily — it takes some serious research and study. You need to buckle down and understand the nuances of your company's product suite.

What need does each product serve? What kind of customer will benefit from using product A as opposed to product B? And how can you convey the benefits of each offering most effectively? Being able to consistently address those questions makes an exemplary sales associate.

2. Bolster your conversational skills.

A successful career as a sales associate leans, in large part, on your ability to put customers at ease and seamlessly guide them through their in-store experience. That doesn't happen if you're too quiet, awkward, aggressive, or insecure in your ability to communicate.

You need to know how to have a conversation with anyone. Understand how to engage in a little small talk while still focusing on setting your customers up with relevant products that address their needs and concerns.

This step doesn't have to run too deep. You shouldn't prepare for teary, heart-to-hearts with hardware store patrons looking for cheap circular saws. But you still need to know how to keep things upbeat, interesting, and active to fill the space between product explanations and hard selling.

3. Work on your body language.

This point serves a similar purpose to the one above. You want to put customers at ease as soon as they walk into your store and project professionalism. If you're slouching or assuming any other kind of body language that indicates you're bored or tired, you're going to set the wrong tone for your customers' experience.

Make sure you're standing up straight and looking as presentable as possible. Showing that you're capable extends beyond your verbal communication — every possible impression you can make on your customers plays a part in your in-store sales.

4. Adopt an "onto the next one" mentality when dealing with rejection.

Rejection is a fact of life for any kind of salesperson — and sales associates aren't exempt from that. You're bound to run into customers who lack interest in your products, aren't in the right place financially, or are flat-out unreceptive to your sales efforts.

You can't take rejection too personally. You need to pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and move onto the next one. Being visibly demoralized can take a toll on other key elements of your role — like your conversational skills and body language — so try to keep your feet moving.

That being said, you shouldn't totally ignore any and all rejection. Every unsuccessful sale is a learning experience. Take an incisive, critical look at your sales efforts that fell short, and try to identify any patterns of behavior that might be holding you back.

Rejection doesn't necessarily mean failure — it often provides opportunities for growth, professional development, and future success.

5. Study sales strategies — particularly value-based selling.

A retail sales environment is exactly that — a sales environment. That's why understanding certain selling strategies (typically associated with conventional sales) can provide a major boost for sales associates looking to step their games up.

Elements of methodologies and strategies like consultative selling, solution selling, and "Command of the Sale" selling can all have a place in a sales associate's repertoire.

But of all the sales tactics sales associates should understand, value-based selling is the most, well, valuable. This strategy revolves around selling a product based on the potential value it offers — not all the neat features, bells, and whistles that come with it.

Having a feel for value-based selling principles — including prioritizing the customer's interests, taking the time to better understand their individual needs, teaching customers as the sale progresses, guiding customers through the buying process, and ultimately selling based on what the customer stands to gain from the product in question — will make you a more well-rounded, effective sales associate.

Sales associate life is a grind in itself. Dealing with disgruntled customers, having to streamline a sales process into a single conversation, and keeping tabs on some of a retail outlet's logistical aspects can be tough — especially when you have to do them simultaneously.

Still, if you're either working in or pursuing one of these positions, there are certain strategies and points of emphasis you can look to make your job easier and your sales efforts more effective.

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