Jonathan Winchester, managing director of mystery shopping and customer service company Shopper Anonymous, asks are your staff really making the sale?

Sales are at the heart of any business and giving staff even a basic level of sales skills can make a huge difference to profits. This doesn’t mean asking them to give every customer the hard sell, but ensuring they know how to give good customer service at the same time as selling effectively.

Selling is a five-step process. Step one is the introduction; the welcome and small talk to establish a rapport. Step two is asking questions and finding out what the customer might want. The third step is telling the customer the things they need to make a purchasing decision, while step four is negotiating not necessarily the price, but the choice of purchase or selling-on. The final step is finishing off: the ’thank you’, farewell and the encouragement to the customer to return.

The key step that most staff get wrong is stage two, finding out what the customer actually wants. Often, staff members don’t do it all; they just tell the customer lots of information they probably don’t want to hear. For example, when a customer comes in for their lunch, stands back and looks at the counter, the staff member starts telling them about the products: "We’ve got sausage rolls, pasties, sandwiches, jam tarts" and so on, rather than asking them the relevant questions, such as, "Are you buying for yourself?", "How hungry are you?", "Is it for lunch or afternoon tea?", "Do you have a sweet tooth?" or "Any special dietary requirements?". Using the open questions, starting how, why, when, which and what really can help.

Once you have the vital information, you can match the product to the customer need and make the customer feel they’ve had personalised service. What you don’t want staff to do is tell the customer loads of information that is irrelevant as the customer finds that frustrating and they don’t feel personally appreciated.

The other stage that many staff struggle with is step 4, the negotiation. We’ve asked the customer questions, we’ve told them what we’ve got and now is time to sell ’the sizzle, not the sausage’ in other words, the benefits. Mentioning that the sandwiches were made that morning with bread made in your own ovens really can help. It’s at this point that you close the sale the customer makes their decision. You wrap it up, take their money, give them a reason to return, such as a loyalty card, and say you hope to see them again.

As the owner or manager of a business, do a quick role-play with your staff. Play the role of the customer, walk into the store and say, "I’m hungry", then see how staff set about identifying what you want and how they can make the sale. The old-fashioned role-play really does work.