• Ron Thurston

How to Excel at Work in Retail: Be Curious

The following is adapted from Retail Pride, The Guide to Celebrating Your Accidental Career by Ron Thurston

Albert Einstein famously said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” This applies to great retail workers just as well as theoretical physicists. Whatever your current role or your dream role, the road to being great at retail sales or leadership is paved with curiosity.

Say a customer comes in looking for a new suit and tells you he’s an accountant.

At this point, you could think, I know what accountants wear, and start showing him suits.

Or, with curiosity, you could ask him more about what his job is like. Maybe you discover that he travels a lot, to do site audits. Now you can provide him with much better recommendations, for suits that will travel well.

This is the power of curiosity. When we’re curious, we take the time to fully understand a situation, and this allows us to find the best solutions, for our customers, for our team, and for our company. Fortunately, there are many things you can do to work on your curiosity.

Don’t be Afraid of the Unknown

If you’re like most people, you probably don’t like the unknown and feel more comfortable when you know the answers. You can’t be afraid of the unknown. Instead of looking at it as something scary, view it as something exciting to explore.

I remember the relief I felt when I joined Apple as a new store manager. Part of their incredible culture is the idea that no one person is an expert at everything. Apple encourages the use of "I don't know, let's find out" to engage with the customer, a response rooted in both curiosity and empathy. I still use this today whenever I get stuck because it creates a sense of collaboration and discovery.

The best salespeople have an insatiable desire to learn, and they don't allow temporary setbacks to distract them from their highest aspirations. Curiosity gives us the power to push through uncertainty, ask tough questions, and build our decision-making skills.

Surround Yourself with Curious People

If you want to be better at sales, a more effective leader, or an all-around more successful person, surround yourself with interesting people who welcome surprise into their lives. They like to try a new food, talk to a stranger, or ask a question they've never asked before. The best team to work on is one full of curious people!

Of course, you can only benefit from those curious people if you interact with them. So take the time to pay attention to and be interested to learn more about your coworkers. You're with these people every day. During downtime, why not take a moment to develop a deeper understanding of who they are? It's a great way to exercise your curiosity and improve your team relationships.

Keep Asking for Feedback

One of the cornerstones of retail curiosity is soliciting customer feedback with an open mind. Customer feedback is vital because it can serve as a guiding resource for the growth of your store or company.

Don't you want to know what you're getting right, and maybe wrong, in the eyes of the customer? You can find gems in that feedback that will make it easier to adjust and adapt the customer experience over time. Feedback is the way to keep your team and your customer at the heart of everything you do.

Soliciting feedback also helps with product blindness, where your own passion for your product blinds you to the customer’s needs. I find that product blindness often occurs in the fashion space, where many sales associates love the newest trends so much that they are blind to the realities of an individual customer’s tastes.

You may think a specific product needs to be used one way, but your customers may have something else to say entirely. Take the opportunity to be curious and solicit a different opinion, even if you don't like it.

Educate Yourself about Ideas Outside of Traditional Retail

Steve Jobs studied beautiful objects and wanted all his products to be highly attractive. Could his products have been as successful if they simply worked well? Possibly, but his curiosity made Apple products unique in the marketplace.

The innovations or ideas that you're searching for might already exist in other sectors. Ask yourself, "What other industries face a similar problem?" I most often derive inspiration not from other retailers, but from the luxury restaurant or hotel businesses whose entire reputation hinges on their customer experience.

One of the best things about curiosity is that not only does it deepen your knowledge of what exists, but more importantly, it allows you to imagine creative new solutions and ways to deal with your team and customers. So don’t limit your curiosity to only your industry.

Study Disruption Before it’s Too Late

When you’re curious, you don’t get stuck in the status quo. You’re willing to explore new ideas and potential disruptions.

The hotel industry encountered disruption with Airbnb. The taxi and black car industry faced it with Uber. The music industry faced it with Spotify. Everywhere you look, industries are being disrupted. Retail is no exception. Studying what is happening in the industry will always serve you well.

Each of those companies provided a service that was more convenient than the tried-and-true methods. By doing so, they changed the game for their users and competitors. In the case of brick-and-mortar retail, the shark in the water is e-commerce, especially behemoths like Amazon.

The best physical stores center obsessively on their core value proposition and innovate new ways to drive store traffic and build customer loyalty. These initiatives may be expensive, but the brands that invest for the long term will have a better chance of retaining relevance.

The Key to Success is Curiosity

I often get asked what the secret ingredient to success is, and while everyone has their own answer—like hard work, dedication, or perseverance—there is one that I believe leads to more success than others. That ingredient is curiosity. The most successful people I know, whose successes are not just financial, are naturally curious, which leads them to new ventures, new solutions, new achievements, and new beginnings.

Think about how much you might miss if you already assume you know where your journey will take you! Curiosity leads to learning, and learning fuels curiosity. Not everything you discover will be of interest, but don’t let that put you off developing that skill. In the next decade of exceptional retail, curiosity will light the way.

For more advice on setting retail goals, you can find Retail Pride on Amazon.

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