Selling Women’s Shoes — A Guide to Culture Change At Work

A common complaint mentioned on engagement surveys is that managers don’t welcome, listen, and respond to concerns, which means problems fester and good ideas to go unheard.

I wrote about this recently in the context of trust as a foundational issue that needs to be built into our workplaces.

I realized that I had worked in an environment that provided a simple model, applicable today, for setting expectations and managing behavior.

As a senior in high school, I got my first job at Baker’s Shoe Store in Pittsburgh selling women’s shoes on weekends. The first day on the floor I got instructions from my boss, Mr. Silverman. “When a customer comes in,” he said, “find out what she wants, go get the shoe in her size (or close), find two other similar pairs and a third and final selection that is completely different.”

I asked, “Why should we do that? Why not just get the shoes the customer wants?”  Mr. Silverman, said, “You might be selling dress shoes, but maybe it will rain that same day. The customer needs boots, show those to her, too. This helps the customer, our business, and it’ll help you, too. And by the way, you have to bring out some purses and shoe polish too. That’s how we do it.”

Like every other new salesperson, I wanted to make a quick, easy sale and move on.  I thought to myself, “I’ll find the shoe the customer wants, sell the pair quickly, then move on to the next customer.” Being 17 and knowing everything there was to know, I was sure I was right.

The savvy managers at Baker’s, however, knew that a lot of us “extras”—and even regular sales staff—would think like me. If we were allowed to follow our instincts, customer turnover would increase, but the results would be limited sales and lost opportunities for extra revenue.

How did Baker’s get us know-it-alls to sell their way? They hired secret shoppers to visit their stores.  These people dressed and acted like real customers, but they were checking to see if we brought the other three pairs of shoes, purses, and polish even when they told us exactly what they wanted.  Anyone who got a couple of bad reports for failing to show the other selections was out of work, pronto. The rest of us learned we’d better follow the instructions exactly if we wanted to keep our jobs.  We learned and we did.

You can’t bring secret shoppers into your workplace to test how well managers and supervisors are following the rules—at least not unless you want to completely destroy workplace relationships.

But what you can do is to ask employees very specific behavioral questions on engagement surveys that can be traced to their manager’s performance.  If you want managers to listen and act responsively, ask their teams questions like:

  • Does your manager take or make time to listen to your concerns –whatever they are?
  • Does your manager express frustration or lack of interest through body language, tone of voice and eye contact?
  • Does he/she repeat your statements to make sure he or she has understood what you’re trying to say?
  • Does he/she indicate that he/she appreciates hearing from you?
  • Does he/she follow up and tell you what has happened as a result of the issues you raised?

In that first job so many years ago, I kept bringing out four pairs of shoes, purses, and polish because it was clear that management cared about enforcing that standard and was paying attention.  Any manager can use that lesson today. Set specific standards and use your employees as not-so-secret shoppers to give you a picture of what is really happening out on your “sales floor.” Do so, and just like Baker’s, you can reach even the most resistant members of your team – like I was at 17.

1 Comment
  • John Hagen says:

    Stephen, Have followed you for a number of years and have seldom commented. Because I started my career at Nordstrom, in Seattle, your Baker Shoe experience brought a smile. Like you, shoe sales have long since disappeared as one of my functions, however, I stayed in retail. Retail contains everchanging culture and product elements most business, quite frankly, never deal with. We in retail call it the Warrior mentality.
    The most unusual aspect of great retail is instant face to face feed back regarding success or failure, not in just making sales but in developing long term sales people, long term customers and repeat customers. The culture at Baker and Nordstrom required(s) the development of a customer centric service approach regarding expectations and managing behavior.
    One of your posts last year related the non-compliance to DOL law as being 90% of employers. It should not, therefore, come as a surprise the same lack of knowledge and caring, or purposful disregard, of good management and people practices has gone the same way. We have become masters of the technical, metrics and efficiency, but the destroyers of the positive work culture. Employers don’t pay attention, don’t set management expectations and don’t use the already available employee feed back as a monitor. It’s there just ask them.
    Thanks for your site and all you do.

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