Last week, my Bengaluru-based sister-in-law Ruma and I made our usual pilgrimage to her favourite store in Lutyens Delhi to browse through its eclectic collection of handcrafted textiles, fashioned into both clothes and soft furnishings. After the pandemic-enforced hiatus of 18 months, she was eager to explore the new collection of the veteran designer, and even wore the elegantly dyed pashmina stole she had bought the last time she had been there.

By the time she left, she had not only bought a grey wool bias-cut tunic that complemented her luxuriant silvery hair and slim figure, but also kept aside two more exquisite silk kurtas – with second-thought-provoking price tags – to show her husband before committing to buy. And this was all thanks to an unobtrusive but supremely effective salesman, who not only understood what she liked, but also had just the right degree of gentle persuasiveness.

Such was his intuition that he also deduced – perhaps from what I was wearing – that although I clearly loved such textiles too, my personal sartorial preference was not the same as Ruma’s. So, while she was trying on the tunic that she eventually bought, he directed my attention to a rack of intricately worked saree tops: calling them blouses would be too simplistic. Upon learning I had already seen them, he brought out an avant garde ikat saree. Just my kind.

He had us both figured out pretty quick. He not only sussed out what cuts Ruma liked – flowing and layered – as well as ‘her’ colours (rust, charcoal, grey, ecru), he also gleaned my preferences from the way I was looking through the shelves and racks even as he was tending attentively to her. He even offered tidbits of information on the designer’s all-time bestselling pieces, including several superb black-and-natural-tussar, loose patchwork jackets.

My mind immediately went back to my best friend’s experience about a decade ago at a very popular department store in Kolkata, where she intended to buy a pair of jeans. As she mulled over one, a young salesgirl, gauchely using the familiar ‘tumi’ rather than ‘aapni’, told her that the cut would not suit her. Apart from the inappropriateness of the remark – to a lady at least 20 years older than her – the salesgirl was also acting against her prime directive: to sell.

Of course, there is (or should be!) a difference in the quality of sales personnel at high-end stores and mass market ones, given their different customer profiles but the objective remains the same for salespeople in both: to persuade browsers to become buyers, by guiding them to merchandise that will appeal. They have to be geared to understand different customers and their psyches, so that they come across as helpers not garrulous and annoying interferers.

In the average Indian kirana store, salespeople are usually on the ball, not only juggling multiple customers but also managing to sell customers a few more items than they intended to buy by pointing out bargains and price cuts. Ditto for the bustling sales personnel at the modern format, branded grocery stores. Only those behind the counter at government-run establishments still have no eagerness to sell, but even that is changing at a few stores.

Multi-brand, multi-product department stores, both Indian and international, are the ones that appear to fall short on this count, either because the sales personnel are inadequately trained and therefore not sufficiently aware of their raison d’etre – to sell – or because there is a high attrition rate, leaving an endemically inexperienced salesforce. Also, staff at luxury brand stores in India recognise cash-in-bag type buyers but subtler customers often get ignored.

All of which points to a need for more intensive sales training for the relatively newer type of stores in India, especially now that online buying has taken one segment away from physical outlets altogether. Intuition and empathy – the ability to understand the feelings of others – are crucial skills now for sales staff. Therefore, companies should also appreciate the sales staff who display the ability to sell that extra item to, say, a wavering, indecisive customer.

The affable salesperson told Ruma he has been working at that store for nearly two decades. Hopefully he is that designer’s most valued employee, as his winning mix of perceptive suggestions resulted in her buying considerably more than a grey wool tunic when she returned the next day. Had I tagged along, I might have also ended up buying that ikat saree. If he ever writes a book on his Secrets of Closing the Sale, he could become our desi Zig Ziglar.


Views expressed above are the author's own.