The sales associate shifts her gaze off to the side just as the customer approaches. Suddenly she is intent on restocking merchandise or discussing when she will take her next break — anything to avoid actual contact with a shopper. It’s the type of behavior that galls customers and dominates the list of complaints cited in the second annual Retail Customer Dissatisfaction Study conducted by Wharton’s Jay H. Baker Retail Initiative with the Verde Group, a Canadian consulting firm.

The study found that disinterested, ill-prepared and unwelcoming salespeople lead to more lost business and bad word-of-mouth than any other management challenge in retailing. “There are a variety of different triggers for having a bad shopping experience, including things like parking or how well the store is organized. Some of those things retailers can do something about and some of them they can’t. But frankly, a very important part of the retail experience is the interaction with the sales associate,” says Wharton marketing professor Stephen J. Hoch, director of the Baker Initiative.

In a telephone survey of 1,000 shoppers who were asked about their most recent retail experience, 33% reported they had been unable to find a salesperson to help them. Many of these shoppers were so annoyed by this one problem that they said they would not return to the store. According to the Wharton analysis, sales associates who are missing in action cost American retailers six percent of their customers.

Add to that the 25% of consumers reporting they were ignored outright by sales associates — no greeting, no smile, not even eye contact. This lack of engagement turned off three percent of customers to the point where they said they would permanently stay way from the store in which they encountered this behavior.

Hoch remains puzzled by sales associates who retreat from potential customers. “You would think that if these sales associates are spending the whole day interacting with people, they would be a lot happier in their own life if they were friendly. Instead, they pull into their shell. What’s wrong with saying, ‘Hi, how are you doing?'”

According to Paula Courtney, president of the Verde Group, survey respondents were not frustrated by sales associates who seemed overworked or outmanned by shoppers. It’s the “conscious ignoring” that irritates them, she says. “Customers would walk into a store and the store representative would see them and continue to put items on the shelf or watch the cash register or do administrative work — absolutely ignoring the fact that an actual person was in the store.”

A Bad Experience Counts More

The surveyed consumers reported many other retail aggravations, including trouble finding a parking space (33%) and product stock-outs (22%) but shoppers are more forgiving of those problems than they are of bad sales help. Being ignored was the customer gripe most likely to be shared with others through word-of-mouth, according to the survey. Last year’s Consumer Dissatisfaction Study showed that one in three dissatisfied customers tells others about a problem he or she encountered at a store, and those people go on to tell an average of four others. Half of all shoppers have chosen not to visit a particular store because of someone else’s bad experiences.

“The importance of consumer dissatisfaction, rather than satisfaction, is the fact that a negative experience leads people to want to go and talk it,” says Hoch. They are less apt to talk about it “when things go well,” he notes, adding that despite the grousing, many sales associates do greet customers warmly and help consumers through the shopping experience. Since they are on the front lines, these employees become the most visible target for complaints when there is a problem. “When something goes wrong, the sales associate gets blamed for it — fairly or unfairly.”

The survey revealed differences in dissatisfaction by age, with older shoppers reporting fewer problems. The average number of problems experienced per consumer is highest among those 18 to 29 years old. Shoppers under 30 were more likely to be ignored by store staff or turned off by “phony” salespeople they perceive to be more interested in making a sale than actually helping the customer. They also complain more frequently than older shoppers about not finding items due to disorganized stores and employees’ lack of product knowledge.

Hoch says he is not certain why younger people are more likely to find sales people lacking in authenticity, but he thinks it might be that sales people are often trained to monitor younger shoppers more carefully to watch for theft. “Overall, older people are less dissatisfied than younger people. I don’t know if it’s because they are less patient or have higher expectations, or older people are just worn down and don’t expect as much.”

Courtney suggests that younger people typically have less loyalty to stores and are highly demanding consumers. They are also among the most valuable consumers to retailers and other brand marketers attempting to build life-long relationships with customers who are just entering their high-spending years as they form families and buy homes. “Young people tend to be exposed to more choices,” she says. “They recognize that everyone wants a piece of their business. They are used to being catered to; perhaps that makes them more demanding.”

Respondents also reported varying degrees of dissatisfaction depending on the type of retail store they had visited. Stores specializing in a particular type of merchandise, such as electronics, home improvement or office supplies, so-called “category killers,” account for the largest proportion of shopping trips and drew the most complaints and lowest shopper loyalty.

Hoch notes that these stores often carry vast numbers of products that can be relatively expensive and require more technical sales knowledge than other types of merchandise. “My thinking is that when people are buying a more expensive item carried by these category killers, they have less experience with them and they need some help.”

Mass merchandisers — like Target — generate the highest level of loyalty both in terms of repeat patronage and the likelihood of consumers recommending a store to others, although survey respondents did report some problems with a lack of staff at these stores as well. Department stores ranked second in customer loyalty although some consumers reported difficulty finding items because of cluttered stores.

Overall, Hoch says, the rise of category killers dominating certain merchandise segments has changed the nature of retailing, eroding the level of professionalism that had been an important element of the industry in prior generations. “In the old days, you could walk into a hardware store and find a little old man who had been there for 25 years and knew exactly where to find anything,” says Hoch. “Now think about trying to know where everything is inside a large do-it-yourself store that’s humongous. It’s impossible to expect someone would know where everything is.” Similarly, it is difficult for sales people in electronics stores, where technology is changing rapidly, to know the answer to every question a customer has about a certain product.

The Ideal Sales Associate

The survey results led the researchers to classify four different characteristics that would be found in ideal sales associates.

The most important is being an “engager.” Associates fitting this description smile and interrupt whatever they are doing to help a shopper. “Problems associated with not finding an ‘engager’ are most prevalent overall, and across all store types,” according to the survey. The second-most important type of sales person is the “educator.” This employee is able to explain products, make recommendations and tell customers where products can be found. Hoch describes what it takes to be an educator: “Does the sales person help you find what you need, inform you and educate you? Or is it like staring into a black hole when you ask a question and the sales person looks like a deer caught in the headlights?”

Hoch notes that the importance of educators depends on the retail format, with category killers most dependent on this characteristic in their sales staffs.

Another type of ideal sales associate is the “expeditor.” This employee is sensitive to customers’ time and helps speed them through long check-out lines. “You see this one at the airport or other locations where there is some clog-up in the system,” explains Hoch. “This sales person recognizes that, with their intervention, things can keep moving forward …. Someone has to notice the problem and go out of their way to alleviate it.”

Finally, the research indicates that customers want “authentic” sales help. These associates let customers browse on their own, and appear genuinely interested in helping regardless of whether a sale is made or not. “No one wants to be ignored,” says Courtney, “but there is a balance between the right level of engagement and a sense of genuineness.”

The survey results come as little surprise at Federated Department Stores, the parent company of Macy’s, according to Jim Sluzewski, the company’s vice president for corporate communications. “This survey demonstrates what a complex subject customer service is. Customers have different expectations that are not necessarily driven by demographics, but by psychographics or lifestyle,” he says. “There are some individuals who want a great deal of service from a store, and others who are irritated if they are talked to too much. Finding the right balance is something that we’re always working to achieve.”

Hiring more workers is not necessarily the answer to complaints about retail staff, Courtney notes, adding that building a level of sensitivity to what shoppers want is more important. For example, prompting a sales person to simply open a second register when a long line begins to form gets more to the root of the problem. “This is what trumps getting more bodies — getting more staff to show behaviors that are sensitive to consumers’ needs.”

Indeed, Federated recently reduced the number of customer service stations tucked away throughout the selling areas of its stores in order to consolidate customer service in fewer, but more visible check-out areas adjacent to store aisles.

According to Hoch, the reality of the competitive pressures in the retail industry probably would not permit stores to change associates’ behavior by offering big bonuses or higher pay as a way to find people who are naturally good “engagers” or “educators.”

Technology, however, may provide some solutions. Hoch suggests sales associates in large home improvement stores could be outfitted with hand-held devices listing products and the aisles where they could be found. When a customer pulls an associate aside to ask about an item, the employee could simply punch it up on the hand-held. Retailers, Courtney adds, could do more with signage to direct customers to merchandise, and category killers in particular could make better use of information kiosks to shift some of the educators’ work onto consumers themselves.

Federated is introducing hand-held devices, like those used by car-rental return employees, to reduce long check-out lines. When customers clog a register at one time, associates can move down the line using the device to rapidly scan merchandise and record credit card sales.

All four traits necessary in good sales associates are possible to develop in any employee as long as they get the right instruction and are monitored on the retail floor,Courtney says. “The good news is that all of this is trainable.”

Sluzewski would agree. He notes that Federated is devoting an increasing amount of attention to employees’ product knowledge and selling skills. At the same time, the company aims to hire sales people who do not need to be trained to look a person in the eye and smile. “It’s just human nature. There are people of all types,” he says. “When we recruit, we’re looking for individuals who are outgoing and friendly, who greet a customer like they are someone arriving at their home for a party.”