Going the Extra Mile

A dynamic retail space, a well-trained staff and online sales are among the keys to delivering great service to customers

By Joseph Peña

Top-notch customer service can distinguish quality cannabis retailers from a packed field of competitors.

From interior design and displays to staff training and consumer education, you can create a seamless experience for your dispensary’s customers. Add the option to buy product online – with delivery, expedited in-store pickup and discounts as added incentives – and you have a more comprehensive way of accommodating your customers.

Executives in California, Nevada and Washington state shared their strategies for delivering best-in-class customer service.

Design Matters

Retail design is one of the most important ways dispensaries can cater to customers. From construction to amenities, a retail space is where customers engage with your staff and products.

In Washington state, Hashtag Cannabis’ largest dispensary in Fremont has a 900-square-foot retail floor that accommodates approximately 60 customers, said Logan Bowers, co-owner of the company’s two Seattle-area shops. Hashtag uses tamperproof glass display cases throughout the store to keep customers browsing, engaged and learning about products while they wait to see a budtender.

The displays include products with descriptions and prices, daily discounts and vendors’ specials, and budtenders’ recommendations – like you’d see in a bookstore, Bowers said. The budtender recommendations have been popular and create a connection between customers and sales associates.

The key to effective displays is accuracy, he said. Avoid customer confusion by accurately labeling products with THC to CBD ratios and current pricing. It helps customers make informed decisions before seeing a budtender.

California’s Harborside designed its flagship store in Oakland to feel comfortable for customers and unintimidating, without bars on windows or bulletproof glass. Instead, there’s an open retail floor with couches and complimentary water stations, said Andrew DeAngelo, Harborside’s director of operations.

In Nevada, design is critical to the customer experience at The+Source, said Andrew Jolley, owner of the company’s two retail stores. The dispensaries’ lobbies are large open spaces with seating for more than 30 customers. They also boast floor-to-ceiling glass doors, so customers can see the retail floor and the hundreds of products on display while they wait.

The open layout of The+Source’s retail floors has natural daylight from Solatubes and custom wood shelves with built-in LED lighting to illuminate the dispensary’s products that are on display. The design lends to interaction between customers and sales associates.

“Our most unique attribute is how we’re designed,” Jolley said.

Train for Success

Ongoing, in-depth training is essential to equip your staff with the product knowledge and customer-service savvy needed to engage customers and discuss products.

To do this, Harborside has developed an online learning management system with video training. Harborside incorporates written and in-person training, too. Its sales team meets every morning to talk about new products or inventory changes, and vendors offer presentations at staff meetings to share product-specific information, DeAngelo said.

Sales associates are taught to greet customers, make eye contact, use friendly body language and – when asked – share extensive product knowledge, including how products are cultivated or processed, and the lab testing that products undergo, DeAngelo said.

“They’re training on product knowledge every single day,” DeAngelo said. “We’ve found that’s the only way to keep up. The market is innovating so many products so quickly – if you don’t have a daily check-in, you’re going to fall behind pretty quickly.”

The+Source’s medical director, Dr. William Trout, provides training for the company’s patient and customer advisers. In addition to the history, risks and benefits of medical marijuana, the training covers common uses for MMJ that include treating health conditions and symptoms. Trout also coaches patient and customer advisers on how to assist customers without giving medical advice and how to answer customers’ questions in compassionate, understanding ways, Jolley said.

“It’s an important part of our business,” Jolley said. “It’s so beneficial to have him on the team to help our staff and customers.”

Cross-training employees is an important part of Hashtag’s strategy for accommodating customers. Staff who manage inventory are also trained as sales associates, and sales associates are trained in other parts of operations, Bowers said.

Cross-training means “we can have more folks on staff ready to help customers (and) they can stay busy when we’re slow,” Bowers said. “That decreases wait times, especially during rushes. And also, our staff is better informed about (products) – what’s new and what’s just arrived.”

Do Deeper Dives

In-store education builds trust with customers and promotes healthy consumption.

Customer education and access to free consultations for MMJ patients is an important part of The+Source’s business, said Jolley.

In addition to employee training, Trout, The+Source’s medical director, provides free phone and in-person patient consultations for MMJ patients, and a free, monthly two-hour introduction-to-cannabis seminar for customers and community residents.

“There are also many more people who are open to using medical cannabis who feel intimidated about using a product that has been demonized for so long,” Jolley said. “They are looking for nonbiased, medical-based information to help them make informed decisions about their health and well-being.”

For Hashtag, vendor demo days are valuable ways for customers to learn about new products, state testing requirements and cultivation practices.

Hashtag invites vendors – such as infused product manufacturers and growers – to interact with and educate customers and offers discounts or specials on suppliers’ products each week.

“It’s a way for customers to learn more,” Bowers said. “The vendor is the best source for information on products – agriculture practices, sustainability, strain type. For customers who want to dig deeper, they get the information from the source.”

Harborside’s sales associates provide all customers who purchase edibles and other infused products with information on how to consume responsibly and how to store such products.

Sales associates also encourage customers to have product lockboxes and to keep infused products safe from children and pets, said Harborside’s DeAngelo.

“We’re trying our best to educate customers on safety,” DeAngelo said. “The message all of us have to get out there is to keep their households safe.”

Getting in and Out

Staff your retail floor with an adequate number of sales associates, so customers can navigate the dispensary with ease.

At The+Source, on average, three to five patient or customer advisers are on the retail floor answering questions about products and interacting with patrons. They also direct patients to advisers with more knowledge or expertise on specific products or applications, Jolley said – concentrates or vape cartridges, for example.

If customers know what products they want, they can go straight to the fulfillment line to place their order and be in and out of the dispensary in a short time, Jolley said.

“It gives us the most flexibility, makes it easier to … leverage the knowledge and experience of all our team members, and allows our customers to dictate their experience,” Jolley said. “Some want to walk in, choose their product and immediately see a cashier, and some want more interaction. If you wanted to, you could be in and out in three minutes, but someone who might be less familiar with cannabis and has specific questions can stay as long they want and get the information they need.”

On a given day, 15 to 25 sales associates are on the retail floor at Harborside’s Oakland dispensary, DeAngelo said. Staff walk the floor with tablets, greet customers, determine how much time and information customers need, then walk them to a display case to educate and consult.

It’s a significant financial investment to have that many employees on the floor, but it streamlines the retail experience for customers, DeAngelo said. Sales associates are brand ambassadors who create personal connections with customers, he said – and that makes the investment worthwhile.

For added convenience, customers who know what they want can place an online order using in-store tablets and then wait in the fulfillment line. Alternatively, they can wait in line and place an order at the fulfillment counter.

Harborside has worked hard to get good at customizing the customer experience, DeAngelo said.

“What we’ve learned is that people need information, and a lot of customers want to talk just to learn,” DeAngelo said. “With the redesign in Oakland, we’ve created a new experience where customers don’t have to wait until they get to a counter to do that. They’re talking with sales associates and looking in display cases and they’re engaged when they walk in.”