What Cannabis Retailers Can Learn From Medical Dispensaries

It is no secret that the legal marijuana industry is receiving a growing amount of attention from industry hopefuls eager to apply their skills in this booming market. The industry grew from $1.5 billion in 2013 to $2.7 billion in 2014—a 74% increase in one year, according to The ArcView Group’s latest market analysis report.

With the rapid development of both medical marijuana dispensaries and marijuana retailers in states where legal, many are gaining a competitive edge by embracing new technology and platforms, promoting best-in-class strains with cannabis photography and more.

But while some retailers look to the latest technology to strengthen their outreach, other strategies require getting back to the basics of connecting with clients.

Medical marijuana dispensaries’ approach to customer service is a lesson for all pot shops: a company’s brand and message must be realized at the ground level by the customer, as well as by the employees who are often the first representation of a company’s mission and values.

Driving that approach is a focus on training that goes beyond third-party programs, said Roger LaChance, operations manager of medical cannabis collective Berkeley Patients Group in Berkeley, California.

“We’ve noticed a lot of training schools that have popped up with weekend or two-week workshops,” LaChance said. “They help, but we’ve come to the conclusion that instituting our own training program in-house has better results for us.”


Take Customer Service to the Next Level

While a client-first approach is key in any industry, it is especially crucial in the marijuana industry.

“If you try to be a car salesperson they’ll stop calling you,” said the director of operations at Lucky Shamrock Cooperative, Inc., a medical marijuana dispensary based in San Diego, California. “What we strive to do is find out [what the client] is looking for,” said the director of operations, who asked that his name be withheld. “Do you have pain? Are you anxious?”

Karmaceuticals in Denver, Colorado, limits the number of patients in its facility to ensure that there is only one patient per budtender, said Sarah Clements, manager at Karmaceuticals. “That way they’re getting individualized attention,” she said. Clements earned the award for Budtender of the Year in 2013 at the Cannabis Business Awards.

While a one-on-one approach might not always work in a recreational dispensary, compassion goes a long way in building relationships.

“We listen to our patients, and learn from them,” Clements said. “Compassion—the hardest thing is finding that [among applicants]. And our patients, often they do stay around to talk. We might be the best part of their day.”

In addition, a focus on customer service helps to separate industry wannabes from industry players.

“We find that many of those enthusiastic about working with a marijuana company aren’t necessarily focused on customer service,” LaChance said. “You have people coming from the underground market and people coming from graduate school [interested in the industry].”


Know Your Product

Great customer service also means knowing a store’s products inside out. Karmaceuticals invites featured vendors to attend team meetings to answer employee questions and describe products in detail.

“The more education you have, the better,” Clements said. “When there’s multiple places you can go and pick up your prescription drug, care makes the difference. We make sure our patients get as much information as they need as often as they need it.”

And while an understanding of products is crucial, particularly for medical marijuana dispensaries who might have clients with limited prior marijuana experience, it is also important for both medical and recreational businesses to acknowledge that they do not have all the answers.

“It’s important for staff to be compassionate, professional, know how to maintain confidentiality and when to say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘Ask your doctor,’” said Danielle Schumacher, partner at boutique marijuana recruiting firm THC Staffing Group. The company is based in both Boston, Massachusetts, and San Francisco, California.

Berkeley Patients Group is in the “business of building relationships,” LaChance explained. “We prep our budtenders to be forthright and guide clients through the sea of products available.”

There is no one size fits all approach, and what one person might enjoy will likely differ to the next. Both dispensary and retail shops benefit by providing training opportunities that empower employees to be better listeners and weed sommeliers.

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