The road to good health is becoming an ever more complicated one and rapid advances in pharmaceutical science and medical research can make even a visit to a pharmacy or healthcare shop a confusing experience.
Watsons, Hong Kong's largest pharmacy chain, has been quick to recognise this and endeavours to provide more than just a retail environment, says Wing Tsui, a senior health and fitness advisor with the company.
"Our basic job is to understand the need of every customer," she says, "and to give them advice and solve their problems. In short, we guide the customer through the buying process.
"We don't wait passively for them to ask us questions. We want to make sure that what they buy is the most suitable product that addresses their needs," she adds. "For example, if we see a mother carrying a baby with mosquito bites, and she buys a medicinal cream with a concentration designed for adults, we will ask her if she is buying the cream for her baby, and if so, suggest that she buy a less concentrated cream.
"Apart from product advice, we also try to give our customers friendly reminders. For instance, after a customer has bought a cough syrup, we remind him to drink more water and wish him a speedy recovery," Ms Tsui adds.
Ms Tsui is one of around 200 health and fitness advisors currently working in Watsons' major outlets, and among four health and fitness advisors recently promoted to a more senior position. She was the winner of the Outstanding Service Award in the supermarket and convenience store category organised by the Retail Management Association in 2003.
Watsons introduced the position of Health and Fitness Advisor (HFA) in 1999. Since then, ten batches of HFAs have been trained.
Margaret Lau, chief pharmacist at Watsons, says: "We used to pick our trainees from among our sales assistants, mostly through their managers' recommendations. Recently, we began recruiting externally and welcome candidates who are interested in health and retail. The basic training takes six months on a part time on-the-job basis with classroom tuition principally taught by our pharmacists.
"To closely monitor the progress of each trainee and to give them good and timely support, a mentor is assigned. They meet every two weeks and the mentor will check the progress of the trainee," she says.
The training includes product knowledge, including knowledge of Western and Chinese medicine, vitamins and supplements. Trainees are also introduced to pharmaceutical laws, communications skills and sales techniques. In addition to formal tuition, there are role-playing sessions that expose trainees to different, and often challenging, scenarios.
Each classroom session is followed by a test, with an interim exam held during the course and a final exam at the end of it. By monitoring trainees' progress continually to ensure support is given as soon as needed, the company has seen an overall pass rate in the final exam of more than 80 per cent.
"The basic requirements for HFA trainees include a good secondary education, an analytical mind, good communication skills and an eagerness to help customers," Ms Lau says. "As the health and fitness of our customers is our prime concern, we make every effort to ensure that our HFAs give the very best advice to them."
"As part of our code of practice, we ensure that our customers do not delay in seeking any necessary treatment. Whenever we see that they need medical attention, we strongly urge them to see their doctor as soon as possible," Ms Lau stresses.
"For minor ailments, our pharmacists are able to dispense the appropriate drugs in our pharmacies. But the pharmacy is only one of the nine units in the Health Section of our major stores. The other units are cough and cold, first aid, vitamins, health products, footcare products, eyecare products, family planning products and fitness equipment," she explains.
"Given the short product cycles and the constant introduction of new products, there is an obvious need for HFAs to constantly keep abreast of the developments in the pharmaceutical industry and the healthcare scene. Hence we have refresher sessions for practising HFAs every month or so. These sessions also offer an opportunity for the HFAs to share their experiences, especially the handling of difficult situations," Ms Lau says.
On this point, Ms Tsui was quick to offer an example. "At first, when the occasion arose where I had to explain the efficacy of drugs exclusively for men, I couldn't help but feel embarrassed. But gradually I got used to it," she says.
She was not alone in this, as the vast majority - about 90 per cent - of HFAs are female. However, she pointed out that slimming products take up a good proportion of sales and customers for these products are mainly women, who probably feel more comfortable consulting fellow women.
Ms Tsui suggests that the HFA scheme clearly works from a business point of view. "A lot of our customers are repeat customers who come to our shop regularly," she says. "Some of them have even become good friends with us. We treasure these long-term relationships.
"To develop good customer relationships, it is important to make a good start. One thing we need to remember, however, is to keep a suitable distance from them. We need to be close enough to give them ready support, but not so close that they will feel uneasy," she continues.
"In many ways, being an HFA is highly rewarding. The primary reward, of course, is the satisfaction of being able to help the customers, and sometimes receiving their thanks and praise. Secondly, the more I learn about health and fitness and related products, the better I can keep myself healthy and fit," Ms Tsui points out, adding: "There is yet another benefit - I can give knowledgeable tips to my family and friends!"
The path to professionalism
- Trainees chosen from sales staff by branch managers and
through external recruitment
- Focus on product knowledge, including knowledge of Western
and Chinese medicine, vitamins and supplements
- Introduction to pharmaceutical laws, communications skills
and sales techniques
- Training supervised by mentors with regular tests and
interim and final examinations