A common complaint I hear from my patients is that they just don’t know where to turn when looking for advice or expert help for finding quality footwear. There is a great opportunity for footwear retailers to be the source of that expertise by increasing the knowledge of the sales staff. A knowledgeable shoe fitter can gain the trust of their customers and become more proficient at helping them, while also raising the status of the store. The following is a guide designed to increase your level of expertise.

1. Know the structure of the shoes. It sounds obvious, but there are plenty of experienced footwear sales associates who never bother to understand the structural features and materials that make up the shoes. Shoe experts understand the differences between the many different synthetic and leather uppers, between EVA and polyurethane, between semi-straight lasts and semi-curved lasts. They also understand how all of the features of the shoe add up and interact to provide the “feel” and fit of the shoe. Experts keep up to date on shoe information and learn about biomechanics. It is better to say, “I don’t know but I can get the answer for you,” than it is to try to make up an answer when you clearly don’t know. Customers will see through it and you will not regain their trust once it’s lost.

2. Shoe experts do not have to know the sales pitch that the manufacturer’s rep encouraged them to memorize. Savvy customers don’t often care about whatever the latest footwear “technology” is-they just want someone who can help them find the right shoe for their needs.

3. Experts pick the brains of other experts. Ask medical professionals or use the Internet to learn about biomechanics and anatomy. Invite experts into the store to give talks to the staff. New staff members should listen and learn from more experienced members. Some customers themselves are experts on shoes, or can at least can offer insights into how they evaluate a shoe’s feel. Listen to them, too.

4. Shoe experts don’t play brand favorites, and know that their personal preferences are irrelevant when helping a customer. Instead, they understand that a person’s gait is almost as unique as their fingerprint, and foot shapes can vary dramatically.

5. More cushioning isn’t always the answer when trying to help a customer with foot pain. Inexperienced shoe fitters will often steer a customer toward softer shoes or cushioned insoles. For many customers, stability features and firm insoles are the best place to start.

6. A shoe fit expert knows that not making a shoe sale is sometimes the best policy. A great way to win over a new customer who comes to your store complaining that a new shoe they bought elsewhere is causing problems is to troubleshoot the problem-whether it be fit, style, or lack of support-and then offer a solution that doesn’t necessarily require them to buy another shoe. Does the shoe need to be stretched? Would they benefit from the right insole? Maybe they need a referral to a good local podiatrist or pedorthist. If you can offer them reasonable alternatives, they will see you as an expert and not just somebody trying to sell them another pair of shoes. They will be happy to return to your store when they’re ready for that next pair.

7. Comfort is subjective. Just because a shoe feels comfortable, stable or supportive to one customer does not mean it will to others. In fact, researchers have attempted to study and define comfort, but there were no obvious patterns in how people determine comfort. You cannot tell a customer what is comfortable–they have to tell you. Also, when a customer says that a shoe feels “supportive” ask them what they mean. Support has different meanings to different people.

8. Never pick one shoe for a customer, even if they want you to. There is not a single “shoe expert” on the planet who can guarantee that a shoe they select for someone will work well. Customers MUST be given a minimum of three shoes to evaluate, and then must select the one that works best for them. An expert can listen to the comments a runner may make while evaluating the shoes and then use that information to assist in narrowing the choices. But in responding to the inevitable questions, “Which one would you get,” or, “Which shoe do you run in,” a shoe fitter should emphasize that customers should trust their instincts and select the shoe that has the best fit and feel.

9. Experts listen to the customer and learn how they perceive the shoes. Individual opinions about shoes do not matter, but patterns do. Asking customers specific questions and listening to their answers is important in building a mental file on each shoe. Ask customers what it is they like or dislike about shoes they’ve tried, and use that information to help others.

10. Read shoe reviews, but with a grain of salt. Take in the technical information and disregard the opinions.

Paul Langer is podiatrist and serves as a clinical faculty member at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He is the author of “Great Feet For Life: Footcare and Footwear for Healthy Aging.”