Often referred to as budtenders, employees who interact directly with dispensary customers are the face of the industry. They shape the consumer experience. Managers who invest in their skills and education are investing not only in individuals, but also in consumer welfare, the industry’s future, and—not coincidentally—the shop’s bottom line.
There is no denying advanced scientific, medical, and strain knowledge are among the most valuable attributes budtenders can possess, and all those may be learned. What arguably may be even more important, however, is compassion—and it’s extremely difficult to teach that skill. “We get a lot of sensitive questions,” said Kim Lester, director of human resources at Las Vegas dispensary The + Source. “We hear questions about how cannabis interacts with seizure disorders, with cancer, with Alzheimer’s, etc. Product knowledge is vastly important, but it can be taught. Empathy is a personality trait.”
Only after she has determined an applicant’s empathic ability does Lester make a job offer. New hires go directly into an on-the-job training program. “Shadowing more experienced team members is vital,” she said. “We do regular product training and cannabis education, but no matter how thorough your classroom material is, it won’t equal a day spent listening to live questions and answers.”
Lester’s new staff members aren’t made to feel they must have all the answers immediately. “There’s value in being stumped by a customer and having to do on-the-spot research,” she said, adding honesty and willingness to find answers are far more important than encyclopedic knowledge. “Winging it” is tantamount to sin. “The moment a customer hears something they know to be false, trust is lost,” Lester said.
Cannabis consumers are a diverse bunch, so dispensary staff members must be patient and understanding. “Whether a customer is entirely new to consuming cannabis or they are ready to revisit an ‘old friend,’ everyone needs a bit of handholding,” said Erika Henika, general manager at San Jose, California, dispensary Caliva.
Like the customer pool, all employees are unique individuals with unique needs, Henika said. A one-size-fits-all approach to training may not work. “We take new employees through our training programs that include basic to advanced cannabis knowledge,” she said. “Each employee takes an initial assessment so their training can be modified as needed.” Like Lester, Henika has new staff members shadow experienced employees in order to learn.
Henika also relies on outside help to educate her staff. All vendors doing business with Caliva are required to provide staff training sessions. This allows Caliva staff members to understand individual products, how they are intended to be used, and how best to communicate benefits to customers. “The staff is able to ask questions and communicate directly with the source,” she explained.
Although no amount of training can thoroughly prepare employees for the reality of working on a dispensary floor, Henika said having a least some experience in other industries can be helpful. “We appreciate experience working with the public, teaching, engaging, and having an overall helpful nature,” she said. “If candidates have experience in a traditional retail environment that maintains a high standard of service, then they are already well prepared.”
Paul Hartje, director of retail customer experience at Denver’s Seed & Smith, realizes just how much a shop relies on its staff to succeed. “Budtenders are the hospitality ambassadors for not only our business, but our industry as a whole,” Hartje said. “If they do not deliver a positive experience for the guest, they can damage the public view of our brand and continue perpetuating the negative connotation of cannabis.”
“If candidates have experience in a traditional retail environment that maintains a high standard of service, then they are already well prepared.”
Erika Henika, general manager, Caliva
While Hartje is open to candidates with all types of experience, he has found applicants with backgrounds in hospitality, customer service, and sales already possess many of the necessary skills required to thrive in a dispensary setting. “At the end of the day, we are asking budtenders to be not only salespeople, but also act as brand ambassadors who deliver a positive experience for our guests,” he said.
After a candidate who demonstrates compassion and a willingness to learn is selected, they are helped to refine their skills. Training at Seed & Smith includes cash handling, the shop’s point-of-sale system, product education, and regulatory compliance. While compassion and product knowledge undoubtedly are critical to the customer experience, it takes only one compliance error to cause major headaches. Hartje limits the possibility by requiring team members to complete a responsible vendor training program.
Because budtenders tend to change jobs frequently, some hiring managers look for candidates who already have completed independent training programs. Hempstaff offers cannabis certifications for aspiring dispensary workers, drastically reducing the time and money shops spend to train new hires. Chief Operations Officer Rosie Yagielo has some advice for dispensary operators looking to hire staff members who are ready for the job. “Listen carefully for street slang versus professional words,” she said. Applicants with a solid grasp of cannabis vernacular may already have sought training. “Candidates who have taken training classes to get ahead of their peers, usually with their own funds, tend to be more motivated to find employment,” she explained.
Hempstaff’s Dispensary Agent Training is designed for more than just aspiring budtenders. “It’s helpful for owners to have the same knowledge and perspective they expect their dispensary agents to have,” Yagielo said.
The curriculum offered by Hempstaff includes more than generic information and industry jargon. For example, courses address cannabis biology and how it interacts with the human body. “We cover the top dozen cannabinoids and terpenes, because that’s what makes cannabis work,” Yagielo said. Hempstaff has trained dispensary staff members in twenty-three states and tailors its curriculum to each specific market. “We review the top twenty cannabis products available in that state and even conduct a mock sales transaction.”
Hempstaff also assists students with professional services, helping to deliver polished candidates to the job market. At the end of their coursework, students review best job search practices as well as cover letter and resume creation. Finally, applicants take a twenty-question multiple choice test and must score 75 percent or higher to pass.
Yagielo is passionate about promoting best practices for dispensary staff, because she believes properly trained budtenders can propel the industry’s reputation forward as well as help shops become more profitable. But as complex as Hempstaff’s curriculum is, the best predictor of a shop’s success boils down to one very basic concept. “It’s simple really,” she said. “People like to buy from people they like. A personable, educated agent is going to be much better for sales.”