Training – Part I, First Day

As I mentioned in my last post, training in a retail environment should be an ongoing endeavor. It helps your employees grow their sales, technical and product knowledge which in turn enhances their confidence and ability to serve your customers and meet their needs. While training should be an ongoing process, this post will focus on training new hires. We will look at the most common areas that are must-haves in any training regimen and begin to take a look at the overall training process. I also mentioned in my last post that while most of the retailers I have worked with start their training program for new employees with POS (register) and technical training, I would posit there is a more constructive, interesting and effective way to go. Start with ensuring each employee understands how important their role is in the success of the business and how they can begin contributing on day one – even if they feel like they don’t know anything. The lesson has to be that the single most important thing they do in their new job is interact with and help customers.

What should an employee know on their first day on the job? First and foremost, if they are going to be on the sales floor they must know how to interact with customers – even if they feel utterly incapable of offering any kind of meaningful assistance. One of the most important guiding principles I embraced a long time ago while onboarding and training new employees is that being new in a job is rough. This is what makes training so indispensable and it has to start on day one. We’ve all been new in a job at one point or another in our lives. How does it feel (especially in a role that has direct customer interaction) to know absolutely nothing? In a word, it’s pretty tough. It is uncomfortable and disconcerting not being able to answer the seemingly simplest of questions, “Where is…?” New employees should be able and instructed to greet all customers, smile and make eye contact. They should be taught the beginnings of what the dialog with any customer should sound like. New employees on the sales floor should generally be with their trainer or an experienced employee who can take over assisting the customer as the new employee observes. A new employee who finds themselves on their own with a customer should be taught to go through the basics – smile, greet and be friendly. If the customer asks a question the new employee cannot answer, let the new employee know that it is perfectly OK to tell the customer they are new and they don’t know the answer to the customer’s question, but they will get someone more knowledgeable to assist them – and then do so in short order. The message that ignoring a customer or saying, “I don’t know,” and leaving it at that, are totally unacceptable. The first rule I always teach any new employee is – just be nice, be pleasant and as helpful as you are able and you will be fine.

This is where the idea of accountability should also be introduced to the new employee. If a new employee is observed not greeting or being attentive and friendly with customers, it should be brought to their attention that this is not OK. A new employee should know their behavior as well as their demeanor does matter. Friendly, constructive feedback and using any customer interaction as a learning experience is a great start on a new employee’s first day. I will address giving feedback and holding employees accountable in a future post when I get to the section of managing the customer service experience. Customers approaching while training a new employee should never be treated or thought of as a nuisance or an interruption. Prepare the new employee for such an event and let them know they should look upon it as a learning experience and should pay close attention to how their trainer handles the situation – and of course the trainer must know to model spot-on customer service behaviors.

Chances are your employees will have a myriad of tasks as part of their job responsibilities, from assisting customers on the sales floor to working the cash register, merchandising, restocking, straightening and on and on. This is what makes working in retail fun and interesting, but it also makes training challenging. This is when having a training outline and checklist are indispensable. Training – setting an employee up for success – should be thoughtful and comprehensive. The order in which things are trained, how they are trained, who is doing the training (and their training to train) and ensuring that the new employee has as many of the tools as you can give them in their first few days or weeks on the job is of critical importance. Help the new employee understand that it takes time to learn all of the things they will need to know in their new role and that is to be expected. The non-negotiables, as I have mentioned are demonstrating a willingness to smile, greet everyone and be friendly. In my experience, customers are willing to give a new employee the benefit of the doubt if they are welcoming, friendly and as helpful as possible – and – demonstrate a sense of urgency in getting the customer the assistance they need. However, customers will not be understanding if an employee ignores them or does not go out of their way to get them what they need, even if that is just a more experienced employee to help them.

In helping an employee feel like they have the tools they need to do their job well, technical training is indispensable. There is nothing more frustrating for a customer or an employee than not being able to ring a sale quickly and error free or to competently and confidently check inventory to see if you have a specific item a customer is looking for. Technical training is not more important than learning how to serve customers, but it is a close second. Keeping training interesting is also important. Use your training outline and checklist to ensure that you are breaking lessons into to bite-size pieces and employing a variety of training techniques (which we will delve into in a future post). Mix it up as much as makes sense. Keep it fresh and fun, don’t be afraid to revise and improve your training outline and checklist as your trainers gain experience and see what works and what doesn’t work. The most important thing to convey to a new employees in the first few days and weeks, particularly that very first day, is how important each player on the team is to the success of the business, how invested you are as an employer in helping each new employee be successful and last but by no means last – the customer always comes first!

Roman Schreiner

October, 2017


Building a Customer-Focused Organization

We have laid the groundwork – it starts with envisioning and then articulating the kind of experience you want your customers to have when they walk into your business. Getting your thoughts on paper helps to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Then comes setting your expectations for how you want the customer experience to progress once a customer has crossed your threshold. What kind of dialog would you like to hear between your employees and customers? Do you want more of a self-service shopping environment with sales people there mostly to answer questions, or (more likely) do you want them to engage customers, determine their needs and then suggest complementary items? Being genuine and authentic are critical, from the first contact with a customer through (hopefully) thanking them for their purchase and inviting them to return. Once you have defined what kind of customer experience you want your employees to provide to your customers, hiring the right people to provide that experience is key. Friendly, genuine, self-motivated and customer-focused employees will make it happen – you can’t be there for every customer who walks into your store. Investing the time and effort in hiring the right people is definitely worth the trouble. Trust your instincts.

Once you have determined what you want the customer experience to look and sound like, then hired the best qualified individuals to provide that experience, you must train them. And then train them more. Training in a retail environment should be an ongoing endeavor. Investing time, money and effort in training demonstrates to your employees your commitment to their success by helping them gain the skills and tools they will need to be successful. I have mentioned “employee engagement” in another post, it’s about how employees feel about their work place and the people they work for, among other things that directly impact employee morale. There are many factors which influence employee engagement and I will dedicate more posts specifically to that topic. Certainly one of the most important factors is whether employees feel that they have been provided the training and tools they need to be confident with customers and do the best job possible. Poor training leads not only to poor service but it can have a significant impact on morale and employee engagement. As I have said before, if your employees are unhappy, trust me, your customers won’t be happy either.

Training an employee starts with articulating first your “vision” for the kind of experience you want your customers to have, then getting more specific on what that will actually look and sound like. Specificity is a must, your employees should never have to guess what is expected of them. Of course, telling your employees how you want them to interact with your customers is only the first step. Training should come in a variety of forms depending on the experience level of your employees and the size of your business. It is an often repeated adage that people remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, 50% of what they see and hear, 70% of what they say and write and 90% of what they do. Those numbers may not be exact, but when considering a training plan, this is a good starting point. Training must incorporate not just talking, but demonstrating, role playing and checking for understanding. Just as I warn against not investing enough time in picking the right people to work in your store, the next cardinal rule is that you must invest enough time in training. Training is not just telling an employee that you want them to make a “genuine” and “authentic” connection with everyone who walks into your business. To get an employee started for example, especially one with little or no customer service experience, you have to help them find the words to make that genuine and authentic connection. That might start with actually creating a script for them to use until they are comfortable, but employees must be encouraged to find their own words, their own way of connecting with customers. Cookie cutter approaches are not a long-term solution – repeating the same words over and over will in short order become stale and will definitely not sound genuine or authentic. Modeling behavior and role playing are two of the most effective training techniques to help your employees learn the ropes.

Many retailers start their training of a new employee with POS (register) and other technical functions, e.g. using an inventory system to check stock. I think that is the wrong approach. In helping an employee feel like they have the tools they need to do their job well, technical training is indispensable. There is nothing more frustrating for a customer – OR – an employee than not being able to ring a sale quickly and error free or to competently and confidently check inventory to see if you have a specific item a customer is looking for. But if you want to communicate what your priorities are as a proprietor, I think mixing it up a bit and including the customer experience and your employees’ role in delivering that experience early on in the training process is paramount. I have had perfectly competent cashiers ring me up quite efficiently but never once make eye contact, greet me or even thank me for my purchase. It is critical to your store’s success that your employees clearly and unambiguously understand what their priorities are. They need to understand that there is nothing more important than the customer(s) standing in front of them – even say, if they are with another customer. A key lesson in the training process is developing the ability to acknowledge and welcome a customer even when they are already engaged with another customer – it literally takes seconds to look up, make eye contact, smile and say hello, I will be right with you. Done well – with training – it should not detract from the experience of the customer they are presently with. This is the kind of thing that is not necessarily intuitive for everyone, however obvious it may seem.

The best retailers I have worked with have at least one person designated to train new employees. This will depend obviously on the size of your business. This person will almost certainly have other responsibilities beyond training, but if we are trying to deliver a consistent experience to all customers, the training should be consistent for all employees. Smart and effective training should include training the person or people who conduct the training to ensure everyone is being trained to the same standard. A checklist and/or training guide is also indispensable to ensure all bases are covered with all employees. In the next post, I will get into more specifics about the training process and effective tools and methods I have employed to set my employees up for success to deliver the best possible service to customers.

Roman Schreiner

October 2017