Solving the problem of problem-solving on the sales floor

Discussion
Aug 07, 2015

It may well be true that in today’s information environment, in which there are so many answers at the tips of our fingers, many young people are simply not in the habit of thinking on their feet. Without a lot of experience puzzling through problems, it should be no surprise that Gen Zers (second wave Millennials, born 1990-2000) are often puzzled when they encounter unanticipated problems.

Here’s the thing: Nine out of 10 times, you don’t want your youngest, least experienced employees on the front lines to make important decisions on the basis of their own judgment anyway, especially not if they could instead rely on the accumulated experience of the organization.

The reality is that most of the problems new young employees are likely to encounter in the workplace should not require them to make judgment calls. Most of the problems they encounter are probably regularly recurring problems — even though the young employee in question may have no experience with the particular problem at hand. Nonetheless, the problem has occurred before and been solved before, probably many times over. Very few of the problems they encounter should be difficult to anticipate.

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Photo: RetailWire

Think about it: How many problems do your new young employees encounter that haven’t already been solved before?

The key to teaching anybody the basics of problem-solving is to teach them to anticipate the most common recurring problems and prepare them with ready-made solutions:

  • First, they will become familiar with commonly recurring problems. They will therefore be more likely to try to help prevent those problems and also be less often surprised when those problems do arise.
  • Second, they will build up a repertoire of ready-made solutions so there will be a bunch of problems they can solve without having to chase anybody down. They will have the solution right there in their back pocket.
  • Third, from learning and implementing ready-made solutions, they will learn a lot about the anatomy of a good solution. This will put them in a much better position to borrow from ready-made solutions and improvise when they do encounter the rare unanticipated problem.

Ready-made solutions are just best practices that have been captured, turned into standard operating procedures, and deployed throughout the organization to employees for use as job-aids.

Do you agree that the majority of “problem-solving” issues are caused by a lack of preparation? What kind of job aids should retailers have at their disposal to help employees deal with recurring problems and not have to “problem solve” anew each time?

Braintrust
"Allow me to apologize in advance because I’m going to use my position as a BrainTrust panelist as a bully pulpit. I am a firm believer that anyone has the ability to "think on their feet" if they become comfortable with themselves first."
"For me the best tool in problem solving is taking a breath. So often inexperienced workers (and sometimes more experienced workers!) get so terrified at the idea of there being a problem that they don’t realize they know at least the first few steps to solving it."

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13 Comments on "Solving the problem of problem-solving on the sales floor"

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Max Goldberg
BrainTrust

The majority of problems have probably been encountered before, so the more a company can teach its frontline employees how to deal with them the better. Teaching new employees how to think when confronted with an unusual request or situation is vital to the potential success of that employee. Role playing is a great way to teach, rather than lectures. And while teaching, allow each employee to inject his/her personality into the answer, so it feels more genuine.

Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

Allow me to apologize in advance because I’m going to use my position as a BrainTrust panelist as a bully pulpit. I am a firm believer that anyone has the ability to “think on their feet” if they become comfortable with themselves first. That’s why I often advocate that improv skill training become part of any retail associate’s development (or any other position for that matter). Honing improvisation skills can quickly help individuals overcome their inhibitions and combine solid listening skills with appropriate communication. Sure, retail associates need product knowledge, but it is the soft people skills that many lack. Trust me when I say improvisational skills training can help.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Spot-on. Training is still the Cinderella of retail, emptying the ash cans waiting for a prince to come along. Plenty of great HR and training directors would love to have the luxury of creating such best practice training. Instead they are forced to make do with two-person coverage.

The path to profitability is simple — focus on the people first, not last.

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

An old friend of mine would frequently talk about the importance of anticipation — sometimes it was anticipating what kind of drink to have ready when a guest arrived, sometimes it was reminding his son to anticipate that if he was “just going to close his eyes for a minute” before getting ready for the airport he might very well miss his flight. He was the kind of guy who would throw a huge party, plan every detail and then tip the caterers before the party started to be sure that everything went smoothly.

Anticipation can absolutely fix the majority of problem-solving issues. It is easy to create a handbook or searchable database of common problems and how to solve them (or, better yet, how to keep them from happening). But for me the best tool in problem solving is taking a breath. So often inexperienced workers (and sometimes more experienced workers!) get so terrified at the idea of there being a problem that they don’t realize they know at least the first few steps to solving the problem. Encouraging employees to take a breath and take a moment to approach the problem is key to problem solving.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
I found this whole argument rather curious, which is a nice way of saying, I disagree. First of all STOP with the micro-subdemographic cohorts! Either that or I demand to know what marketers plan on calling children born on Wednesdays when it rains in months beginning with the letter “J” in the years 2097-2098. Gen Zers! Will it never stop??? O.K., O.K., sorry. As I was saying, if I’m in say a Best Buy looking at computers, which associate do I want to talk to? The fresh faced kid or the silver-haired old retail veteran? Um … give me the kid. Love those Gen Zers! Now, as to the majority of problem-solving issues question. I think intractable retail problems fall into different buckets. Lack of experience/preparation accounts for some. So does structural organizational paralysis, i.e., the “rules” won’t let an employee solve the problem (lack of real-time empowerment), the customer is frustrated by an inflexible decision tree (bad culture), the customer’s idea of a fix is separate from reality, etc. In other words, retail problem solving isn’t so neat that it can be readily reduced to a series of FAQs that, according to the article, workers under 25 apparently have… Read more »
Ian Percy
BrainTrust
We’ve got our feet on the accelerator and the brake at the same time with this article. First, asking if our young (or anyone for that matter) are taught to think their way through problems may be the most rhetorical question ever. Still this issue is of vital importance and may be one of the most important raised in quite a while. Now here’s what I think is a disconnect. The suggestion here exacerbates the problem with problems. Employees apparently don’t know how to solve problems so we’re suggesting that since most problems already have a solution, all we need to do is tell them what the right answer is. Exactly how does that teach them how to be good problem solvers? Can’t do math? Here, let me show you how to use a calculator. End result? You still don’t know how to do math and heaven help you if you can’t find your calculator (or the book/PDF with all the right answers). What we really need to be doing is teaching people how to see possibilities! Imagine a customer wanting to know if something is possible. Usually the un-empowered and distrusted employee says “I’ll have to go and check”… Read more »
Jerry Gelsomino
BrainTrust

Interesting. My son, home from university, has a summer job at a local natural food market. He is working in the fresh cheese and meats deli department, and he often works on his own. He was trained by his boss, but now he is developing his own database of problem-solving skills. Most of the customers are quiet and don’t challenge the solutions he suggests. Those who are sociable brighten up his day.

Tom Redd
Guest

It is a lack of preperation but also a lack of confidence from them being trained to just do what is best. Zers are more aggressive and risk taking than core, complaining Millenials. Zers grew up more electronic and trained themselves on making tech work and catching up with bro and sis on games and more. Leverage this personal training skill. Give them room to just do it and train them with games, like “What would you do?” that outlines work situations, using mobile as a platform. One of your Zer employees can code it for you.

My read is that we will see many Zers pass today’s core Millennials that are still lost and hung up on taking care of the society and plastic bags vs. their careers. Zers are an aggressive, chase and pass the leaders group.

Crank it up Zers! It is your time and the playing field is open!

 

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

We shouldn’t minimize the value of the staff personalities involved with customer service. All the training and tools in the world are useless if the staff will not effectively engage with the customer. If the hiring process includes a strict search for outgoing, can-do attitude people, the implementation of good customer service programs will be far easier.

Rick Myers
Guest
Rick Myers
1 year 10 months ago

i think that the major issue that retailers are facing today is that the Generation Z are being trained by the Generation Y associates, and Generation Y never had mentors that taught them. To role play, you have to have experienced decision-makers as trainers. Generation Y, by and large, were not trained in sales and customer service, so it follows that they can’t train Generation Z. Most store associates are great at following direction and passing on directions from others, but I’m not so sure about decision-making and thinking on their feet. Good training and solid mentors are the key to decision-making, in my opinion. Without mentors you don’t get the correction needed when a decision is not effective or appropriate.

Frank Poole
Guest
1 year 10 months ago

Fear of making a decision, on the spot, is the real culprit.

In many cases, multiple solutions are apparent, many fairly obvious (this is retail, not quantum mechanics.) The stumbling block occurs when employees feel their managers haven’t got their backs, and worry more about the ramifications of making a WRONG decision.

“Best Practices” are the very antithesis of thinking on one’s feet. They’re codified micro-management, and should be abandoned for all but the most general of uses or cases.

Rather, give them guidelines within which to operate, knowing they’ll occasionally miss the mark. Good judgement is what you’re after, and time is the only real educator.

Gajendra Ratnavel
BrainTrust

I agree with this, but all this is saying is train your staff better and in your training include a component that teaches problem solving basics, and practice the most common problems. That makes sense.

Alan Cooper
Guest
Alan Cooper
1 year 10 months ago

Training focused on real-world scenarios breeds confidence in employees. When faced with problems or issues “outside the norm,” the employees need a reserve of possible solutions within the parameters of the business.

Employees will succeed when they do the right thing for the customers, find an acceptable solution and make for a returning customer.

Training that puts the employee in a position where “nothing should surprise them” will have good consequences.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Allow me to apologize in advance because I’m going to use my position as a BrainTrust panelist as a bully pulpit. I am a firm believer that anyone has the ability to "think on their feet" if they become comfortable with themselves first."
"For me the best tool in problem solving is taking a breath. So often inexperienced workers (and sometimes more experienced workers!) get so terrified at the idea of there being a problem that they don’t realize they know at least the first few steps to solving it."

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