Will Walmart’s training academies improve the shopper experience?

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Discussion
Mar 01, 2016
Matthew Stern

At many big box retailers, customer service fails to match up with commercial images of associates beaming happily and helping dutifully. Walmart in particular has an image problem when it comes to employees, and its low customer service scores back up the anecdotes. The retailer is taking a new approach to the problem by opening 200 training academies inside or nearby stores.

Walmart intends to use the academies to train department and assistant store managers, according to a Dallas Morning News article. The academies will include live classroom instruction as well as on-the-floor training. This replaces Walmart’s earlier training method, which involved having an employee complete a computer-based learning module and then shadow a sponsor employee.

This is not Walmart’s first attempt at using enhanced training to address concerns about customer service quality. In 2014 the company opened a “talent center,” which featured a mock loading dock and a mock store. The company closed the facility, deciding that the simulation could not replicate learning in a real in-store environment, according to the Dallas Morning News article.

Some studies have shown that employee training correlates positively with customer satisfaction. In 2015, for instance, a Wharton School of Business study found that stores that rated high in customer satisfaction were those with knowledgeable associates, and that those knowledgeable associates boosted sales.

Walmart has long been criticized for policies and wages that leave employees unhappy. This could explain some of the store’s customer services woes, from poor staff demeanors to poorly stocked, messy shelves.

On the other hand, Walmart has been changing policies over the past few years to alter the perception that employees are undervalued and treated poorly. The Christian Science Monitor reported that in 2015 the company began to make concessions to employee gripes, such as allowing workers to wear denim and increasing the temperature of the stores. There have also been well-publicized wage increases for Walmart employees, though the United Food & Commercial Workers Union contested that the increases have not been meaningful, according to a recent CNN Money article.

Photo: Walmart

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will Walmart’s training academies address its poor customer service issues in a meaningful way? Should other retailers consider taking similar steps to address customer service concerns?

Braintrust
"Increases in pay and benefits along with training is a major step for Walmart. A sign that just having low prices is not always the reason to shop or not shop at Walmart. After the department managers, their part-time help should also receive the training as well."
"Walmart has a delicate balance. On one hand it wants employees to successfully interact with customers and boost sales. On the other hand, management knows that staff turnover will be high, so they try to save money wherever possible."
"As others have pointed out there are many factors that contribute to Walmart’s customers service woes. Start with the fact many potential employees do not see retail in general as a career but as a stepping stone."

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21 Comments on "Will Walmart’s training academies improve the shopper experience?"

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Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Training is always good. Always.

Having my own online retail sales training portal in use around the world I find there are those who “get it” and those who simply give lip service to training.

There is only one way brick-and-mortar retail differentiates itself — how it manages the human capital. Either you believe in it, hire for the best, train for the best and inspect what you expect — or you put all your marbles into apps, beacons and Big Data. The two shouldn’t be mutually exclusive but it starts with the people. And when you discard them, you discard the customer experience.

Always.

Frank Riso
BrainTrust

As long as Walmart continues to improve at all levels of employment their service issues will continue to improve. Increases in pay and benefits along with training is a major step for Walmart. A sign that just having low prices is not always the reason to shop or not shop at Walmart. After the department managers, their part time help should also receive the training as well.

Most other retailers do have some level of customer service training for all employees but until all of them, including Walmart, have some level of reward for good service, the current new generation of workers will miss the mark. Since texting, Instagram and games are the norm, why not some form of gamified training for improved customer service as well as for advancement into management?

Max Goldberg
BrainTrust

Walmart has a delicate balance. On one hand it wants employees to successfully interact with customers and boost sales. On the other hand, management knows that staff turnover will be high, so they try to save money wherever possible, this includes providing minimal training. Until Walmart pays a living wage and offers employees clear paths for advancement, turnover will be high and employee satisfaction low, both of which hurt customer service and sales.

Chris Petersen, PhD.
BrainTrust

Retail staff are the “face” of the customer experience that is becoming so important in omnichannel as a differentiator. Walmart’s training academies are a clear sign that Walmart sees both gaps and opportunities.

While training can focus staff attention on critical behaviors, training can not “fix” everything. There is a good reason that retailers like Apple use the approach of “hiring for smiles.” Hiring people with the right personality is difficult when you pay minimum wage.

A real question for Walmart’s success is whether there is also “training” for store managers. It will do little good if floor staff are trained on how to improve customer experience, and they return to their store where the store manager insists on doing things the “traditional Walmart way” focused on operational efficiency.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

It’s ALWAYS about the energy!

So the idea is to “train” the management level who, apparently and shockingly, don’t understand what good customer service is. And then what? What’s the likelihood any customer will run into department or assistant store managers? Furthermore I guarantee the training will be mechanistic — about things they should “do.” This is similar to putting up a sign telling employees to smile. The end will be a futile attempt to improve customer service through compliant employee behavior. Unfortunately for Walmart, it just doesn’t work that way.

It’s not that people don’t know how to serve, they basically don’t want to. There’s no heart, no spirit, no joy. Like I say, it’s always about the energy.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

As others have pointed out there are many factors that contribute to Walmart’s customers service woes. Start with the fact many potential employees do not see retail in general as a career but as a stepping stone. It’s something to do until they get a “real” job.

Add to that Walmart record of less-than-adequate training, low wages, poor working conditions, etc., and you can see why their turnover is so high. This in turn creates a management view of the employees as an expense rather than an investment. All of which is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Walmart has taken some steps to address the issues including higher pay, better scheduling practices, etc. Better training will help move the customer service needle but don’t expect any sudden improvements.

It’s a process. It took Walmart (and other retailers) time to dig this hole and it will take time and continued improvement on all fronts for them to dig themselves out of it.

Carol Spieckerman
BrainTrust

More retailers should take similar steps — absolutely. Walmart’s training academies will address any customer service gaps but the focus and benefits surely will not be isolated to that. Most large-scale retailers have awakened to the (potential) power of their physical locations to serve as a vital link to their digital strategies. Walmart certainly has. Realizing that potential will require training on the new role that stores play in the equation both literally (click-and-collect and in-store fulfillment, for example), and strategically.

This is the right move at the right time.

Jerry Gelsomino
BrainTrust

Walmart’s training will be able to address its poor customer service if it focuses on three issues:

  1. What does their customer expect for good service?
  2. What kind of service does their customer get from the competition?
  3. What kind of service would delight the customer and give Walmart a competitive advantage?

One more thing; Does Walmart have the right store personnel who can and are willing to provide improved service?

Mel Kleiman
BrainTrust

When it comes to training any step is a good step. Will this have much effect? My best guess is no. If you have almost a 50 percent turnover rate, you may get them trained but the smart ones are going to realize the fundamental flaws in the way employees are valued at Walmart and move on.

I think undercover bosses would be a great program focusing on Walmart. I think management is unaware of what the real systemic problems are.

Karen McNeely
Guest

Training is key, but so is management’s attitude and expectations. With increased wages and respect for associates and front-line managers, they can also have higher expectations for performance.

If there is a mindset that excellence is expected, training is provided, strong performers are rewarded and poor performers are coached up or are out, they will be successful. But really, isn’t that the case for any business?

vic gallese
Guest
vic gallese
4 months 29 days ago

I am surprised Walmart would make such a bold move without testing successfully. I heard of no such tests. I would adopt a wait-and-see approach. The devil is in the details here.

J. Peter Deeb
BrainTrust

This will be a long haul for Walmart. I am not sure their senior and regional management know how to train. The first step should be to hire and develop a training staff or hire a respected retail training consultant to analyze the current conditions, recommend a plan and then test and perfect the process before opening 200 shotgun centers nationwide!

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

This is a really good idea and will hopefully be emulated by other retailers. Walmart obviously knows the biggest difference-maker between shopping online and in stores is the quality of the employees in the stores. If they are awful, that will push a borderline customer to shop online (which means Amazon apparently).

We always say that the road to change is a lot like the AA “12 Steps” program, the first of which is “realize and admit you have a problem.” Well, if that’s true, Walmart is on to step two.

Li McClelland
Guest
Li McClelland
4 months 29 days ago

I note that the academy is going to focus on department managers and assistant store managers. This will have a significant impact I believe. Not only are these levels of managers somewhat more likely to be in retail (and in career Walmart retail) for the longer haul, but they are also most likely to be able to influence stocking issues and to assess and affect the performance of their associate underlings. I hope this works out because I think it’s a good idea.

Jack Pansegrau
Guest
Jack Pansegrau
4 months 29 days ago

For sure a good and needed idea. BUT I still go back to checkout — no amount of training and helpful associates during my shopping within the store will offset the NIGHTMARE that is the checkout line every time I venture back. In my opinion Walmart needs to speed up checkout and shorten lines first. Can they do that and do this training? Yes, and I hope they do.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

Training is important — even to Walmart, even though they do not seem to think it is. I can’t help but think this is more window dressing than something long term. Walmart, if not at the bottom, is close to it when it comes to customer service. This is nothing new. For years they have given lip service to it but have never really addressed the problem long term. That is why I am skeptical that there is any meat to this.

W. Frank Dell II
BrainTrust

In the beginning when a Walmart employee made eye contact they ask if they could help. This was the standard. Today Walmart employees walk around the store looking at the ground so as to not talk with customers. Also some employees are not fluent in English so they can only help a percentage of the customers. Classroom training does not hurt, but the best way is to hire the right people to start with.

One common customer request is, where is a product in the store? Every employee should be up on this subject. The second is, how does it work or what are its features? This only applies to select departments. Last is the front end. Smiling and saying welcome mostly comes from hiring the right people. If I wanted to make a difference I would invest in the front-end staff.

gordon arnold
Guest
4 months 29 days ago

What is interesting in this discussion is Walmart’s recognition and open approach to the need to increase customer service training for the store management. This is a large problem for just about all of the big box stores out there. I sincerely hope the trainers are luckier than customers in their quest to find the managers’ in-store and office hideouts. Another condition in the search for success in this plan is to give trainers a higher authority level than that of store or even district managers. This would go a long way in convincing these levels that corporate executives are in fact serious about making the needed improvements through guidance and replacement means.

David Livingston
Guest
4 months 29 days ago

No, we will not see any meaningful changes. Walmart is a warm body retailer with a labor model designed for high turnover. Extra training and higher wages won’t be enough. A retailer just needs to decide if they are into service and taking care of people, or if they want to be Walmart. Its all about empowering people. Not all classes of retail employees can handle the responsibility of empowerment.

Sid Raisch
Guest
Sid Raisch
4 months 29 days ago

This kind of cultural shift requires more than simply training, especially when the front line isn’t directly involved. Another flavor of the month designed to lift share prices and fuel executive bonuses.

Patricia Gonzalez
Guest
Patricia Gonzalez
4 months 27 days ago

Yes.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Increases in pay and benefits along with training is a major step for Walmart. A sign that just having low prices is not always the reason to shop or not shop at Walmart. After the department managers, their part-time help should also receive the training as well."
"Walmart has a delicate balance. On one hand it wants employees to successfully interact with customers and boost sales. On the other hand, management knows that staff turnover will be high, so they try to save money wherever possible."
"As others have pointed out there are many factors that contribute to Walmart’s customers service woes. Start with the fact many potential employees do not see retail in general as a career but as a stepping stone."

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