Would store associates benefit from acting lessons?

Discussion
Nov 01, 2017
Tom Ryan

In the U.K., John Lewis is providing 322 store associates at its new store in Oxford with acting lessons from The Oxford Playhouse to help “teach them the art of outstanding service.”

The associates, referred to as “partners,” are being taught voice and body language skills used by actors to help them “confidently deliver great customer service in their own authentic way,” according to a press release.

Mezze Eade, participation director of the Oxford Playhouse, told the Oxford Mail,

“We’ve been running workshops and focusing on breathing techniques, confidence and interacting with people.”

In an interview with The Guardian, Simon Tavener, secretary of the Oxford Theatre Guild, said being able to develop a “character” can help a store associate make adjustments based on a customer’s needs.

“Selling requires you to have a sort of script in your head,” Mr. Tavener said. “Not one you recite, but one you tailor to your own voice … a form of improv, if you like.”

The acting lessons support the launch a new “concierge style” shopping experience that sets the tone at the chain’s new three-floor, 120,000 square foot “retail-entertainment” store in Oxford.

The shopping journey is guided by an Experience Desk where associates help customers book appointments with a personal shopper or a table at the rooftop restaurant. Customers can also sign up for a rotating lineup of events such as a make-up masterclass or a smoothie-making class.

In an interview earlier this summer with the Oxford Mail, Peter Cross, customer experience director at John Lewis, said the acting lessons are expected to help the staff with selling floor and concierge tasks.

He said, “Our new store Oxford will recognize the power of our partners as the key players on the stage of this new shop, so their training will include not only all the critical product knowledge our customers expect but also the tools and techniques of the theatre to ensure every customer interaction is as magical as possible.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: As retailers incorporate more “retail-tainment” into stores, would associates benefit from acting lessons? Do acting skills translate to retail selling?

Braintrust
"Not only does it show an investment in your employees’ skill sets, but acting skills can help these folks in all aspects of their life."
"There is so much to learn about having persuasive presence and presentation. And it is desperately needed in retail."
"Providing acting lessons to associates is a great way to supplement a core training program to develop confidence and storytelling skills..."

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28 Comments on "Would store associates benefit from acting lessons?"

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Bob Amster
BrainTrust

This may be a good idea and it is another way to do something that retailers have traditionally been loath to do: spend money on training store associates. How many retailers will make the commitment to spend on proper training?

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust
If your store associates on the front line are the extension of the brand, and can offer the differentiating experience that is unable to be replicated online, then of course they would benefit significantly from acting lessons. By taking a page out of the old Selfridges retail model, with their revolutionary understanding of publicity and the theater of retail, a return to this approach will give consumers very compelling reasons to shop in-store, rather than a pure digital play. The investment in your talent, and providing an outstanding employee experience, will directly enhance the customer experience. Every store associate should… Read more »
Anne Howe
BrainTrust

I think acting and improv lessons will have an effect on sales, but the effect would be way more profound if the associates were taught some basic fundamentals of human influence and decision making.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

I’m all for becoming a better human being, but offering improv classes infers there is a baseline of retail sales training to be able to adapt. I didn’t see anything in the article about that. There’s a process to building retail sales in a transaction-based store, you can’t wing it and be successful.

Celeste C. Giampetro
BrainTrust

Great idea! Not only does it show an investment in your employees’ skill sets, but acting skills can help these folks in all aspects of their life. Many businesses take their employees to improv classes to learn how to collaborate more fluidly and trust one another (say “yes, and … “). If the commitment is real on behalf of the employer and positioned as a training and development initiative that employees will be evaluated on, I think it’s a win-win.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Yes, acting training is very beneficial. It can certainly help with performance, but it also develops a much wider skill set: things like self-confidence, expression, storytelling, connecting with others and good communication are all things that flow from acting training. It also sounds like fun and supports team building.

This kind of investment in people is typical of the John Lewis Partnership: a retail organization that truly understands how to motivate, engage and inspire.

Alex Senn
BrainTrust
It would be interesting to know how much they are spending on these “acting lessons” compared to the ROI, though it would be nearly impossible to measure. Personally, I believe they would be better off to invest in enhancing the experience through technology. The in-store experience is part of it, but how often are you interacting with sales associates, unless you are at high-end, luxury shops? It comes down to making the customer feel empowered when they shop with you. Most often nowadays, this means coming from the right online and mobile touchpoints. These touchpoints are personalized, actionable and help… Read more »
Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust
Conceptually, acting lessons have some benefits for associates that are expected to interact pleasingly with shoppers and help sell product. However, it’s a low-level priority given the more important factors that affect their performance. Foremost, innate personality is most critical, whereby people who authentically are gregarious and enthusiastic are going to do best at selling product. Acting techniques or product training will not significantly overcome awkwardness or discomfort associates may have in a selling role and only enhance “natural” salespeople a little. Career-grade compensation is the best investment retailers can make in securing competent sales staff. No one with real… Read more »
Shep Hyken
BrainTrust
It’s showtime! The retail floor is the stage and the employees are the actors. When the employee gets to work, it’s time to put on the show. Step up and be your best. Regardless of what’s happening outside of the store, it’s time to block it out and focus on the customer. That’s what great stage actors do. They get into character and deliver the best performance they can give. Each day they come to work with the goal of being even better than yesterday. They rehearse, practice and get direction. Employees going through acting and improv classes with a… Read more »
Lesley Everett
BrainTrust

While I’m all for innovative ways to improve customer experience by giving employees added confidence in these areas, I’m not convinced that the majority of employees will be engaged by this or that there is enough practical application of the techniques learned for individuals to be able to implement the learning in their every day roles. In which case the large investment could fall short of achieving the goal. If however the training provides confidence skills that are practically aligned to their roles, then great idea! I hope it works.

Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

YES! And improvisational skills training and exercises. Creating good dialogue, thinking on one’s feet and remaining “in character” are essential to top-notch customer service. Bravo to John Lewis and other retailers that recognize the importance of the front-line staff.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

Despite some reservations, I actually think this could work. It is an investment in sales associates that will help them grow as individuals and they will certainly engage more people effectively in all aspects of their lives, including the shop floor. John Lewis clearly recognizes the importance — and brand value — of a differentiating store experience, and I applaud the commitment and the investment.

Peter Messana
BrainTrust
Interesting take on “training” but I would say that if you need to provide acting lessons to teach someone how to provide great service than you’ve possibly hired the wrong person. I personally don’t think you can teach someone to love to take care of the customer, it is more innate than that. You can teach them your philosophy and your ways, but acting is fake by definition. Having run a chain of nine niche stores in the past I can certainly understand the dilemma regarding scale and repeat-ability but I still don’t think acting lessons is the way to… Read more »
Al McClain
Staff
I agree with you, Peter. There’s an old joke about sincerity being the key to sales and when you can fake that you’ll be successful. Although Disney has mastered the art of “showtime”, training sales associates to “act” seems fake to me as well. I think a better approach would be to constantly reinforce the basics, as Bob Phibbs says, and then perhaps do weekly 30-minute sessions on various types of customer interactions, rather than trying to teach associates to fake the whole thing. In other words, build regularly on their natural talents and personalities, to help them succeed in… Read more »
Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

Sincerity can be faked and most people see through that these days. It’s the confidence this training will build in their team that can result in more authentic interactions with customers which is the win here for John Lewis. It’s in line with what Al is sharing here as something that builds on the team’s natural talents vs. teaching them how to act.

Peter Messana
BrainTrust

I agree on that, fake is transparent no matter how hard you try to fake it as real. Also depends on what you are trying to gain. Confidence is one thing, acting like you care is another. Expand on talent all day, every day.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

Well said. Why teach someone to act? That shows too little sincerity in what true customer service really is.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

At first I had a push-back on teaching associates “acting.” But I feel better having actually read the article. In my mind it’s more about presentation and communication awareness and skill development than acting which implies being something you’re not. But potato potah-to.

There is so much to learn about having persuasive presence and presentation. And it is desperately needed in retail. I am alarmed at the widespread ineptitude at just putting sentences together and learning to listen. I blame it on texting having become the communication vehicle of choice.

Mark Nicholson
Guest

Considering how crucial the customer experience is, and how the 80/20 rule (80 percent of future profits come from 20 percent of current customers) suggests that retention can make or break you, then whatever it takes to reduce churn. Over half of customers that defect do so over preventable issues tied to customer service. Does acting translate to selling? Doubtful. If I’m in at a retailer, I want to speak with a courteous, knowledgeable representative, not someone doing a performance.

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

We live in an experience economy. The brick-and-mortar retail experience is about connecting emotionally and physically with the shopper. The same is true in theater. It makes perfect sense for retail theater to have actors, scripts with personal improvisation, props and special effects all telling a brand story. Let’s all watch as the curtain rises! Bravo!

Todd Trombley
Guest
Let’s not lose sight of what John Lewis is attempting to provide its customers: an enhanced and engaging experience. In that light, equipping associates to better engage with customers is not a bad thing. Many retailers train on subjects like body language, mirroring techniques, information gathering, product description skills, etc. So why not train in breathing technique, confidence and interaction skills. So long as it is well done and sincere then I see this as a net win for the customer experience and kudos to John Lewis for having the moxy to pursue this line of training. Plus, having John… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

This is a GREAT idea! Take your last frontier of differentiation (your staff, that is) and get them outside of their comfort zone so they feel more apt to engage with strangers (aka “shoppers”) and become more outgoing in general. Be sure to give them their “script” for the engagement. Perfect for retail!

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

The training they are being given in the UK location may be good and effective. My guess is those associates are already well trained and have a good disposition about their job. The problem I see in the U.S. retail industry is the employees are not trained in customer service as it relates to their job. So why not invest in that rather than trying to teach them how to “act” as opposed to how they would like to be treated if they were the customer?

Peter Luff
BrainTrust

Anything that helps a store associate become better equipped to engage with customers has to be a positive. It’s surprising to us as we work with retailers where associates act more like “wall flowers” not overtly engaging with customers. At the same time, none of us should be surprised, associates are not as confident as your average retail director and so need support in how to interact with customers and to learn the tricks of the trade. Giving associates the skills to create natural engagement through acting improvisation is to be commended and I am sure it will pay back.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

What an off-the-wall topic. Anyway, I think these days most people are happy to be able to even find a sales associate … having them be Olivier is a lesser concern.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust
In many ways, retail is like theater, where the store is a stage and your associates the actors. Providing acting lessons to associates is a great way to supplement a core training program to develop confidence and storytelling skills, but the key is that this supplement not replace training. It’s great to see John Lewis investing more in their associates, something more retailers need to do and this is a very creative way to develop a skill often taken for granted in retail — the ability to sell via a story. Talking about experiential retail is one thing, but you… Read more »
Vahe Katros
Guest

Moments of truth can spin out of control when someone’s tone and body language is off. Acting classes can teach this kind of self awareness.

I learned years ago that the University of Michigan drama department was asked to provide lessons to the staff of the cancer hospital there to help lessen the impact of bad news. The program was called: “Every word matters.”

I would focus on training folks to at least know how to handle delivering bad news. Like theater, the reviews can kill you.

Christopher P. Ramey
BrainTrust

A brilliant idea if you combine it with the right script. Counter-intuitively, they can control and direct drama on the floor by teaching it.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Not only does it show an investment in your employees’ skill sets, but acting skills can help these folks in all aspects of their life."
"There is so much to learn about having persuasive presence and presentation. And it is desperately needed in retail."
"Providing acting lessons to associates is a great way to supplement a core training program to develop confidence and storytelling skills..."

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