Retail Customer Experience: Training for Unit-Level Success for Holiday 2009

Dec 02, 2009

By Bill Sherman, managing
partner, Intulogy

a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of
a current article from Retail
Customer Experience
, a daily
news portal devoted to helping retailers differentiate the shopping experience.

study published in the July 2009 edition of the Journal
of Applied Psychology
people processes, such as selection and training, with unit performance measures,
such as retention, customer service and profitability.

The study looked at
681 fast food franchises within the same parent system all of which sold
the same products. The stores that most effectively implemented their people
processes saw a 15 percent improvement in retention, an eight percent improvement
in customer service performance and an 11 percent improvement in profits
over expectations.

These findings become highly
significant for retailers who added seasonal retail salespeople to their
team. In many cases, retailers will not be able to provide seasonal salespeople
with the same the amount of training as permanent team members. However,
training must extend beyond how to use the POS system and also cover topics
which form the core of the customer experience:

  • Greeting
    and welcoming customers
  • Creating
    a bond
  • Discovering
    the customer’s wants and needs
  • Overcoming
  • Identifying
    additional needs and selling opportunities
  • Closing
    the deal and thanking the customer

Here are a few tips:

Leverage existing training programs: Training
programs create no benefits when they sit idly on shelves. If a retailer
offers sales training and customer service training programs, they should
not sit stagnant and unused. Even seasoned professionals can go through
a refresher of some of the best content.

Segment roles and training: Seasonal
help should not be expected to become experts within a few weeks. One smart
approach is to segment customer service roles. Key sales tasks can be identified
that newly hired individuals can perform successfully. Associates should
be coached on when to seek help from a more experienced team member.

war stories:
Leverage the knowledge of seasoned sales professionals who
have worked through previous holiday seasons. This type of training is known
as error-exposure training. It may seem counter-intuitive to teach learners
by asking veteran salespeople to share mistakes.
However, interactions with customers can be complex and require people to adapt
at a moment’s notice. Research shows that when rookies learn through error-exposure
training, they become better at making situational judgments themselves.

people processes:
Customer-centric training programs should align with
all of the people processes: how salespeople are selected, trained, motivated
and managed. If programs need a tune-up, the gap can be filled in several ways,
including purchasing from an established off-the-shelf vendor, or working with
professionals who can build custom training materials that fit a retailer’s
organizational values and selling style.

Discussion Questions: What are
some key strategies in training seasonal sales help? What are the expected
limits in training and motivating seasonal versus regular staff? What
do you think of the suggestions offered in the article?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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14 Comments on "Retail Customer Experience: Training for Unit-Level Success for Holiday 2009"

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Doron Levy
Doron Levy
11 years 5 months ago
Ahh, good old reliable seasonal help (can you sense the sarcasm in my typing?). Having worked in key Christmas categories (toys and food), I have had my share of experiences with seasonal help. The tone is set from day one. Retailers must be upfront and honest about their expectations from seasonal staff. Most retailers will have some sort of job fair or hiring drive in September or October. This is a great way to bring in applications and resumes but I don’t condone hiring people on the spot. While you can shorten the hiring process, I don’t think you can skimp on the examination process. It’s also a good idea to split the training up between the group and the individual. Standard training programs cannot apply. I have worked with retailers in developing quick 3-5 hour training sessions for seasonal hires. The goal is to spend no more than 1 day for training and have them working the floor their very first day. Mr. Sherman covers the basics in selling but each retailer should put… Read more »
Nikki Baird
Nikki Baird
11 years 5 months ago
On the job training is the best way I have seen, with one exception: at the cash register. As someone who spent several Decembers not at her desk at HQ but on the floor of a store, the fastest way for me to pick up the product knowledge I needed to serve customers independently was to watch the pros do it. A week trailing around behind a couple of the better store associates, and I had enough to be credible and helpful through the new year. At POS, it’s a different matter. And I sometimes found myself staffing the busiest registers, filling in for people on breaks and such. That was a mistake. I didn’t use the POS often enough to be fast enough, and trial by fire doesn’t accelerate the process. However, putting someone in the back room for a couple of hours, playing with a training register, isn’t enough either. In those cases, you need to shadow–have an experienced cashier stand next to the newbie to help them when they get stuck. Because… Read more »
Joan Treistman
11 years 5 months ago

As usual, logic prevails. The author makes an excellent point of identifying the strengths and weaknesses of seasonal help.

Once the retailer has come to grips with what is possible and how to encourage optimum results, the customers will be able to adapt as well. It’s all about giving employees the ability to do a good job within the parameters of what the store can offer and the skills that staff can acquire in a short amount of time. Training is key.

Expectations should be realistic and appropriate. With that in mind, the success will be visible in caring for customers and staff, with satisfying experiences all around.

Anne Howe
11 years 5 months ago

A personal story. My son (age 20) was hired as seasonal sales help at Brookstone. In the interview, he was given a pen and had to sell it to the manager. After being hired, he attended Sunday morning training sessions to learn the approach, the products, the required customer engagement guidelines and the trial closes. He’s doing exceptionally well and credits the training and the helpful input from his managers. It was a total of 8 hours.

Because he is motivated to win the customer, he brings in flyers and mailers that feature competitive products and has started a daily dialogue among the store staff about overcoming objections and having price comparison information on hand to show customers the value comparisons on the spot. He expresses it this way, “the customers love it because it saves them the hassle of more shopping and they love that we are so transparent.”

Bob Phibbs
11 years 5 months ago

The danger of “sharing war stories” is that there is usually a victim–the clerk, and an aggressor–the shopper. I would counsel this may not be the best thing to prepare people for. If you doubt me, checkout the posters on–customers are never right and all employees are put upon.

Ryan Mathews
11 years 5 months ago

Focus and training are critical as everyone has indicated but so is screening. Sadly, with the economy being in the shape it’s in, the quality of available labor has never been higher. Good screening can lead to a better experience for all concerned–especially the customer.

Ben Ball
11 years 5 months ago

Some version of the old manufacturing “lead hand” concept would seem to work best here. The UPS “driver helper” approach would probably actually ensure the best customer service–but cost would be prohibitive for a continual tag team approach such as that. Put a floor general out there and give them the ball. (OK, the ACC/Big 10 challenge is on and my Tar Heels won last night so I have to do one basketball analogy.)

David Zahn
11 years 5 months ago

Training seasonal workers is no different than training full-time workers in the sense that you still must determine what the expectations and objectives are that you want the person to meet. For a seasonal worker, it is not realistic to expect them to be “as expert” at all things as a tenured employee–however, training them on the essentials and where to find additional support as needed is a manageable task.

The more that can be done through role playing, case study, shadowing, etc, that takes it from the passive reception of information and makes it active and engaged for the trainee, the better. Getting them to practice the skills and not merely understanding will go a long way to helping them succeed.

Marge Laney
11 years 5 months ago

First, I must say that retail could learn a lot from the fast food industry which has over the years analyzed, quantified, and automated nearly all production and service processes in order to wring out as much profit as possible. They have expertly implemented technology solutions that address the production and service processes and use real-time BI to monitor and measure their success.

Back to the rest of retail; they do little to manage and measure the in-store customer experience beyond issuing a play book of strategies for addressing the needs, wants, and problems of the customer, which are neither manageable nor measurable in most cases. Technology platforms should be implemented that create a safety net which no customer can fall through. BPM should be built around these technologies and full-time sales associates should be well trained and monitored. When it’s time for seasonal hiring, the part timers should follow the full-time associates until it is deemed they can be left on their own.

Paul R. Schottmiller
Paul R. Schottmiller
11 years 5 months ago
I don’t mean to sound overly cynical but I can’t remember the last time any of this was offered to me in a store: • Creating a bond• Discovering the customer’s wants and needs• Overcoming objections• Identifying additional needs and selling opportunities• Closing the deal and thanking the customer The vast majority of seasonal help for the vast majority of retail is focused on getting the product into the store, keeping the shelves stocked, keeping the store clean, and running the register. The number of retailers that are staffing to offer these experiences is rapidly declining along with the customer’s expectation of in-store associates (where’s the product, do you have more in the back?…about covers what I expect). Personally, most of my retailers have converted me from frustration around the lack of knowledge of in-store associates to accepting the situation and finding ways to self-service (e.g. researching online before going to the store, accessing their website from an in-store terminal, and/or using my phone while in the store). In the few remaining places where these… Read more »
Roger Saunders
11 years 5 months ago

Seasonal associates need to see, feel, sense, and act upon the existing culture of their particular retail store. Leverage and build upon existing training (assuming that that training is effectively working). Costs are controlled, message stays in place, all associates are focused on common objectives, and you make the seasonals part of the team immediately–perhaps bringing some of the better ones on full time, or as repeats in future seasons.

Mark Burr
11 years 5 months ago
Many good points in this discussion. Interestingly, I just saw a report on UPS hiring 50,000 seasonal ‘helpers’. Yes, that is correct–50,000. So, there is work to be had albeit at $8.00/hr–it’s work. Further, at least 20-25% of them will be hired post-season. Good news. A great job ‘audition’ for many willing to work. The UPS approach is the right approach. It’s giving their ‘regular’ employees a leg up–a chance to perform even better with assistance. That same approach should be taken at retail. Seasonal assistance should be what it is–assistants. The seasonal employee should be working side by side with the regular employee. Give those that you have invested in to care for your customers the best opportunity to do so with ‘assistance’. Placing temporary employees into key roles, especially a cashier, is an opportunity for failure unless they are side by side with a ‘regular’ employee. It’s a great time for a retailer to build them into ‘regular’ employees or at a minimum, regular seasonal employees. My own daughter is just that. A… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson
11 years 5 months ago

The good news for retailers is the glut of good employees looking for work now. Even for seasonal work, take the time to brush up on your interviewing skills, leverage some of the hiring tests/technologies available to secure great employees for seasonal and permanent needs. I find employee turnover in fast-moving consumer goods retailers to be a blessing. Yes, the cost of hiring, training, etc, is real. However, lowering your average hourly wage is key to profitability. If you can get new, high-quality people in this economy, you should take advantage and ensure you train on customer service… REAL customer service…to get the best ROI.

Kim Barrington
Kim Barrington
11 years 5 months ago
This is a two way street. Right now there is tremendously qualified help out there, people can be put to work immediately with the strengths they have and gradually pick up through shadowing what the retailer needs during the season. Being clear IN THE BEGINNING what the role will be and sticking to it, is probably the most significant piece of the puzzle that will ensure the success of the hiree to accomplish what the retailer is looking for. And here is where retailers make their biggest mistake: they hire newbies to “fill in” and they are treated as such. Guaranteed failure. When someone comes in to “fill in” the rest of that so called team disappears, because someone has come in to “fill in.” It’s human nature. And it’s the busiest time of year, odd hours, etc. But the tenured employee wants the best hours and not the dirty work which frankly leaves the retailer exposed. That dirty work and those odd hours are when the customer retention happens…it should not be left to… Read more »

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