As a whole, it's rough going for trainers in retail, compared to their counterparts in other industries. The high turnover of frontline store employees and the vagaries of merchandise trends mean a constant need not only to train new workers but also to update all employees on new product offerings and evolving customer expectations.
The mobile enhancement industry, sellers of mobile technology and related products, typifies these challenges. "Industry technologies are rapidly changing, and technical training and skills upgrades are a must," says Barry Vogel, vice president and education committee chairman of the Mobile Enhancement Retailers Association (MERA), and a retailer himself. The scarcity of up-to-date technical skills isn't helped by the typical profile of mobile product store owners, whom Vogel describes as "largely enthusiasts who went into 'the business.'"
Complicating matters, these "enthusiasts" don't seem to be too enthusiastic about training. "They absolutely HATE anything that smacks of education," he notes. To encourage education in its industry, MERA organizes one-day regional learning and development events and hosts an annual four-day conference known as Knowledgefest. By the end of the year, the association will introduce a series of 15- to 20-minute online training sessions through its Website to gauge the industry's (hopefully) evolving attitude to learning.
Encouraging greater interest in training among these retailers is essential given the increasing need to understand technology. In addition to enabling frontline workers to make a strong sell to customers by demonstrating how the gadgets can be interacted with, these retailers need technical know-how, says Vogel, to launch effective marketing and promotion campaigns, recruit and develop personnel, and improve their overall business skills.
Fortunately, he says, there may be a change brewing. "There is a slow but rising realization that this is a business, not a hobby," Vogel observes. "There are skills required, and training is needed."
Plus, adds Bill Gauthier, director of training for CCA Global Partners,"Product life cycles have gotten much smaller, with new products coming out quicker and quicker. The need for training on what's new seems to be constant these days to get the people who are selling the knowledge they need."
Some retailers are capitalizing on the new generation's openness to technology by introducing podcasts to their frontline workers to keep them updated. At its best, podcasting is coupled with a physical copy of a guide or workbook during a live viewing of the new product. "They can stand in front of the product and listen, seeing the product and the book at the same time," Gauthier says.
Another recent development is the use of technologically advanced online learning that sometimes includes Flash-based simulations and gaming. "We find people respond much better to sophisticated simulation and role playing, rather than just reading and trying to retain," Gauthier points out.
All the flashy technology in the world, though, doesn't mean a worker will learn what Gauthier considers the most crucial skill for those on the frontlines of retail: the ability to sell. "Many customers these days come in with a certain knowledge already because they've done research on the Internet or heard about [the product] from their friends," he says. "So, the salesperson needs more skills about how to get at what that person is thinking, and how to move them through the sales process."
Sidebar: Managing the Mission
"What if we train our employees, and they leave?" a retailer asks.
"What if you don't train them, and they stay?" shoots back Harry Friedman, founder and CEO of retail training organization The Friedman Group. Another notion Friedman pooh-poohs is the idea that there's no time to train retail employees. "That's a false premise," says the former sales manager and retail chain owner who has been in the business for 27 years. The Friedman Group puts retail managers through training two days a month for four months in a row. "I have managers leaving their stores for this," Friedman says. "It shows retailers do believe in it. The value of salespeople on the floor is 25 to 30 percent. You can get even better than that with commitment by management."
In reality, training isn't the issue, Friedman proclaims. "Application of best practices is the issue. The inability of a manager to manage the process is the problem. The bulk of training in 2007 is management training, not sales training. We have what we call defining moments: going from manager to management. The manager makes decisions based on the best interests of the staff. Management does so in the best interests of the company." Friedman cites the example of a worker showing up late or without a name tag. The manager looks the other way, making the decision on what policy to enforce that day. "In this case, you don't have leaders carrying out the mission: converting shoppers into buyers. Managers have to take their staff into battle to win that mission. In the example above, I would write the guy up the first day and terminate him the second it happened again."
Based on his experience, Friedman created a proprietary Sales & Operations Management System for retailers, which includes:
- A step-by-step selling process, individual and store performance metrics, coaching strategies and store management techniques, and aggressive goal-setting techniques.
- Development of a store culture that expects continuous change and improvement.
- Proprietary learning methodology called Self-Track in which participants read manuals, watch DVDs, write essays, drill with their manager on the floor, and then demonstrate the techniques in front of customers.
- Comprehensive product knowledge and training strategies.
- Loyalty-building methodologies, including individualized service that cultivates lasting personal relationships.