Selling skills, performance management, and change management are the three greatest training needs at New York-based Saks Fifth Avenue, says Director of E-Learning Jon Tincher. The global fashion retailer, with 16,000 employees and $2.9 billion in annual sales, provides training to approximately 3,000 new hires each year, and ongoing learning and development to the rest of the organization.
A new ambition for the company is to create "experts in every store," says Tincher. "One of our big problems is we have close to 110 stores around the country, and three or four corporate locations, so touching people in every location is difficult," he explains. Saks will try to meet the challenge by providing stores with "Leader Guides" that serve as facilitator guides, and conducting train-the-trainer sessions to get selected managers at each store proficient at teaching their staff.
A well-prepared staff is essential given the fickle nature of fashion. Frontline staff needs to understand enough about the new offerings to give good advice to customers. "Your product selection can change so drastically from season to season," Tincher notes. "The benefits of each designer, and the selling points of particular brands, are in constant flux."
In addition to sales consultants in stores, upper-level management and executives also need to be kept educated about changing customer preferences. Executive education about these seasonal changes focuses on helping learners understand how changes in buying habits may impact business strategy. "It's awareness of trends," says Senior Vice President—Organizational Effectiveness/Chief Learning Officer Jim Viola, "and keeping management more abreast of the bigger picture of how to tell and analyze trends."
Senior merchandising executives participate in an online simulation to test their knowledge of analyzing profitability of business plans and finances. The e-learning program comprises four sections, each representing a different clothing season, with learners given 1 million "dollars" to spend as a merchant over the course of the four seasons. Participants receive hypothetical information about the buying market that simulated season, and from that, are asked to make decisions on product selection. At the end of the program, learners are shown how profitable they were based on those merchandising choices.
Though a success, Tincher says the company's executives generally are not as enthusiastic as its frontline store workers to learn via online technology. "I think the hourly employees are more apt to grab onto e-learning, whereas the executive staff tends to lean more toward instructor-led [training]," he explains. "The hourly population tends to be a little younger, and the things we're teaching them are more technical as opposed to how to make management decisions."
Taking time for training on the job has gotten easier for frontline workers in at least 23 Saks stores, where outdated point-of-sale (POS) systems, or cash registers, were replaced with Web POS, which simulate personal computers. Along with customer relationship management software that helps sales consultants better manage their interactions with shoppers, the PCs also can help deliver learning. "From a training perspective, it will allow us to communicate with every associate right at the register," says Viola.
To develop leadership skills in management, Saks uses the Situational Leadership II curriculum from The Ken Blanchard Companies as the foundational model for managing and developing employees. These workshops are supplemented by classes on foundational management skills, including how to best recruit and hire new talent, how to coach employees, and how to understand the difference between managing and leading. There also is instruction on how to conduct formal discussions such as performance appraisals, as opposed to coaching on the fly.
Beyond teaching age-old concepts such as selling skills, merchandising, and leadership, Saks needs to prepare employees to work in a multichannel environment in which they interact with customers online, as well as in stores. "We are spending a lot of time training our store populations on how to capture e-mail [addresses] in a luxury environment without being overzealous," Viola points out. "With that also comes—when we get the e-mail addresses—how to communicate with customers in the style Saks is accustomed to."
On top of these challenges, the company contends with finding talent in the first place. "To be able to find associates who can build relationships [with customers], but at the same time sell the product is tough," Tincher says.
The company's leadership development program, he emphasizes, is one of the keys to winning the talent war. "It's a big part of being able to identify that talent," he says, "recruit it appropriately, and keep it once we do have it in-house." Viola goes a step further, noting that "opportunities to learn and grow at Saks will set us apart."