Staff Training That Really Works

Sometimes it seems your staff just doesn’t hear what you say or do what you ask. Frustrating as that might be, you’re probably not witnessing a rebellion. It’s just that each of us processes information in a slightly different way, and this could be why your message is missing its mark.

The way we learn. Successful staff training – or “learning management,” to use the current buzzwords – hinges first of all on identifying what your associates need to learn. When you observe their behavior in the store, their gaps in skills and knowledge will become apparent.

They will learn best, however, if they define for themselves what they need to know. As a manager, your role will be that of a mentor who provides resources and guidance rather than an instructor who conveys facts and rules.

It’s important for your staff to know why they should learn a particular set of skills or absorb information. It’s not enough to tell new associates that they have to complete a self-study course because “it’s company policy.” They’re more likely to follow through if they understand how the knowledge will improve their performance and benefit the store. Explain that your store has a strong reputation and that your customers expect to deal with knowledgeable, well-informed representatives.

Sharing the experiences of other successful associates can also be valuable. For example, many associates are uncomfortable dealing with angry or otherwise difficult customers. Having an experienced associate talk about a difficult customer situation and then reenacting the episode with a manager or owner playing the part of the customer will illustrate the importance of knowledge and skills for job performance.

We all bring to any new situation our own backgrounds, which are themselves a rich resource for learning. Capitalize on what your associates bring to the table through discussions, problem-solving sessions, simulations, and role-playing. Having associates relate their varied experiences as consumers – both positive and negative – is often the best way to get them to identify customer-service problems in your own store. After listening to a story about condescending or inattentive treatment at an auto dealership, for example, ask how the scenario might have looked if the product were a diamond instead of a car – then ask if that sort of thing ever happens in your store. When an associate draws a conclusion based on his or her own experience, it’s easy to make the connection.

Of course, our experience sometimes creates biases that may impede learning. For example, most managers who have conducted in-store training have heard, “I hate to role-play. I’ve tried it before and it’s always embarrassing.” One way to dispel this reluctance is by allowing the objector to play the role of the customer – enabling him to learn without revealing a lack of skills.

Making it stick. Some people learn best by doing, others by watching. Some prefer reading a manual, others receiving a verbal explanation. Some are predominantly “left-brain” thinkers who prefer details and orderly structure; others are mostly “right-brain” thinkers who favor abstract reasoning and entertain a wide range of ideas. While we all have some overlap of these tendencies, your message will get through better if you tailor your delivery to the learner.

Manage your associates’ learning by offering a variety of delivery methods, from knowledge- and memory-based exercises to practical application. Here are some tips for making the learning process in your store productive:

  • Involve all associates in learning activities. Some people learn best by actually performing a particular task. Invite participation in exercises such as displaying merchandise, writing sales slips, or entering point-of-sale data.

  • Involve all associates in learning discussions. People solidify knowledge by discussing it. Insist on participation in weekly store meetings and encourage impromptu sales floor discussions. The most productive ones are based on the outcome of the last customer transaction. Talk about what made or broke a sale at the first opportunity so that everyone can learn from one associate’s experience. Partner newer associates with more experienced members of your staff to create learning teams. This way, your associates who learn best by watching will have the opportunity to observe each other and try new approaches in a monitored environment.

  • Ask your associates to submit observations as they learn about different areas in the store. This will encourage creativity and involvement. You could ask them their thoughts on how to greet customers or how to streamline procedures, for example.

  • Ask associates to review records or reports or to research topics important to your business. Research could entail comparing your repair prices with your competitors’ (easily obtained through telephone inquiries or a “mystery shopping” experience) or inventorying your supplies and then writing an order based on past sales. By participating in these projects, they not only will learn by doing but also could suggest some useful changes for your store. A fresh outlook might increase your repair sales through the use of a competitive price list, or reduce your expenses by streamlining your supply orders to match your past sales and future projections.

  • Observe associates with customers and give feedback immediately. Reinforce positive skills and provide information where lacking. To be effective, coaching (either praise or reprimand) must be both immediate and specific. “Great day, folks” at closing time isn’t nearly as effective as “Great sale, Judy. I really liked the way you handled Mr. Kent’s price objection.”

A potent motivator. People are motivated to learn by internal as well as external incentives. We all respond to external motivators such as raises and promotions. But the more potent motivators are the internal ones – the need for self-esteem, expanded responsibilities, authority, and achievement.

The more avenues you use to deliver information and the more actively your associates get involved in their own learning, the more they will retain. If you deliver the information in a variety of ways – written and spoken, logical and creative – your associates can absorb knowledge and master skills in the most productive way possible. You’ll increase their job satisfaction and productivity, which in turn will increase your profits.

Janice Mack Talcott and Kate B. Peterson are the principals of Performance Concepts, a company that provides training and business development consultation for specialty retailers.