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Retail rogues: Training difficult employees

When it comes to training staff, you’ve got to invest to get the best. Jai Breitnauer asks a panel of experts about the types of training available, and how to deal with the five main types of tricky employee.

By Jai Breitnauer | November 12, 2015 | News

Training – a word that can strike fear into the heart of even the most dedicated manager. ‘Expensive’, ‘time-consuming’, ‘complicated’ … wipe all your preconceptions away. Too long has New Zealand considered training a box-ticking exercise; if you want to get the best out of your retail staff, then good training needs to be meaningful, passionate and undertaken without the fear that your staff member might leave you afterwards.

“Retail is one of the last examples of a business where senior management started on the shop floor,” says Anya Anderson, CEO of cutting edge training organisation RedSeed. “Good, targeted, consistent training from day one will encourage enthusiasm and a positive culture, and straightening out your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) will help you identify who is ready for promotion in what area.”

Anderson emphasises that part-time and temporary staff should be given the same opportunities as full time staff. “Many companies will identify 30 percent of their work-force for training, and these staff members are often overlooked. Remember, part-time, weekend and seasonal staff are often representing your outlet at the busiest times, they need training as much as everyone else, if not more,” she says. Retailers should also remember that while, in the past working in a shop may not have been seen as a career choice, formal training programmes and the new Bachelor of Retail and Business Management offered by Massey are resulting in retail being taken more seriously by  the workforce.

“How many students have started a Saturday job at a local store, and found themselves in management roles five years down the line?” says Anderson. “Retail is an opportunity success story, and it all starts with a good training platform.”

We’ve asked our expert training panel to identify five tricky staff members, and give us their top strategies on managing a positive outcome. If some of these personalities seem familiar to you, perhaps it’s time to overhaul that training programme, making sure your staff are on board with your company values and everyone is committed to building a positive culture.

The clueless beginner

Remember him or her? That was probably you not so long ago. Enthusiastic, excited, a bit worried and totally green, this is the ideal employee for any new business, says Anderson.

“Your staff are never going to be more enthusiastic than when they first get the job,” she says. “Harness their motivation by starting them with an online training programme immediately, so they can grasp some of the basics before they’ve even walked through the front door.”

Remember, new staff also want to feel comfortable – Anderson reminds us to make sure employees know where to put their bag, where the loo is, and when they can take lunch; knowledge that long-term employees take for granted.

“When you’ve got a new staff member, it’s a demystifying process,” agrees Kevin Phillips, director of the Friedman Group NZ. “They’re typically not that difficult to engage, but are perhaps a bit overwhelmed. Make sure they’re equipped with product knowledge, systems and processes and are also made aware of the company values.” Remember to take it slow though, training is an ongoing process after all.

“If you leave someone alone for months on end and then say they need training, they will be defensive,” says associate professor Jonathan Elms from Massey. “Starting a scheduled programme from day one that allows employees to ask, ‘What are my strengths and weaknesses?’ will get staff into the right frame of mind.”

Elms reminds us to make all staff members an asset to the company, regardless of whether you think they will stay, and Clare Savage from ServiceIQ agrees. “You should hire for enthusiasm, not experience, and mould your new employee to fit with the company culture,” she says, emphasising that even someone on a short term contract might choose to stay on if they feel invested in the business. “Remember, anyone can buy anything online these days; people choose to shop in a store for the instore experience and customer service. If one person has one positive experience and tells their friends, then training has been worth it. When training employees ensure you have measures in place so the employee has an opportunity to demonstrate their learnings and then they are therefore accountable.”

Behind the times

It’s easy to picture this person as the stereotypical retiree who has taken a casual job in their favourite clothing store. But Elms says literally anyone can fall behind.

“The world is changing at a rapid pace. As soon as you complete a course a portion of that information becomes obsolete. Training around products, environment and legislation needs to be continuous.”

Savage believes this person is actually quite common in retail, and is often not given the opportunity to upskill, leaving them trying to overcompensate for their weaknesses.

“Fear is a big issue,” says Savage. “People are worried about getting things wrong. Peer mentoring is really useful here.” Savage suggests that instead of putting people on a course they have to pass or fail, offer them some hands on, experience based training with the help of another employee. “Be discreet and don’t set people up to fail”.

“Customers are attracted to a brand, they don’t care if Mary-Sue isn’t good with the POS system,” says Phillips. “In a larger company, you can identify the value of an employee and support their weaknesses with other staff members, but smaller businesses need people with skills across the board.” Phillips strongly believes that most employees are capable given the right opportunities. “Training issues are often management issues,” says Phillips. “Equip your managers with the tools to develop their staff’s competancies. Help them understand different people learn in different ways. Encourage them to talk to employees, find out what works and then invest in it.”

Developing a culture of team success is essential. “Adults don’t like trying new things; they need lots of encouragement and no judgement,” says Anderson from RedSeed. “Don’t single staff members out, but develop a culture where everyone wants to be the best as a team. Offer ongoing opportunities to upskill, and pair up staff members with different strengths so they can support each other.”

Distracted Dave

We’ve all met Distracted Dave. Nice guy, performed well at interview, seems to be perfectly capable of doing his job but… there’s just something missing. Whether he’s on his phone while filling the shelves, or overlooking a sale to greet a friend, Dave isn’t quite hitting the mark.

“Is this a willingness issue, or a training issue?” says Anderson. “You need to find that out immediately. If they know what they should be doing and are choosing not to, that’s bad for business.”

Anderson suggests trying to engage them throough more responsibility. “Would they like to coach new team members? Would they prefer a role with a different focus? Don’t write them off as unmotivated, find out what enthuses them”.

This is where well-trained managers come into their own, says Anderson. “Humans naturally steer clear of conflict, especially if they like someone. But this need to be addressed.”

Savage says having your KPIs in order is a good start. “Look at their job description. Do they have the necessary skills? Are they meeting their targets? If not, is it because they need help in those areas?” She says keep it casual at the start. “No two employees are the same, they should all be treated as individuals. Schedule regular catch-ups, find out who they are – what’s going on at home, how are they getting on with colleagues? All of these can help you understand the work environment and the motivators that an employee needs in order to give 100 percent.”

“You can’t train enthusiasm,” says Phillips. “That’s why I encourage employers to hire for motivation not skill set. But if this is an employee who has been motivated in the past, then perhaps its time to look at how they’ve applied their training.” Phillips reminds us that teaching someone to do something doesn’t mean they can do it. “Ask yourself, how can I help them turn training knowledge into practical skills? Strong leadership from your manangers here is essential to success.”

Just plain rude

Sales staff aren’t always team players, especially if there’s commission at the end of the sales rainbow. This staff member might be sweetness and light on the shop floor, but in the back room they’re hostile to other team members, and perhaps a bit of a know-it-all. Savage reminds us to see the whole picture, not just the dollars.

“They may be perfoming well from a sales perspective, but what are they doing to the team?” she asks. “This type of staff member can poison the culture, and have a negative impact on the performance of other staff. An employee’s value isn’t just about the balance sheet – ask yourself what they contribute to the team as a whole, and don’t overlook poor behaviour. This is one staff member who needs to be closely monitored.”

Don’t make it about personality though. “If you’re not measuring performance, then you can’t have an opinion,” says Phillips. This is when KPIs really come into their own. “You might not like someone, you might not like their manner or approach – but if they are getting the job done that has to be recognised. Focus on their objective achievements, not the subjective feelings you have about them.”

Deal with the situation quicky and appropriately, don’t let it slide. “Understand their measurable performance by reviewing their targets and achievements,” says Anderson. “Open a clear line of communication with them about the standards and values of the business.” Don’t attack them, but make your expectations clear, “and understand this could lead to a disciplinary.”

This situation can be easily avoided if employers focus their hiring policy on personality rather than skill. “Look at your team dynamic, does your potential employee fit? If you think they have the right personality and are motivated, you can train them for everything else.”

The shining star

She may not seem like a problem child, but if you have an outstanding employee, how do you raise them up to the next level without frightening them off, or alienating other members of staff?

“People will always pop out of the woodwork, and become recognisable as management material early on,” says Anderson. “They will spend time on their own training, ask to move on to the next level, and always be thinking about what is next”.

By identifying them early on you can put measures in place to encourage their training without singling them out.

“Passive, online, self-paced training is a great way to offer upskilling opportunities across the board,” says Anderson. “Mix this up with hands on, buddy-based opportunities, identifying different pathways that meet your workforce’s varying interests and skills.”

Savage reinforces the idea every staff member should be given the opportunities available. “Talk with your employees, find out where they want to take their learning and then give them suitable opportunities. Work with them to write a development plan”. Savage warns that focusing too much attention on one individual will just breed resentment. “Never suddenly promote someone without staff consultation or making the opportunity openly available. Giving employees the chance to move up to the next level should be an open, above board and thoughtful process that is about the business as a whole.”

Phillips agrees. “Don’t hold anyone back. Give everyone the opportunity – the star will be the one who takes it.”

This article was originally published in issue 740 of NZRetail magazine.

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