There is incredible untapped potential in the front-line employees of today’s best retailers. We have employees worth investing in. The question is deciding which investments will have the most impact.
At The Nitrous Effect, we help our clients make these decisions based on our experiences working with many of today’s most innovative, successful companies. The following are four proven strategies we’ve found that enable in-store talent to do incredible things.
1. Connecting People to Purpose
According to Watson Wyatt’s communication survey, companies that are effective communicators had a 47% higher return to shareholders over a five-year period (mid-2004 to mid-2009). The ability of leadership to cast a compelling vision for their team is a critical component to success. Perhaps a higher-order version of this is making connections between purpose and everyday work activities to help employees find meaning in their work.
I heard from one retail manager how they connected a seemingly unimportant role in the store to the purpose of the company during onboarding. The new employee had just been hired on as a cart pusher.
Instead of merely communicating expectations and work schedule, this manager elevated the conversation to customer experience. He explained that this person was responsible for the first impression of the customer each time they come to the store. By having a clean, well-organized parking lot and an orderly stock of shopping carts awaiting the customer upon entry, this new hire was responsible for making sure the customer’s shopping trip started positively. That’s meaningful. It’s a perspective that improves performance.
The goal of retail leadership should be to scale moments like these. Using tools like live events and associate mobility, retailers can deploy content and interactive training that helps each employee catch the vision for how their performance makes a difference on the KPIs of the business. When the connection between tasks and organizational purpose is made clear, performance improves.
2. Accessing the Next Generation of Tools that Enable Success
A rising trend in retail is the decentralization of decision-making.
For the last decade, the rise of data-driven insights created a command-and-control mentality that pushed decision-making power into the corporate offices. Unfortunately, the pendulum swung too far and many retail employees became disengaged from the core business of retail. Instead of focusing on customer service and making great merchandising decisions, they had institutional blinders on – focusing on the tasks dictated by a corporate office.
Ultimately, data is a powerful decision-making tool but is often best utilized in the hands of local employees. Associate mobility and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) programs are combining the power of data with the irreplaceable intuition of the local retail employee who knows their market and their customer better than anyone else. By providing tools that assist these workers in making great decisions, the employee becomes, once again, engaged in the work and aligned with the mission and KPIs of the company.
Along with accessibility to data, usage of mobile tools that streamline operations are increasing rapidly. The power of this trend is hard to quantify. The impact is akin to when cashiers transitioned from manual credit card imprinters to swiping magnetic strips. By moving paper-based, analog processes to digital platforms, retailers reduce the risk of error and fraud and open up a world of intelligence and iterative improvement by having the historical data to work with.
Not to be trivialized is the lift in productivity that comes from deploying apps to consumer-grade devices that employees are already comfortable with. Training time decreases and overall job satisfaction improves when tools are usable and accessible on today’s most popular operating systems (Android, iOS). Today’s emerging workforce is tech-dependent and accustomed to working with well-designed interfaces. Companies who provide poor devices and cumbersome UI will find these employees developing job fatigue and ultimately turning over more frequently.
3. Investing in Learning to Create Greater Opportunity
I was recently at an annual meeting for store managers, regional executives and corporate leaders for a major retailer. At one point during the meeting the audience was asked to stand if they began their employment with the company as a low-level hourly employee. By my estimate 70% of the room stood up. It was a powerful moment. There is no greater testament to the potential of our workforce, and, by extension, the need to invest in the development of that workforce.
Companies with higher retention rates have found ways to map out how one progresses within their organization. Managing personal development plans at scale is now possible through mobile technology giving both the employee and their manager a framework to drive skill development and intentionality of worker progression.
Learning can also take on less structured forms. RevUnit is currently working with a major home builder with offices all across the U.S. Each division is highly decentralized, running its own business largely independent of the others. While this structure is highly effective for tapping into the entrepreneurial nature of each geographically diverse group, it limits the collective learning that could otherwise take place.
To solve for this, RevUnit is creating tools to help connect individuals with the same job responsibility but in different divisions. Essentially the company is using online communities to crowdsource best practices for knowledge-heavy roles within the company. Employees who before felt isolated and on their own while learning a very domain-specific job now have access to a wide range of people and ideas from across the company that fit their specific needs.
4. Giving Influence to Those Closest to the Customer
Having lived in Bentonville, Arkansas for several years, I have the pleasure of working with many individuals who worked alongside Sam Walton. Several of them have told a similar story about his leadership style.
Sam believed in empowering execution and decision-making at the store level. This belief was always on display during his frequent store visits. Sam would walk the store with the local team while taking notes on a yellow notepad. Today, the yellow notepad remains a powerful symbol within Walmart because of what it represented to the employees who met him.
Sam took notes on specific things he saw in each store that needed work, but even more importantly, Sam took notes on the ideas store-level associates offered during his visit. Sam was known for writing down that feedback every time, no matter the quality of the idea or level of the associate. It was a powerful message that the thoughts and ideas of every associate mattered—that they had influence.
Start Tapping into One of Your Greatest Resources – Your Employees
So often retailers focus on optimizing lines of communication in order to inform employees. What is far less common is optimizing communication in the other direction.
This is more feasible than ever through employee-facing ideation and feedback technologies. Leaders can collect, make sense of, prioritize and respond to thousands of pieces of individual feedback from employees without creating a significant burden on the executive team. This not only provides meaningful insights from the field but unites the organization as employees feel heard and valued.
The best ideas often come from those who are closest to the problems. By effectively tapping into those who work with customers on a daily basis, retailers can increase their institutional IQ and better serve customers.