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Employee And Management Upskilling Must Go Beyond New Safety Protocols

  • June 4, 2020 at 11:15 AM EDT
  • By Alicia Esposito
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As retailers continue to reopen their stores, employee training and empowerment are coming to the forefront. And although store managers and associates will play a crucial role in how the industry moves forward, industry experts affirm that all members of the retail enterprise — from the C-level on down — must prioritize learning and development in order to acquire the skills needed to adapt and evolve in a world affected by COVID-19.

Additionally, with many public health experts saying this is merely first of many waves of the virus, now is an opportune time for retailers to implement, test, revise and optimize their practices in order to mitigate future risk. These priorities fall under five key areas:

  1. Store safety and sanitation;
  2. In-store service and engagement;
  3. Flexible fulfillment and last mile experiences;
  4. Cross-functional and team-based communication and collaboration; and
  5. Empathy- and community-based culture creation.

Associates Will Need To Enforce Mask Wearing And Social Distancing As ‘Sheriffs’

Even before the pandemic turned the world (and the retail industry) upside down, store associates had a lot on their plates. But with new safety guidelines and sanitation best practices coming online, associates will be tasked with not just doing their own jobs well, but also keeping everyone in the store safe from harm. After all, half of Americans say they plan to visit non-essential retailers within a week of their reopening, according to Shopkick. Once stores fully reopen, 58% of consumers say they will shop as frequently as before the pandemic.

Although Scott Knaul, Executive Vice President of Retail Operations at Workforce Insight, believes that “everybody’s going to focus on cleanliness,” there are other important safety-related issues that both managers and associates must prepare for. For example, many associates will have to manage store traffic levels to ensure they adhere to local opening guidelines. In fact, the vast majority (95%) of consumers expect companies to implement physical protection and distancing measures to keep them healthy, according to Prosper Insights & Analytics.

“Store associates almost have to be like sheriffs now,” Knaul said in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “You can only allow so many people in the store, you have to ask them to wear a mask. Some people think that, for whatever reason, they don’t need to do that, so that puts a whole new level of responsibility on associates.” Workers will need to feel prepared to act if shoppers refuse to comply with new safety guidelines.

Executive leadership must develop these policy “playbooks” and ensure that they are shared and applied across locations. Without tools or approved practices in place to help employees easily access safety information, their already tough jobs become even more difficult.

“It will be imperative that employees know what is being done by corporate to maintain their safety, as well as what their responsibilities are to maintain consumers’ safety,” noted Lisa Britton-Poppler, Senior Account Relationship Manager at Opterus. “Employees will not want to go to multiple sources for this information because they may not feel confident it is the most updated information. This will ultimately add time and tasks to their already busy day.”

Additionally, COVID-19 has created an enormous emphasis on fulfillment and last mile functionalities. Essential retailers like Walmart doubled down on these areas, offering curbside pickup, more seamless mobile ordering, one-hour delivery and more. These efforts to help pivot their businesses have reset consumer expectations, and that’s leading to a ripple effect within stores. Adobe found that in April, buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) orders surged 208% year-over-year, and many believe these behaviors will have a longstanding impact on customer behaviors.

These omnichannel fulfillment and last mile innovations ultimately “bring about changes in backroom management and customer service training,” explained Michael Felice, principal in the consumer practice of Kearney. “During shutdown, retailers added new omnichannel options…which places added emphasis on staff training and experience. Staff will need broader training and access to networks, so if they don’t have answers immediately, they’ll know where products can be found and can relay that information to the customer.”

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Associates Also Must Provide A Welcoming Atmosphere

What constitutes a typical day in the life will vary from store to store and brand to brand, but it will likely involve juggling customer service and fulfillment-related tasks — both of which require unique training. As retailers look ahead, Carol Leaman, CEO at Axonify, believes that they will need to think strategically about what their ideal in-store experience looks like, and what critical areas they will need to emphasize in order to better empower their workers.

“It is so imperative that retailers think deeply about what their customer experience will need to look like going forward, and how they need to enable associates to provide the level of safety, comfort, support and proactive sales that is going to bring the guards down,” Leaman said in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. People are going to want to spend money, so you have to make them want to be in your place of business. That starts with the associate every time.

Workforce and store operations experts agree that stellar selling and relationship-building strategies will help retailers differentiate in the long term.

“How do I get a consumer, who is more distrustful than ever, to lower their guard and allow us to have a conversation? That only comes from soft-skills training,” said Bob Phibbs, the Retail Doctor. “How do I build enough rapport so that they can let down their guard, how do I go through the compare-and-contrast and get them to buy more than they initially thought they would? That’s the power of brick-and-mortar retail.”

It takes more than strong selling skills to build customer relationships, however. Now more than ever, consumers want brands to understand them in a deeper way. This empathy needs to be present not just in branding and communications but also at the store level, particularly if emotional or tense situations arise.

“There is a need for associates that practice empathy, that are caring and that have emotional intelligence,” said Marie Driscoll, Managing Director, Luxury & Fashion at Coresight Research. “COVID-19 brings with it a new set of consumer concerns, and retailers need to convey a sense of trust and safety to bring shoppers back to stores. Associates in stores need to be sensitive to consumers’ fears regarding exposure to the virus, and the overall uncertainty that has permeated society due to COVID-19.”

Store And Corporate Leadership Must Combine Soft Skills With Crisis Management Techniques

It almost goes without saying that managers, from the store level on up, also will have to align with executive leadership on crisis management communication, and be prepared to act as new issues emerge.

“If you’re a good manager, you’ve got good people skills, but this is going to push it to the limit,” Knaul explained. “If you have a great salesperson that doesn’t feel safe coming into the store, how do you still support them and continue to run the business? How do you handle people coming into stores and potentially causing problems or creating conflict? How do you handle potentially shutting down again? Those types of problem-solving skills revolve around crisis management.”

Perhaps most important, managers will have to practice extreme empathy and understanding, especially with associates who are not only balancing new workloads but may be struggling to meet sales goals.

“Is it fair to beat on your associate to get sales when traffic isn’t there?” Knaul asked. “Patience comes into it, and so does being realistic and communicating with your team. That communication goes both ways because [managers will] have to communicate up to the corporate office, practice professional courage, and say whether something needs to change at the store level.” Corporate leadership’s role will be to hear this feedback and determine the best path forward for the brick-and-mortar business.

In fact, exemplary communication skills, agility and an eagerness to collaborate all have come to the forefront as key traits of great retail leaders. These qualities shape how they interact with employees, influencing their ability to build trust and cultivate a community-driven brand culture.

“As a result of the pandemic, leaders have had to almost immediately pivot to managing remote teams,” Britton-Poppler noted. “This has shed light on whether leaders possess the prowess to adapt quickly and be flexible with their management approach.”

Empathy, Emotional Intelligence Move Into ‘Must-Have’ Skills Column

In the case of COVID-19, flexibility goes beyond quickly adjusting business plans. Leadership has had to be more understanding and flexible with schedules as employees juggle their day-to-day responsibilities with home schooling and caring for their loved ones. The volatility of the situation has made life and work stressful, increasing the importance of emotional intelligence at all levels.

“Emotional intelligence has been slowly making its way to the forefront of skills required as an effective leader, but during a time like this it has quickly become clear who possesses this skill,” Britton-Poppler explained. “Being aware of, expressing and controlling one’s own emotions, as well as encouraging constructive expression of employee’s emotions, has benefits across the organization. Emotional intelligence can improve collaboration among a team, enhance time management skills, and increase motivation.

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