Self-Guided Staff Training

Empower your employees with a training program at their fingertips.
by : 

by Jacki Smith

October 1, 2013
Self-Guided Staff Training

It’s 6:00 on a thursday evening. You and your spouse are having date night for the first time since opening your store when you get a call from a new staff member. “Sorry to bother you,” she says, “but I have a customer here who wants to buy a $100 gift certificate, and I was never trained on that. What do I do?”

Your night isn’t ruined, but it is derailed. You feel frustrated and tethered to your store. “Can I never leave!?” you growl in exasperation as you return to dinner, questioning if hiring her was the right decision.

This isn’t an employee issue—it’s a training issue.

Training above and beyond the details

Employee training is not just the tools to do the job. It’s an understanding of your company culture, your ideal customer, your product mix, and your preferred problem-solving methods. Your employee training actually needs to start with your new team members getting to know you and your business philosophy, and you getting to know their personality and skill set.

A good training program results in employees invested in your company. They have clarity in their job, you have confidence in them, and together you have fewer misunderstandings.

Staff training involves details that go on for miles—it’s nearly impossible to remember to convey them all before you hand your new employee the controls and take some needed time off. Think about how many times you’ve had to explain the dress code, how to void a transaction, when to clean the windows, or how holiday pay is handled. It’s easy to forget these details when you’re orienting new staff, but not if your new crew member knows where this information is kept and is empowered to review and use it.

The fantasy is that you hand each new hire the “Great Book of Knowledge” for your store, and they quickly proceed to doing their job perfectly. Bask in that fantasy for a moment, then pinch yourself back to reality, and we’ll talk about what this self-training thing really is.

Self-empowered staff

Self-guided training is really about empowering your staff to see the wider picture of your business, train at a pace they are comfortable with, update the training documents as needed, and be accountable to you and other staff members for getting the information they need to do their job.

A million little details need to be covered in any training program, and it will always be an evolutionary work in progress. But, if you have the “bones” in place, your staff can update them as the tasks change, rather than you scrambling with each new hire.

At Coventry, we have a self-guided training program that revolves around our training checklist. Each employee is responsible for getting trained in each step and being reviewed by a staff member, once they feel competent in the job. Our training checklist was originally created by our staff as they went through their day, documenting all the steps it takes to do any one particular job. We were able to capture the little nuances of each job to ensure each employee understands each step as we created the complete documentation for the process.

A training checklist eliminates the “I was never shown how to do that” excuse and shows the self-directing ability of not only the employee, but their manager or team lead, too. At the end of the training program, the new employee and the trainers’ skills are reviewed and assessed. The downside is that when you are the trainer and you get too busy to follow up, you must confront your own accountability to your staff.

A self-guided training program requires the most amount of organization and planning of any training program. Yet, once you do the initial work, it is the easiest to maintain because your staff is maintaining it. A good program has a goal, is pre-planned, has documented procedures, and is evaluated throughout the training process.

Are you and your staff compatible with self-guided training?

Start your training program by picking the right employees for your business. The business philosophy of “right people, right seat” applies here. The interview and hiring process can seem like a complete crapshoot, but using a personality test in making your final decision can make the surprise more pleasant than painful.

Personality tests are a tried-and-true method of getting the right people in the right seats. The Myers Briggs, Kolbe Index, Color Code, Emotional Intelligence, and DiSC are great standards to start with. It will either take time or a financial investment on your part to understand the tests, but this investment can save you weeks of training the wrong person.

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. HumanMetrics ( has a free, adapted version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality assessment. Combine the results with the book What Type Am I? Discover Who You Really Are by Rene Baron and you have a good assessment of who you are hiring. The free test rates your cognitive personality, which is a blend of natural personality traits combined with learned behavior. The full MBTI test can be taken online through the Center for Applications of Psychological Type ( for $150, with additional fees for specific reports.

Kolbe Index. The Kolbe Index ( focuses on the conative part of the brain, that is, your instincts or fall-back personality. For $49.95, you can get a full assessment on your prospective employee. They also offer resources to help you rate the ideal index of the job you are hiring for.

Color Code. The Color Code ( is a newer, yet highly rated personality test. This simple program appeals to visual understanding. They have a free test or a full analysis for $39.95. The Color Code talks about the what and the why of the personality, with a strong focus on how you relate to people.

DiSC. The DiSC personality test ( is a free assessment used extensively in sales training programs to teach you how to quickly assess the personality of the person you are interacting with. This test was developed by William Marston who, interestingly enough, is the creator of the DC Comics super hero Wonder Woman!

Emotional Intelligence. Don’t forget about the Emotional Intelligence test ( This assessment will help you understand how well your prospective employee responds to the emotional needs of others. This can be very telling as to how well they will do on the sales floor, as well as with their co-workers and boss. You may even want to test your own emotional intelligence to see how well you respond to the needs of your employees.

Learning styles

You are the coach, advisor, and appraiser of your staff. Since you are most likely an entrepreneur, you are a high-energy, driven, fast-paced individual who may not be the best mentor. As an entrepreneur, you’re undoubtedly quick on your feet, but you might be too busy juggling the big picture to note all the details and steps involved in every task. If that rings true for you, consider appointing a trusted, reliable staff member to take on the training responsibilities.

Once you assess your personality and the personality of each of your employees, know that there are also several ways people learn and, thus, several ways for you to train them. Seven widely accepted and documented learning styles are:

  • Visual (spatial): You prefer using pictures, images, and spatial understanding.
  • Aural (auditory-musical): You prefer using sound and music.
  • Verbal (linguistic): You prefer using words, both in speech and writing.
  • Physical (kinesthetic): You prefer using your body, hands, and sense of touch.
  • Logical (mathematical): You prefer using logic, reasoning, and systems.
  • Social (interpersonal): You prefer to learn in groups or with other people.
  • Solitary (intrapersonal): You prefer to work alone and use self-study.

Different personalities and different generations learn in different ways. This seems like a huge list of things to take into consideration, but if you even remotely understand these ideas, you are probably the best boss in town. These two resources can help you immensely in the teaching phase of your training program:

Telling Ain’t Training, 2nd Edition by Harold Stolovich addresses the four basic learning styles with tools you can immediately put into practice.

Y-Size Your Business: How Gen Y Employees Can Save You Money and Grow Your Business by Jason Ryan Dorsey talks about how to engage the Gen Y employees, also known as the Millennials.

Build it once and use it many times

Coventry’s self-guided training program took time to create. It required a lot of upfront work: checklists to make, procedures to document, and training schedules to create. We certainly were not perfect the first time out with this program, and we are still evolving it. Now, we are taking pictures and videos of each production step to ensure a continuity of all products and packaging.

At my store, Candle Wick Shop, we are currently photo-documenting acceptable and unacceptable attire for our dress code. We are also making training videos of the products we carry, which have the double bonus of going up on YouTube for our customers to see! These photos and videos support our store training efforts. Each employee has a section in the binder that holds their training checklist, store procedures, cleaning checklists, staff memos, and our store vision.

When you do the upfront work of organizing your training program, you can quickly plug it into a self-guided staff training system. Let’s start with the basics of what documents need to be created:

Company mission and vision. This is top of the agenda for your employees’ first-day orientation. Everyone needs to be on the same page and on the same bus that drives the goals of your business. Empowering your staff with the vision and history gets them involved in your future and excited to be part of your business. Getting everyone working toward the same end is the goal of all your training.

Job descriptions. Even if your staff members hold many positions in the company, each position has a job description they need to be familiar with. At minimum, it should detail their working hours, duties in a broad sense, expectations, goals, and the values for each job.

Employee handbook. Vacation, holidays, tardy policies, sick days, pay dates, review policies, confidentiality, disciplinary policies, personal conduct—all those annoying details need to be discussed or, at the very least, presented to your staff. Set the standards first, because—trust me—you will need them when you have to deal with a problem employee.

Safety first. Don’t forget the safety and emergency procedures. Give your staff emergency phone numbers to keep in their wallets and post the list plainly by the phone in your business.

One job at a time. Decide what your training program will cover before you start and tackle them one training checklist at a time: How to open the store, how to run the cash register, how to close the store, cleaning procedures, how to receive orders, and so on. Telling your staff one time how to do something is not training; it’s just a first step. If you have documentation you and your staff can consult each time a question arises, you train everyone to check the instructions before tracking you down with a simple question.

Use your current staff to start the process. Your current staff members probably know this stuff better than you, and if not, what a great way to assess their skill and understanding of the process. Start with having your staff create a list of each step, no matter how minute. From there, writing the instructions is easy and clear.

Who owns the process? Your staff does! Have your experienced and new staff follow the step-by-step instructions to make sure they work. What doesn’t work gets updated by the person who found the mistake. This way everyone is invested in the process, and it becomes a team effort.

Make it fun. Even if you have a very serious place of business, have fun with your staff when you train them. No matter how cheesy, everyone likes a reward for a job well done. One company I work with has old Trivial Pursuit pie-shaped game pieces that get filled with a wedge for every completed step in their training. Another company throws a small party with flowers and balloons for the new employee on their first day. Yet one more company I know gives a quiz after each level of training—you get Godiva chocolate for a good score.

Employee feedback. How do you know if you are being an okay boss or a great boss? Get feedback. Give your staff, new or experienced, the ability to critique the training methods and policies, but don’t make it personal. Ask questions such as: How fast were you able to become proficient at the task? Are the instructions clear and easy to follow? Did you feel supported in the training process? This again makes your employee responsible for their own experience and weeds out the employees that are not going to engage and become invested in their job. One warning: Whining is not good feedback. When your staff member makes everyone else the problem, it is a red flag to watch how accountable they are in their job.

Accountability is key

Be strong, be diligent, and follow through, because it is easy to have a great start and then peter out when you actually have to check on the training process. If your employee is speeding through all the training, you’ll be tempted to just abdicate their jobs to them, trusting they are getting everything correct. Don’t do it! This is where bad training habits are born. Check in, no matter how fast they are learning, to send the message that they are valuable to you. When an employee feels valued, they in turn value their job.

Making success measurable makes it repeatable. When your staff can see and experience their success, they’ll know how good a job they are doing and hopefully self-correct if it is not up to company standards. When the job is measurable, you can give a better review, make raise and promotion decisions easier, and, when it comes time to part company, it is less of a crisis.

Of course, when your staff’s performance is measurable, you are more accountable. Any self-guided training program is only as good as your ability to empower your employees to be accountable for their actions. Accountability can be as simple as checking on their work to show them you are paying attention and care, or it can be as intense as a weekly review of their success. At Coventry, we have everyone review their own performance and bring their percentage of productivity to a weekly meeting. We celebrate the wins and problem-solve the losses.

A self-guided staff training program is a great team builder, but as with any lasting treasure, the work is in the foundation. No matter how much a micromanager you are, a few tips from this program will help make your days go a lot smoother.

Jacki Smith is the founder and co-owner of Coventry Creations (, and a frequent contributor to Retailing Insight.