Have you ever walked into a store and just felt uncomfortable? Perhaps you can’t pinpoint what’s wrong but you sense something is “off.” (Hopefully, you have not had this experience in your own store.) When it’s happened to me, I’ve found, more often than not, it is because the people who work there are unhappy. I have learned to look around and notice whether I see smiles or indifference. When this uncomfortable feeling occurs, I don’t stay long and I don’t often return. Other customers may not even be aware of what they are sensing, yet it makes them want to leave and not come back anytime soon.
On the other side of the spectrum, when I enter a store where I’m greeted and smiled at, I feel welcome, and it feels comfortable to browse and shop awhile. When there is ease rather than tension in the air, customers feel what all retailers want them to experience and they are eager to return.
Train them right
How do we create and maintain a level of harmony that’s inviting for customers and satisfying for our staff? The first place to look is at our communication skills and training plan. Employees are no different than our friends or family—they want to be treated with respect, acknowledged for their accomplishments, and rewarded for their efforts. So, these are the areas to concentrate on.
Experience tells me, even more than the amount of money in their paycheck, employees value knowing what is expected of them and that they have done their job well. Don’t get me wrong—money matters, but not as much as we may have thought.
For employees to be successful, they have to have clear guidelines about what is expected of them. This means providing excellent written and verbal training. It also means training needs to be offered on an ongoing basis. After the basics of the job, this training can include everything from relating to customers and increasing sales, to additional vendor and product knowledge.
Although we are all in retail, every store has its own climate or atmosphere. A great training exercise is to let a new employee shadow a seasoned one. By doing this, the new employee will learn many of the unspoken rules, or “givens” we may not think to include in a procedure manual.
Give them a voice and your respect
Another important component is to create a forum for all voices to be heard, even the temporary or part-time employees. This is easy when you value their opinions. Make it a point to ask for comments, questions, and suggestions at your staff meetings, and make sure you establish a welcome and safe environment for that to occur. If one person risks speaking out and their ideas are quickly vetoed, the next person will be hesitant to speak out in the future.
It’s important to have regular staff meetings (I recommend monthly) to share information and provide a forum for communication among the whole group. The keys to a successful meeting are to keep it fast-paced (who wants to be bored?), invite participation, and include some helpful hints to encourage and inspire, such as having each person share how they suggest additional merchandise a customer might like. You also can make it fun by having an employee appreciation drawing for prizes such as gift cards from your store, movie passes, or vendor gifts.
After an employee is trained and has been with you awhile, allow them to make their own decisions, even if their choices are less than perfect. Make it clear you want them to trust their instincts, then stand behind them when at all possible. If you would have made a different choice regarding a customer or vendor, it’s fine to say so and use the situation as a learning experience. Unless there was some misconduct or serious infraction, be sure they know you appreciate that they did their best. If you have their back, they will have yours, too.
Employees also feel honored and important when you take the time to recognize and utilize their natural abilities. Do you have an employee who is great at math? Let them do the closing procedures or balance the vendor invoices when merchandise arrives. Or is someone on your staff neat and orderly to the point of being compulsive? Why not put them in charge of cleaning or organizing the front desk and gift wrap supplies? If you can identify what they love and what they excel at and put them in a position to use their talents to the fullest, then everyone benefits!
The money question
Now, let’s go back to the money for a minute. Even when employees are valued and respected, they do still need to be paid fairly. Take a survey occasionally of the retail wages in your local area. A good place to start is newspaper ads and Craig’s List (www.craigslist.org). You don’t have to pay the highest wages in your area, but you will lose valuable people if you pay longer-term employees close to what they could make starting somewhere else. Generally in our store, we hire on the low-to-mid side of wages for our area, but when we find a great employee, we try to increase their pay fairly quickly. This was easier before the recession, but it is still important. And the employees who have been faithful for years deserve the best you can afford to pay.
If the recession has put a damper on the level of wages you can offer, consider offering bonuses when sales are up, or small perks or gifts on a regular basis. Maybe purchase a few movie tickets for valued employees to have a night out or increase their employee discount for special occasions such as Christmas and their birthday. It doesn’t have to cost a lot to say “thank you,” and simple gestures can go a long way.
The single most important factor in creating harmony in the workplace is establishing and maintaining a team atmosphere. That means getting away from the “us vs. them” mentality, which can crop up quickly and be detrimental to everyone. Sometimes it occurs between management and sales staff. Other times it’s between sales floor and back room staff. No matter how it manifests, it is usually because an individual or a group of people feel they are being treated unfairly, they are asked to do the bulk of menial tasks, or their efforts are not fully appreciated.
By making it clear everyone is in this together, all contributions are valuable, and every member of the team is an important and necessary part of the whole, any rift can be healed. First, listen. After you have identified what seems to be the issue, address it. Shift it. Find a way to make it fair. Rotate tasks. Put yourself in their shoes. Do whatever needs to be done so everyone is treated well and fairly. By taking an immediate stand, you will earn respect and increase employee satisfaction and loyalty. And when employees are loyal and content, your store will take on a feeling that will make your customers love to come in and shop, even if they can’t always put their reasons into words.
Keeping employees happy, engaged, and informed is not only the right thing to do, it’s a great selling tool. Sales are created by connecting with customers and sharing information. If your employees are excited about a product—and your store in general—their enthusiasm is contagious. As the store owner/manager, it’s your job to talk about new lines, make information available (such as show-and-tell at staff meetings or pictures of the new lines on the break table), and provide the passion to make the merchandise exciting and interesting.
First published in Vol. 24 No. 5 of Retailing Insight. © 2010 Continuity Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.