Our Research Consultant, Marc Sowik, looks at how we can improve employee engagement in the retail sector.
Good retail staff have a special set of skills…
Collecting hire cars is one of the most frustrating things I’ll ever do as a consumer. Navigate the booby trapped T&Cs, deduce which office my weird budget subsidiary belongs too – then stand and queue whilst a ‘ClubCar’ (or whatever it is) member jumps in front… A frustrating and probably familiar experience, and one that is caused by a customer-unfriendly system.
But in an unfriendly system, it was a friendly face that changed my experience. The guy behind the desk that we spoke to was calm, professional and even a bit funny in the face of a pretty hostile queue.
When we hear people speak of retail staff, they are generally classed as ‘low skilled’. But a lot of what they do – dealing with people – requires sensitivity, empathy, communication – otherwise called emotional intelligence.
These are the parts that can set an experience apart and guarantee return customers. We (and the retail clients we work with) realise these people aren’t low skilled, rather they have a particular set of skills that one doesn’t need higher education to obtain.
It’s having these skills that makes someone exceptional in this type of role – the type of people retailers need to keep hold of.
The turnover puzzle
Staff turnover is a key issue for many retail organisations, especially when operating in competitive environments – major cities where employment options are many and lots of people are transient. And because pay is low, disengaged (but not necessarily badly performing) retail staff are more likely to jump ship for an extra 50p per hour – it makes a big difference.
I’ve worked with clients before that have had over 100% turnover – that is every member of staff having left and been replaced – in a year in some of their faltering retail outlets. When looking at the other scorecard metrics for these outlets, it was clear that there is often a statistical link between staff and manager stability, engagement and performance – the more stable and engaged the team, the greater their accomplishments.
Because turnover is also motivated by things outside the workplace, high engagement (largely considered to be influenced by happenings at work) and low turnover don’t always go hand in hand. But by focussing on engagement – essentially listening and reacting to staff – an organisation is doing what it can to focus on the drivers of turnover that they do have an influence over.
Helping managers to be responsible
As leaders, managers have a major influence over the stability and engagement of their team. They influence their pay, hours, development, support, learning, equipment, work-life balance – everything one level above the team member’s control.
They’re supplied with – and held to account on – regular information on financials, customer and internal perspectives etc., but what about the feelings of staff? Surely a regular check is equally important, especially in this competitive and volatile environment?
Putting staff feedback measures on a manager’s scorecard is one way to embed it in company culture. However, this is often overlooked, or considered as an idea and abandoned for practical reasons, rather than it not being potentially beneficial.
The problem of engagement targets in retail
Because of the traditional mechanisms of gathering annual employee feedback, it’s near on impossible to hold managers to account on it because of the movement of both managers and staff.
When feedback is collected annually, a new manager coming into a store has only irrelevant information until the next survey. And when turnover is high, managers are looking at the feelings of people that aren’t there anymore. From talking to managers in this environment, it’s clear that there’s often confusion about what to do with employee feedback, how it’s relevant and how they can actually use it to help them and their team.
What can we do differently?
In retail organisations where turnover and engagement are a real issue, increasing effort and investment in listening to staff is one area in which HR can provide strategic value. The keys are relevancy, education and clarity.
Relevancy – annual survey or not, managers need to see feedback as a useful tool. This means not expecting them to use irrelevant results – which means increasing the frequency at which they’re supplied. We know there’s a lot of turnover, so allow managers to react to changing team dynamics by providing up to date information. A short survey, applied monthly may be more useful that the annual process.
Education – if given more frequent data managers need to know how to best use it. This means giving them the skills to talk to their teams about results, whether there is no change or lots.
Clarity – an understanding of what’s expected of managers with results is key. If employee feedback is to become part of their scorecard/targets we must recognise that not one size fits all – leaders and teams operate within different contexts, so fairness is key.
Focus on people
Using new technology, approaching employee feedback in retail can really be brought forwards potentially included as a meaningful point on scorecards. We have the chance to provide timely and relevant data to managers that need it, providing them an authentically useful tool and helping organisations as a whole deal with major issues like turnover.
It’ll be interesting to see where the future takes the retail industry, and whether humans will play as large a part in it. But until then, taking a modern and people focussed approach to equipping managers is one strategy to get and stay ahead – by keeping hold of people like the car hire guy. The guy who has ensured that I’ll use that hire firm again.