Good management of staff and investment in training to help foster talent is key to maximising efficiency and achieving a consistently excellent service level

Case study

Find out how Kurt Salmon Associates has helped leading retailers reduce labour costs by 7.5% and improve customer service and loyalty by 20%. Read about the tools and techniques — and the results — that can be achieved by reducing the variability of performance between “the best” and the “rest” of the stores in your portfolio.

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Kurt Salmon Associates

Within any retailer the stores are only as good as the people in them. Yet, having the right processes in place can help staff achieve their potential, with the aim of delivering consistently high standards of service and performance across your business.

But with store portfolios that can run across hundreds of stores how do you ensure the customer gets the same service experience in each one, and that your company name and brand message are not let down by one poorly performing store?

Unfortunately the challenge of consistency is a hard one. “We will measure the variability between the top-performing stores and the average and we are seeing on many counts a 30% deviation between those two measures when it should be less than 10%,” says Kurt Salmon Associates senior partner Richard Traish.

One of the most important factors to drive consistent performance across the portfolio is knowing exactly what you are trying to achieve, and for this retailers need to set service level definitions for stores. Kurt Salmon Associates senior consultant Kevin Dearing explains: “The most crucial thing before you begin to look at consistency of delivery is setting the strategic levels of what your staffing level needs to be.”

Mission statement

Customer service in a John Lewis electricals department

Customer service is key for John Lewis

Retailers need to consider their mission - for instance, are they a John Lewis where personal customer service is key or a Netto where the focus is on filling shelves and manning? “It’s about what do you want to achieve for your customers in line with your strategy,” says Dearing.

Stewart Dawson, personnel manager of John Lewis’s Oxford Street store, says: “For me the focus on customer service is not just about the conversation that a partner has with a customer as they put something in their bag at the till; it starts long before then. That focus on customer service is relentless because you are only as good as your last interaction with the customer - whether that’s someone at the till or a delivery driver,” he says.

But matching the service level to a retailer’s target can be tough and needs to be measured constantly with simple measures such as Tesco’s ‘One-in-Front’ campaign, where the grocer pledges to open another till if there is a customer in front of another at a till.

At John Lewis, customer service is an important part of each store’s key performance indicators and the company’s staff are constantly monitored through mystery shopping surveys, with staff who have performed well rewarded and thanked accordingly and those who have done poorly coached to do better next time.

The surveys form part of staff appraisals and once a month employees have a coaching session with their managers where they are watched and assessed on their selling skills.

“It’s a relentless focus on customer service because if you lose that goodwill it’s much harder to pull it back,” says Dawson.

In today’s cash-strapped world and following redundancy programmes or recruitment freezes for some retailers, it can be tempting to ask staff to work harder, taking on the responsibilities of redundant colleagues, but this is a dangerous game.

Kurt Salmon Associates partner Tim Robinson says resources must be used effectively to do what is most achievable and most important to the business’s strategy. “Most retailers have a fairly quantitative model to define how many staff they need. The challenge is where for financial reasons you try to do too much with too few people and end up with patchy execution that can drive inefficiency and inconsistency across the business,” he says.

No holy grail

Morrisons deli counter

Morrisons runs a ‘fresh’ academy for counter staff

Many retailers turn to staff scheduling systems assuming they will be a holy grail for ensuring better service and greater consistency across the business but in reality this tactic can be misleading, according to Robinson.

“Where they fail is when companies come into this with fairly crude ideas about this,” he says. “It’s the people who already have a clear idea of what they are doing who get the most out of scheduling systems.”

Having defined and decided on staffing and service levels at corporate level it needs to be translated to the stores too. Dawson says: “I have a target of man hours employed and sales taken and the curve of each should be the same shape although it will not be perfectly matched - for example, on the fashion floor there is a lot of labour employed before the store opens to ensure that it is fully stocked in the right size range order and correctly ticketed.”

Store managers also need to ensure that staff are clear on their roles and what is expected of them and are given the training tools to ensure that. Kurt Salmon Associates senior manager

“Some retailers stifle store managers to the point they are no longer traders; they simply execute policy”

Kevin Dearing,
Kurt Salmon Associates

Sue Butler says: “It’s about providing clarity of communications and policies that you want the stores to follow.”

Training can be vital in delivering on the service mission says Butler, who cites the example of Morrisons. “In their fresh food academy they are training butchers, bakers and fishmongers to achieve a recognised qualification and that is playing straight into their strategy of being the fresh grocer,” she says.

“Then you have got people like John Lewis, and Comet who have higher price points so provide a higher level of product knowledge.”

At luxury brand retailer Mulberry detailed product knowledge is key to ensuring a sale and is ingrained in the staff from their first tour of the company’s Somerset factory upon induction to detailed product training each season.

Mulberry retail director Nick Roberts says: “At the factory tour they get told the process of how the products are made so they can understand the

high price tag. We also give staff key information about each product in the form of a product training manual that lists all the key features and benefits of each product and includes leather swatches and leather care information. Staff have to be credible in what they say to customers.”

Ensuring continuity of training and development of staff - even in the current climate - also helps staff feel invested in. At Mulberry, stores run a weekly half-hour training session on top of more formal training packages.

If staff feel valued and invested in they are also less likely to leave. “Staff turnover is the biggest reason for not getting consistency across stores, so training helps to keep people,” says Roberts.

Retailers also need to remember that while their store portfolios may include shining examples of great salespeople, not all staff will have a natural confidence on the sales floor and so coaching of more junior staff can be crucial. “Some people are natural sales people but some are not. We have done significant work which can help people to move through a more structured sales,” says Robinson.

At John Lewis, Dawson calls it the ABC of selling. He says: “There is a lot of training in-store about the strategies and phases of shopping. Acknowledgement is about letting the customer know you are there and not tasking. Then it’s about Building the sale and establishing the customer’s needs - for example, if it’s a washing machine, does the customer have children and therefore will be using it most days? The Close is the recommendation that the partner would make.”

Time management

Store managers also need to focus staff on spending the right amount of time on the most appropriate tasks with job structures that are well defined and managed. In one company that Robinson has worked with, simple analysis of job roles and structures in the store showed that some supervisors were spending more than 70% of their time doing admin rather than being on the sales floor with the customer or coaching staff.

Robinson says: “With support from us they were able to significantly increase the time that those staff were able to spend on the shopfloor and that’s enabled them to be far more productive.”


Mulberry gives staff frequent training on products

At John Lewis and Mulberry, both retailers have tried to minimise non-customer-focused tasks on the shopfloor to allow staff to concentrate on service. Dawson says: “We have worked hard on simplifying our processes through technology or centrali­sation of process - for example, installing call centres for our stores rather than routing calls through to the departments - to take some of the task away from selling partners. There is no more important task than the customer that is in front of me.”

At Mulberry, Roberts says there is an absolute insistence that as a high-end brand the focus is solely on service. “For us it’s all about the shopfloor and customer service and tasking has to happen outside of store hours. Walking into a store and seeing boxes or disruption in our market is an absolute no-no,” says Roberts. “The philosophy is that I try to create as little admin as I can for the stores.”

Freedom to decide

Tesco checkout

Tesco’s ‘One in Front’ campaign allows the grocer to measure how well it is matching service level with targets

Ensuring consistency across the business means that a retailer has to exercise some element of control from head office. However, allowing store managers more of a free rein can drive improvements that can also be rolled out across the portfolio. Robinson says: “It’s about empowering store managers but also encouraging them to drive improvements.”

Roberts says: “I’m a real believer that store managers should run their store as if it were their own. If you can’t do anything without following rules you become a robot and it dehumanises the business. There are boundaries and guidelines but you should allow staff to make localised decisions without getting everything checked numerous times.”

Dawson agrees, saying: “The most important thing for us is being custodians of good customer service. We use a number of key performance indicators as the barometer of what we are doing but the most important thing is the co-ownership of the business and the fact success of the business is our success.”

He says staff from other departments should cross over roles when required too. “If you were a supply chain partner walking across the shopfloor and were approached by a customer we would expect everyone to stop and help out,” says Dawson.

Not allowing managers to feel they have the freedom to suggest or implement changes can be immensely damaging to a business. Dearing says: “Some retailers stifle store managers to the point they are no longer traders; they simply execute policy. It’s about having set standards but then a policy of how to react in different situations - for example, calling an area manager and saying can I do this as sales are down?”

Robinson agrees. “It’s having a combination of clear key performance indicators but also installing that entrepreneurial spirit within the managers,” he says.

If you achieve that then you will be one step closer to having a brand and customer experience that is common in excellence across all stores.