Confusing and badly timed communications from head office are the last thing busy shopfloor staff need. Making sure such messages are effective is crucial to business success, says Liz Morrell

Apathetic staff and lacklustre service can often be a direct result of head office’s failure to engage shopfloor staff with its vision. In the current climate, communication between head office and stores is more important than ever.

Envision Retail managing director Jason Kemp says: “It’s helpful in these times especially to understand what is going on in the minds of the staff, so you can head off a problem before it becomes an issue.”

Tim Kaye, founder of internal communications consultancy PR+ International Communications, says it is also important to deliver on promises. “When it comes to the crunch, effective communication between head office and staff on the front line is critical because they have to deliver the brand promise that the retailer may communicate externally via its marketing communications,” he says.

Of course, the best method is direct dialogue. Ikea internal communications manager Lois Blenkinsop says: “We have a landscape of channels that we have been using very actively, but our co-workers are keen to have one-to-one dialogue with their line managers. They want to know how changes impact on them, so by having the dialogue they can ask the questions. That’s the most effective way of communicating.”

However, in a busy trading environment where shift patterns and circumstances – as well as sheer scale of the business – can prevent that happening, a retailer needs other methods of communicating.

New Look uses Buzz – its store intranet system based on Triangle Retail’s software package Retail Manager. The system allows content such as newsletters and in-store marketing information to be accessed through an internet browser, either in the back office, at the till or via a hand-held device.

New Look senior operations manager Luci Vardi says: “We wanted to streamline the amount of communication stores received, and by removing the need for paper-based documents and postage we were able to react and communicate with stores much more instantly and reduce costs too.”

The change has also freed up staff time. “Buzz has enabled store managers to spend more time on the shopfloor serving our customers and driving sales.
It has also helped to gain a consistent execution of tasks across all stores,” adds Vardi.

Ensuring a message has been received and understood is vital.

Triangle Retail managing director Karen Dyke says: “When you are talking to retail outlets you have to speak in the right speak and position it correctly.
They haven’t got time to read reams of information
so it has to be slick.”

Vardi says: “We choose the way in which we communicate with store teams very carefully depending on the audience. If we are issuing communication to all store staff we would do this via a DVD, staffroom poster or newsletter to ensure everyone could receive the message. If the communication is aimed at store management teams this would be done via a business update on Buzz.”

Within the next year New Look also plans to add video streaming through Buzz for communications that should be heard and not just read; for instance, a message from the chief executive, visuals and audio of store openings, product launch parties or fashion shows.

Vardi says New Look has two ways in which it ensures messages have been both read and understood. The first is a survey tool on Buzz that enables it to collate staff feedback from stores. The second is an “expert function”, which gives store teams direct contact with head office departments, allowing them to ask questions or request additional information.

“This gives head office teams a great perception of the level of understanding out in stores and allows us to improve certain areas of communication if it were perhaps misunderstood,” Vardi explains.

Improving the impact of head office communication is often about presentation. Doing something different ensures that staff sit up and take notice. In the 1990s, Body Shop produced BSTV – Body Shop Television. Former UK managing director Vince Gunn says:
“It was our weekly video that went out to all UK
stores and an international version was also produced. At the time it was incredibly innovative and staff loved it.” It featured a cross-section of head office information and store activities, and was reinforced with regional and national roadshows.

Staff networking

Ikea has its own radio station, which it launched three years ago. From 4am to 10am it is a channel for staff news, views and dedications, while during trading hours the station broadcasts music and customer messages.

Only very rarely is head office given the opportunity to deliver a message. Blenkinsop says: “The tone of voice was critical. I wanted it to be very much a motivational tool and have a co-worker to co-worker tone of voice.”

She adds: “Through our intranet site any co-worker can place a dedication online. The exciting thing is that on average we get 400 to 500 dedications a week and we collate a weekly song chart. That’s where we see the motivation and involvement coming through.”

The more mundane the message, the more inventive Ikea is about its delivery. “When we know something is a bit dry – and that a co-worker would switch off if it was in a newsletter – we have to make it more fun,” Blenkinsop explains. One message it is currently trying to convey to staff is about its Shop Online facility, which has had a staggered roll-out. The retailer is using a multiple-choice questionnaire on the intranet to get the message across. Those who get the answers right will be entered into a pool and the winner will be drawn live on air.

New Look takes a similar approach. “When we communicate new initiatives for the business we try and keep an element of fun for the stores,” says Vardi. When the store group introduced mystery shopping it included an instant camera with the launch pack so staff could take photos of their store and experience it “through the eyes of a customer”.

New Look is also about to launch a staff social networking site. “We know how important social networking is these days so what better way to keep up to date with how our staff feel than to give them their own forum to chat?” says Vardi. “They can let us know what they love about New Look but also what we could improve and how we can make their lives better both in store and at head office.”

One bugbear for many store staff is being inundated with head office information – that can be another reason for them switching off. Communications need to be carefully structured. Vardi says: “We communicate with store staff daily, but in a very controlled way – for instance, regular communication is sent on the same day each week so they know exactly what they are receiving and when.”

New Look also has a dedicated head office team that manages all store communication to ensure it is consistent, accurate and relevant, and prevents an overload of information from different areas of the business.

Technology may improve communication, but traditional methods such as notice boards and staff magazines also still have their place. At Ikea, many stores have their own magazine, but Blenkinsop says standards used to vary widely. “I was tasked with whether we should bring in a national paper but we decided that would not be the best way. Instead we needed to give the stores tools so that they could easily insert copy into templates,” she says.

The result was a standardised monthly eight-page A5 publication, which includes national pages and news with the rest filled by and titled by each local store.

The humble notice board and poster sites also have a role to play – providing their use is edited. “We have had the problem of putting everything on the notice board but they are a great way to do quick, sharp messages,” says Blenkinsop.

But however inventive retailers get, good old-fashioned talking still delivers the most coherent messages. “At the end of the day, it’s the face-to-face dialogue that our co-workers want time and time again,” says Blenkinsop.

Ensuring store colleagues not only listen to you but that you also listen to them means you are one step closer to not only being heard, but understood.

Steps to successful communication

  • What is the purpose of this communication?
    Decide if it is to inform, get a response or generate an outcome.

  • What is the message and how do you want it received?
    Often retailers know the message they want to communicate, but they don’t tend to give as much thought to how they want it to be received. A communication about restructuring can send out a very negative message, but if it is accompanied by a statement of how this will safeguard jobs in the longer term and make the business stronger, it can limit concern.

  • Who is the target audience and what media should I use to get to them?
    This is one of the great challenges in retail. There are many locations and people of differing backgrounds and seniority in the business, which means there may need to be different levels of communication to address specific layers of the organisation. Similarly, change may affect each level differently and the channels of communication open to them will be different too. Management may have e-mail access when shopfloor staff do not, so picking the right message and the right method of communication is vital.

  • When do I want the message to go out?
    A no-news day increases the probability of the message getting through. Of course, sometimes you can’t choose the timing of a message, but where there is some control it is best to avoid times when the business is already implementing a lot of change, such as a new season launch, a Sale, and so on.

Source: Envision Retail