Real employee training begins after the trial period.
At Pet World, we hire twice per year. The process takes about six weeks. After completing the first nine steps of our non-traditional hiring process, applicants are narrowed down from hundreds to usually less than a dozen. New hires shadow trainers and work up through three levels. At Level 1 they merely shadow, observe, and ask questions. This is where we test their ability to pay attention, memorize procedures, and keep pace. At Level 2 rookies demonstrate procedures with a trainer supervising closely and correcting as needed. This is how we discern their retention skills. At Level 3 they demonstrate while supervised from a distance. This is where we observe initiative and independence and either add them to our set schedule or cut them loose. New hires are given a minimum and maximum number of hours to complete the three levels. For the first few weeks this system is intense and our trainers maintain great focus.
Upon completion of the three levels, new hires are added to our set schedule, alone in the easier departments, and with a trainer where needed. They attend weekly training seminars and, even when they have a trainer present, always have a back up manager on duty who is also a trainer. At this point our trainers tend to exhale and relax when, in reality, they should take their training up a notch. They push rookies to be independent but sometimes at the expense of the customer experience. About six weeks into this process, we usually find the need to regroup.
The memo typically goes like this:
Trainers, as we settle into the new set schedule I need you to ask yourselves something. Are you still training? Because, as you know, employees can’t learn everything in the Education Room. All we can accomplish in there is a solid foundation on which to build. The real training happens on the job. You know this. We’ve laid down the law that employees cannot share anything they haven’t learned at Pet World so are you still maximizing their opportunities to learn? Teach them to use their Pet World resources – more experienced coworkers, trainers, managers, breeders, vendors, books, etc. but not at the expense of the customer experience. Remember, once that open sign is flipped and customers are in the store, it’s show time. It doesn’t matter how busy you are. Is the employee’s question not something you can answer? Aren’t you the expert? If so, answer it right away. The task at hand is always the customer. Yes, employees need to learn independence but never at the expense of our customers.
When the issue can’t be handled by the employee, don’t stand there and tell them what to say. Instead, have them listen to how you handle it. The fact that rookies are seeking your help means they are not yet ready to fly solo. Praise them for recognizing that they need assistance. Have you forgotten how it felt to be new and inexperienced? I understand your intentions but trainers must remember who they’re dealing with. Has your rookie completed sixty hours in that zone or only sixteen? Sometimes Tim and I will have a manager handle something instead of doing it ourselves as part of their training but these are managers we’re talking about. They want to do it on their own. They need to prove they can fly solo. Expectations are higher for seasoned veterans and managers. In no way can rookies be expected to handle much of anything without help. Not only are they not yet capable, they’ve been told not to say anything beyond the scope of their training. When you handle something for them, with them or in front of them, you are training them and the customer not only gets the better employee, they see how much we care to train the newer employee. Then, next time, the rookies will know what to do and, perhaps, instead of asking you for help, they’ll ask you to supervise while they attempt to do it on their own. Independence is the goal but only when they’re ready. Set them up to succeed, not fail. Remember, our success depends on their success.
Letting rookies privately flop on projects is one thing. Letting them fail in front of a customer is quite another and, frankly, a total fail on the part of the trainer – not the rookie. The customer deserves the best person for the job. Getting rookies trained is not the customer’s problem; it’s ours. The audience doesn’t pay to watch a rehearsal; they come to see the show. Sacrificing good customer service in order to train someone the hard way not only demoralizes the rookie, it makes us all look bad. The trainers appear arrogant and rude, too busy for the customer, too distracted to help the rookie, giving off the perception of condescension and disinterest which is actually nothing more than personal incompetence. This approach – especially with the added pressure of the customer’s presence – sets the rookies up to fail. And when they fail, we all fail.
As a trainer or manager, I expect each of you to hold yourselves to a higher standard and set the example for the rookies. Your job as leader doesn’t end when their trial period is over; it ends when you pick up your last paycheck. New employees need to see you immediately drop everything for a customer. Immediately. Everything. Every time. No task is more pressing than the customer. Without the customers, you have no tasks. Everything else – and I mean everything – can wait.
Now, when you find yourself repeatedly bailing out the same employees in the same situations you can deal with that after the fact, back stage, during follow up. We’re looking for employees who never need to be told twice. But when the moment is live, it’s show time. Until the closed sign is flipped and the curtains are closed, it’s lights, camera, action and you remain in the spotlight. Positive, encouraging training can and should happen in front of customers while you have the employee watch you work. Everyone wins with that situation. But employee trial by fire has absolutely no place on the retail stage.