Training Basics

January 31, 2011

Pet Business

By Nell Miller

Using a well-developed employee education program to build a knowledgeable store staff is essential to the success of a pet specialty retail business.

There are few factors that will have a larger role in determining a pet specialty retailer’s ultimate success–or failure–than its staff. Operating on the front lines of customer interaction, the associates on the sales floor or behind the checkout counter are the face of a retail business in the eyes of a shopper, so it is vital that they represent the store well. However, it is the storeowner’s responsibility to make sure that their staff projects the appropriate image, and the only way to do this is by providing them with the right kind of training.

Retail staff training involves teaching all employees how to best perform their jobs according to the overall mission of the store. For storeowners and managers, creating a successful training program will require an investment of both time and money, but the endeavor will definitely be worthwhile. Not only are well-trained staff members qualified to handle many issues that may arise in the store (freeing up time for owners to concentrate on other areas of business), they are also more likely to boost store sales and stay in their jobs longer.

Unfortunately, there are many pet store owners who believe that any training beyond a short introduction to an employee’s basic duties is a waste of time and money. They cover the essentials–safety and operational skills, payment processing and store policies–but assume that elements such as in-depth product knowledge and sales and customer-service skills will be absorbed on the job. This attitude toward staff training is more than likely to hold back a store’s sales potential and lead to a disgruntled customer base. Instead, retailers should take a formal, comprehensive approach to arming employees with the knowledge necessary to drive business to new heights.

“It is essential to have a training program that is consistent and continual,” says Anne Obarski, director of Merchandise Concepts, a retail-consulting firm based in Dublin, Ohio. “You can’t just hire someone, teach them how to make a sale and process a return, and then say, ‘Okay, now go out and make me a million dollars. If [a retailer] chooses not to invest in employee training, they’re probably choosing to fail.”

According to Pete Risano, president of Pet Life, a retail chain with 11 locations across Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, a well-trained staff–and the high level of customer service such a staff can provide–is particularly important in giving independent pet stores a competitive advantage against other retail channels.

“Everyone knows that customer service is key, but there is a huge difference between saying it and doing it,” says Rosano. “I think that this economy has forced many independent pet stores to improve their customer service. I have always based my stores around the theory that the difference between the independent pet channel and big-box, mass or grocery is customer support and employee knowledge. I believe that having the best employees in the business is what is going to keep independent pet stores viable.”

Of course, there is not one method of training that will work in every pet store, and every retailer will have different goals when it comes to staff education. This makes it essential to create a tailored program that fits a store’s particular needs. Some basic elements of such a program include employee manuals, training DVDs, orientation and training sessions, employee shadowing or a combination a these methods. Some stores will require more detailed training, depending on variables such as whether they sell live animals or cater to a specific type of hobbyist. Staff training for these stores will usually take longer and be more intense.

The New Hire
One often-overlooked key to a successful staff-training program is making sure that new employees have the desire and potential to succeed from the start. An excellent training program is useless if a new hire is not a good match for the store and does not have an interest in being trained. Sue Tasa, director of education at Pet Food Express, a 35-store independent pet specialty retail chain located in the San Francisco Bay area, explains that the company has a series of checks and balances throughout the application, interviewing and hiring process that helps them identify candidates who are a good fit.

Kendra McMasters and Sue Tasa are the education department for Pet Food Express.

“The job application itself is fairly extensive and includes a section on pet experience, which immediately cues us in to not just the applicants work experience, but their experience with pets and their level of passion and interest in animals,” explains Tasa. “Applicants who go on for an interview are walked through a series of questions that help us determine a bit about their character. The answers the applicant provides help us evaluate their self awareness, their awareness of their impact on others, their aptitude for learning, and their desire and willingness to help others.”

Risano says that when Pet Life looks for a potential employee, it looks for “people-people,” not “pet-people.”

“A lot of candidates will tell us they applied for the job because they love pets,” he says. “The problem with hiring on that basis is that we’re not in the business of working with pets. We deal with pet owners, so we want employees who are social, outgoing and can have a conversation.”

Both Pet Life and Pet Food Express have a two-stage interview process. “No one gets near a store without being seen by two managers,” says Risano. “The managers use a formal script and choose one or two questions from each listed category. By the end of the interview, the regional managers have a pretty good idea whether or not they want to hire the candidate.”

Tasa agrees that two interviews help verify the accuracy of the company’s impression of a candidate. “We also use a ‘Predictive Index’ [an evaluation tool that provides an understanding of the individual needs and drives of current or potential employees] that can either stimulate more questions or verify our observations,” she says.  “Finally, we check multiple references on all of our candidates to once again verify that the information gathered from the interview and application process is accurate.”

At Pet Life, candidates are asked to go through an orientation even before they are officially hired. “At that point, we know we like them,” says Risano, “but we want them to be sure that they like us. When they come in, we tell them about our company. We go over our mission statement­—’To develop long-term relationships with pet people through outstanding customer service, knowledge and teamwork’—and we talk about why it is important to us. By the end of the two-hour orientation, candidates have a good idea about who we are. It’s only after the orientation that we will make them an offer.”

Matching Objectives to Training
Since every pet retailer will have different job training goals, the first step in creating a training program is to write down key objectives and determine their order of importance. Should employees start by learning about all the products the store carries or about a particular animal or section of the store? Should they start by brushing up on their customer service skills or learn merchandising techniques? Identifying a starting point and setting training goals is the best place to start.

Pet Food Express focuses its training program on customer care and education. New hires participate in an extensive web-based education program, as well as a five-day training class at corporate headquarters.

“Pet Food Express teaches training classes in an interactive style, and students are forewarned that they are expected to participate so that we can access understanding and retention,” says Tasa.

In addition, new Pet Food Express employees are positioned to observe seasoned sales associates interacting with customers in the store environment. “Our goal is to assist them not only in learning about pets and pet products, but also in how we expect them to interact with pet owners,” adds Tasa.

At Pet Life, new employees undergo a full day of intense training known as “boot camp.” “A regional trainer teaches the basics of how we operate,” says Risano. “How to use the POS system, store protocol and the basics of customer service. The following week, they are trained in the store, and the store manager will reinforce everything that was taught during the basic-training session. There are three more full-day training sessions that follow, with new employees returning to the store in between so that managers can reinforce the knowledge in a store setting. The whole program takes about six weeks.”

Web-Based Training
As the executives at Pet Food Express have learned, the Internet provides pet specialty retailers with a great resource for training store staff. Pet Food Express has a library of web-based training modules that new employees are asked to complete within the first eight weeks of employment.

Obviously, developing this type of training resource from the ground up can be cost-prohibitive for the average mom-and-pop pet store, but there is at least one free web-based training program available to storeowners interested in incorporating this type of education into their businesses. The Pet Industry Distributors Association’s (PIDA) Pet Store Pro (http://www.petstorepro.com) covers customer service and sales methods, merchandising techniques, information about basic pet care and maintenance, and finance and inventory management education.

Using Pet Store Pro is simple. Owners can take on the role of training manager or delegate the position to a manager or trusted employee. The training manager can then register the store and its staff and assign chapters for the employee to read and study. The site will notify the training manager by e-mail each time an employee takes an online chapter test. When an employee has successfully completed all of the required chapter tests, PIDA will mail out a “Certificate of Achievement” to post in the store or award to the employee.

While web-based programs can supply a great deal of knowledge and are a good addition to staff training, Tasa notes that it is important that staff be able to apply new skills when dealing with customers. In short, nothing can replace first-hand experience and face-to-face interaction.

Expectations & Evaluation
Throughout the training program, procedures and standards should be crystal clear. Many large, successful chains take the time to break down actual situations for employees. For example, management might outline the proper procedure for handling a particular type of question or complaint. While a smaller, independent pet store might not have to be that precise, expectations the store has for its employees during and after training should be clear and easy to understand.

Giving constant feedback to employees is another important aspect of training. Storeowners should be quick to point out when employees do something well. Saying ‘job well done’ when a staff member has successfully completed a task is not only polite, it will make that person feel as if their work is acknowledged and appreciated.

It is also essential to point out when employees fall short of the storeowner’s expectations. “If you train someone, you have to hold them accountable,” says Obarski.

Of course, it’s always easier to give (and receive) praise than criticism, but a little bit of diplomacy can go a long way in this regard. Obarski suggests that storeowners and managers focus on the team concept, rather than on individuals, when addressing areas in which staff members are falling below expectations.

“You can say, ‘As a store, there are a couple of things that we have to improve,’” she says. “And then get their input on how to go about doing that.”

Relating criticism in this way will not only help in keeping the conversation from taking on a confrontational tone, it will also help make staff members feel like valued contributors to the business.

Creating incentives that encourage employees is another great way to make sure that employees are actively engaged in making the store successful. A reward should not only be given if a certain volume of sales is reached, but anytime an employee or team of employees goes above and beyond the standard. The reward can be as simple as treating the employee to breakfast or lunch, or if a greater reward is in order, a spa certificate or gift card will go a long way in showing appreciation. And remember that employees will always talk to each other, so even privately rewarding one person for their effort will likely generate motivation among other staff members.

An important element in creating a successful staff-training program is the ability to measure results. For example, the impact of a good program can be seen in staff retention rates, individual employees’ sales records and customer service reports. In addition, retailers may want to build more formal metrics into their training regimen.

“At Pet Food Express, web training is tracked and monitored for understanding and completion,” says Tasa. “In addition, product worksheets are checked every week, and each weekend we have senior staff visit the stores and ask the staff a random selection of pre-published questions. The annual training plan is evaluated yearly and modified as needed.”

Retailers should also be prepared to assess the overall effectiveness of their training program by looking at the store’s sales performance.

“One of the things that it seems many retailers avoid is setting sales goals,” says Obarski. She goes on to note that setting such goals will not only provide a measuring stick for a store staff’s effectiveness, it will also go a long way in making sure that employees understand the storeowner’s expectations. “If you don’t let your team know where you want to go, you’re never going to get there,” she says.

The most helpful evaluation of the training program will often come from the employees who have actively participated in it. Managers and owners should always make sure to get input from employees about their training experience. When new employees become more practiced, ask them how they think the training program could be improved. This shows employees that their opinions are valued, and the feedback they provide will be key in tweaking the program for future employees.

“We ask for feedback at every level,” says Risano, “from the new employees going through the training to the regional and store managers doing the training.”

Whatever devices retailers choose to use in measuring the effectiveness of their employee training program, Obarski says that a prompt response to obvious deficiencies is critical. “If you find things that you can take care of immediately, you may save yourself a lot of disgruntled customers,” she says.

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