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Why speciality retailers digitally onboard and upskill frontline teams

Christel Grizaut
Christel Grizaut, senior VP, Yoobic

As every retailer knows, consumers are getting smarter.

Thanks to the Internet, every shopper can read reviews and buying guides at the click of a button. For many products — especially in the specialty goods sector — customers often spend hours poring over the minutiae of different options and features before making a purchasing decision.

That’s both a challenge and an opportunity for specialty retailers. On the one hand, keeping pace with a highly informed customer base can be difficult. On the other, that kind of engagement and brand interest is priceless — if your frontline teams are able to fan the sparks into a flame, and match your customers’ highly informed enthusiasm for the sector you serve. 

The key question, of course, is how specialty brands can both onboard and train frontline teams effectively as well as transmit the skills and knowledge of veteran employees to new hires. With turnover increasing and labor shortages still a major problem, many retailers are using new digital technologies to support their teams and improve the customer experience. 

Five ways going digital can help

  1. Instant access 

Specialty retailers need to put information at frontline employees’ fingertips, so that they can keep pace with customers — and there’s no better way to achieve that than by putting it on their smartphone. Mobile resources and learning tools ensure that teams stay where they’re needed — helping customers — rather than having to be pulled off the floor for training. They also give workers frictionless access to the information needed to provide top-notch service to even the most demanding customers. 

Going mobile is also a smart way to engage Gen Y and Gen Z employees who are used to swiping and scrolling, and can’t be expected to sit passively in classrooms and take hand-written notes. In fact, mobile learning tech has proven a big hit with workers. According to survey research, workers who describe their employers as mobile pioneers report that they are more productive, creative, satisfied and loyal. 

This instant access results in much faster knowledge acquisition. If employees have to consult printed materials – say, multi-page PDFs – or take time away from their work routines to attend dedicated training classes, the whole process can take weeks – if not months – rather than just a day or a week at most.

  1. Ease of use 

A retailer’s digital platform should be intuitive and easy to navigate for all employees — including older workers who might not be as tech-savvy as their younger counterparts. Ideally, it should look and feel much like a social media platform, so the learning experience should be as intuitive, enjoyable, and even addictive as Facebook or Twitter. 

Crucially, rather than disrupting the employee’s workflow, digital tools should fit in seamlessly with their various daily tasks. Better yet, it should make those tasks easier: dynamic checklists, reminders, and other tools can help employees get up to speed without compromising the customer experience. Tech adoption rates are much higher when a new tool dovetails with and supports existing workflows, rather than becoming an additional task for employees to add to their to-do list.   

  1. Engagement 

You’re trying to make your frontline teams as enthusiastic and knowledgeable as your customers, so your communications and training need to be engaging and fun. Make your platform interactive, with “like” or “share” buttons, and use gamification — such as league tables or rewards — to keep employees coming back for more. 

Another smart approach is to let workers test their learning with short quizzes to boost stickiness. Friendly competitions between workers can also help spark interest in micro-learning by encouraging individuals to do their best. Remember, gamification isn’t a gimmick. A recent survey showed that 87% of employees said that gamified learning made them more productive and 84% said it made them feel more engaged in their work.

  1. Community 

Don’t think of training as a top-down process: the goal should be to build a community and a sense of common purpose, so give your team the chance to take ownership, share best practices, give feedback, and learn from one another. Get senior leaders involved by having them answer questions on discussion boards, and devise group exercises which can help employees get to know each other.

In 2022, Walmart built a sense of community by equipping 740,000 of its sales associates with a free Samsung smartphone – rather than with a handheld company device. The Samsung phone enables workers to provide better customer service. The phone comes loaded with a new app–Me@Walmart–which includes various features designed to help them manage daily tasks both at work and at home.

For specialty retailers, it’s also possible to encourage participation by offering your employees a chance to tap into their hidden knowledge and empower them to become subject matter experts. Social learning — the sharing of knowledge between colleagues — helps to create a collaborative workspace where all employees feel like part of a team, and are eager to add their own input to the organization’s learning processes.

Apple has used an intra-company social network to help its employees learn from each other. So if one employee stumbles on a successful way to sell more iPhones or iPads, they can upload a video that features tips or suggestions for their colleagues. Apple has also enabled employees from different countries to communicate by optimizing auto-translate, which removes language barriers.

  1. Continuous learning

While quick, efficient onboarding for new employees remains a top priority, the training shouldn’t stop once an employee is up to speed on the basics. In the fast-changing retail landscape, there is always more to learn — even for veteran employees. You need your teams to know about new products, market trends, and even news or pop-culture events that impact your specific sector, so they can build real, organic relationships with customers. 

Use push notifications to alert employees whenever new content is available: with the latest information readily available on their phone, they can consult it for a refresher whenever they need it. It can be helpful to track employees’ engagement with your training content and encourage them to reach specific goals. You might also evaluate the long-term impact of your training on KPIs such as sales, productivity or employee retention, and use the results to fine-tune your training protocol.

Give your team the tools to succeed

Specialty retailers are well aware that having a highly informed staff has numerous advantages, including increased sales and productivity, improved retention and morale, and greater efficiency for managers.

Remarkably, though, surveys show that as many as a third of retail employees don’t receive any training — and those that do often rely on hard-to-read PDFs or crumpled paper handbooks to get the knowhow they need. 

In the specialty sector, where customers have such high standards and levels of expertise, that just won’t cut it. Retailers can’t solve this problem by sticking to the same old outdated training paradigms, or sending senior managers out to provide hands-on training. 

The solution is to lean into new technologies, and find ways to integrate effective, engaging, and enjoyable learning processes into frontline teams’ daily workflows. Done right, this approach is a true win-win-win situation: better for customers, better for employees, and better for specialty retailers, too.

Christel Grizaut is senior VP of Yoobic.

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