Instant Experts

July 26, 2007
Written by Andrew Hind
It is the nature of the business. Being seasonal in orientation, garden centres largely employ younger, part-time staff on summer leave from school. The reasons are obvious: they represent a ready pool of available labour, and generally come cheaper than more mature staff.
Transforming Seasonal Staff Into Gardening Gurus

It is the nature of the business. Being seasonal in orientation, garden centres largely employ younger, part-time staff on summer leave from school. The reasons are obvious: they represent a ready pool of available labour, and generally come cheaper than more mature staff.

There is a definite drawback to this practice, however, as most young people lack gardens of their own to provide even a basic foundation of experience. They also have almost no knowledge of the products they will be tasked to sell.

The challenge with seasonal retail staff, therefore, is to get them sufficiently self-confident to be able to interact with customers, even if they cannot answer every question posed to them. Too many seasonal salespeople, especially the younger, inexperienced ones, avoid customers for fear of the question they cannot answer.

That is why it is vital to transform seasonal staff into gardening gurus.

Knowledge is power, and power leads to confidence. In the end, confident staff improves your profitability.

The process actually begins in the hiring phase where you identify the people who will best fit into the garden centre environment. Ideally, you would want to look for people with some relevant background or interest.

“You have to hire the right people,” says Ken Martin, owner of Cindy’s Home and Garden Centre in Kingsville, Ont. “We look for people who are energetic, a bit athletic so we know they can keep up with the pace, and people who are intelligent. We get 150 applicants each year and hire maybe 5 to 10.”

The right hires are those who want to learn and want to work hard.

“We take all new staff on an orientation walk and tell them to read the tags,” Martin explains. “After that, we question them on their knowledge and if we find it lacking we send them to read the tags again. Really, all the information they need is on the tags, so it’s a matter of interest and retention.”

This exercise is not only about knowledge, but also about empowerment: new hires learn that they can handle many customer queries simply by taking them to the plant in question and reading the tag. They become confident, and less likely to avert a customer’s gaze for fear of being approached for assistance.

I am a firm believer in strong training programs and in assigning dedicated roles. For example, when I worked at White Rose Home and Garden Centres, we intensively trained dedicated staff in the proper use of our chemical products and always had one of these employees on duty during peak periods. Such focused training made the employee a better salesperson, and reduced the number of customers returning frustrated or angry after a well intentioned but inexperienced staff member sold them a non-selective herbicide that killed a prized plant or provided improper instruction for the use of a fertilizer.

Focused training can be very successful in making seasonal staff gardening experts, if only in a limited field.

Bradford Greenhouses Garden Gallery has a very strong training program, with a customer service-training component designed to allow new staff to seamlessly integrate themselves into the store environment.

“We bring all new hires to our Barrie (Ont.) location for several days of orientation, training and product knowledge where they become fully functioning members of the team,” says Anne Marie Gallo, Bradford Greenhouses. “It’s pretty intensive, but it’s designed to make them confident. We want all employees to take ownership and pride in what they do.”

This model is the ideal for training seasonal staff. Rather than having new hires trickle in one or two at a time and having them all at various stages of development, its far more efficient to orient and train all seasonal staff at the same time.

Even during only a single day of training, great strides can be made towards transforming new hires into gardening experts if you keep in mind the 80-20 rule. You can safely assume that 80 per cent of the public’s questions will be answered by 20 per cent of the available knowledge that a salesperson could learn. The key is identifying these commonly asked questions, and training accordingly.

Imparting knowledge doesn’t end with the initial orientation session. In general, customers ask the same questions about the same products about the same time every year. For example, April is the time when customers begin querying about dormant spray, while the emergence of crabgrass in July has people scrambling for herbicidal remedies. Try to anticipate the most common questions for a given period and train your staff to answer them.

A bulletin board summarizing the most common questions of the season, ideally located in a lunchroom or other centrally located area, is a great resource for employees.

“We try to place people in positions that they are interested in and where we believe they are capable of succeeding,” continues Gallo. “Everyone has their strengths and identifying them is important to creating productive and happy staff.”

The reality is you don’t need your seasonal staff to become true gardening experts, because most customers aren’t either and don’t require that depth of knowledge.

What you want is for them to become confident enough to sell your products and create the illusion of expertise that customers desire in salespeople. This can be accomplished, and relatively easily, if you’ve hired well and implemented a sound training program.

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