Spring Training

December 01, 2010
Written by Michelle Brisebois
Employee training isn’t a luxury – it’s a key ingredient in the long-term success of your business. Savvy employers understand how important it is to support their teams as they learn the ropes. Thomas J. Watson, founder of IBM, was one of those leaders who truly understood both the downside of poorly trained staff and the benefit of retaining those with experience.

He was quoted once as saying, “Recently, I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000. No, I replied, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?” Now that’s an enlightened leader! Of course, IBM has an infrastructure that can afford the time and money to implement a formal training program. Independent garden centres have to contend with less of both and factor a seasonal, and often youthful and inexperienced, workforce into the mix. It would be easy to just let them learn on the fly. However, if you want to stand apart from the big-box stores, a well-trained team is your best way to shine, and a great training program doesn’t have to be a big production.

A talented banking executive once told me that delivering an outstanding customer experience consisted of three key elements. If you think of it as a triangle, one side is fulfilment of the customers’ needs, the second is courtesy and the third is adding value. So many companies will trumpet their excellent customer service by focusing on how friendly they are. Being friendly is great but it’s not a point of difference, especially when you’re in the business of consultative selling. Gardening requires skill and many of your customers will need support from your teams about which plants to buy, how and where to plant them and how to ensure they thrive. It may help to look at your training strategy in terms of three separate areas: product knowledge, process/safety and adding value, or what marketers refer to as your brand. Products and process are pretty straightforward but don’t let the term “brand” freak you out. Brand is just a fancy way of defining what your customers say about you when you’re not in the room. It’s your culture and reputation. It’s that third elusive piece of the triangle – the “adding value” piece – that sets you apart from your competitors.

A review of the website for John van Wissen Nurseries & Garden Centre reveals a long list of accolades from happy customers. It’s clear from the comments about the great service that van Wissen’s team is well trained. When asked to share his staff development strategies with us, Brampton, Ont.-based retailer John van Wissen is quick to credit careful recruitment as the key to his success. “I tend to find the best employees at a fairly young age when they come in with their parents as customers,” he shares. “If I see a young person reaching in to grab the plants for their mom – showing an inclination to help, I’ll tell them to come and see me when they’re ready for that first summer job. They’ll start with me while they’re in high school and I’ll have them at the soil pile or helping people out to their cars. It gives them a chance to learn by osmosis and me a chance to develop a team I can count on year after year.”

Van Wissen finds that by the time his young recruits have matured to join the front line, they know about the plants already and are quick to grasp the sales skills necessary for the front line. Product knowledge is a vital part of staff training, so pull the product fact sheets for the various plants together at the start of the season. Have a launch session where you show everyone what’s new as well as the features and benefits of each item. Features tell the customer what the plant does, but by listing the benefits, you’re telling consumers what’s in it for them. A feature might be that the plant is drought resistant. The associated benefit to consumers is that the plant takes less work to maintain. Post the product manual in the lunchroom where it’s easy for staff to access and read as they break for coffee. As an incentive, pay your employees to stay a half hour longer one shift to read over all the product information.

On the retail floor, make sure that your products have signage that speaks to the plants’ names, prices and optimal growing conditions. “We tell our team not to fake it,” says van Wissen. “They can always read the sign themselves when there are questions and we’re always close by to provide answers as well.”

When it comes to training staff on the operational aspects of your business, you’ll need to think about developing standard operating procedures (SOPs) to address things like point of sale equipment, materials handling, safety and respect in the workplace. When you’re dealing with young staff members, keep in mind they often think they’re invincible at that age. Part of a new team member’s initiation should include learning about proper lifting procedure, eye protection, gloves, footwear and what to look for on a safety data sheet. This is a crucial area so it would be wise to appoint a safety captain from among your veterans to shepherd the new recruits through the issues.

Once you’ve got the products and procedures down pat, that leaves the elusive third side of the service triangle to solve – adding value. So many businesses miss this piece but it’s the bit of retail magic that makes all of the difference. It’s why Lululemon can get yoga enthusiasts to spend $90 on a pair of yoga pants when they can get something similar at Costco for much less. “We prepare our staff for questions like ‘why should I buy this here when I can get it at the big-box store cheaper or why doesn’t this come with a warranty?’” says van Wissen. “We have developed sample scripts that help the team member point out to the customer that because we can’t control planting conditions, we’re unable to guarantee each plant’s success. However, staff is trained to reassure a customer that we will provide all the support possible to increase the plant’s chances of success and that’s our point of difference.” While van Wissen’s Garden Centre and Nursery has the sample scripts available, they encourage staff to express the talking points in their own words to ensure they sound natural and comfortable. Van Wissen also works with his team to look for opportunities to increase that average sale. “The staff is trained to ask the customers if they need some soil, fertilizer or bone meal to go with their plants,” he confirms. These are wonderful professional skills that will serve your younger team members well as they move onto other career opportunities and if you offer a great working environment – you’ll reap the benefit of that investment year after year. “I have employees that have graduated from university and gone into the working world yet they come back every spring to help out just during those busy weeks,” chuckles van Wissen.

Arguably the best training program is one that makes employees want to return to lend their favourite summer workplace a helping hand.

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