“It’s almost Labor Day weekend, I’m shorthanded again, I’ve got two new-hires and I still need one more; and, as usual, I’m too swamped to train them, or even know where to start! What do I do?” Ever heard this before?
Is there any owner or manager of a small, medium or even large mattress store that has not had this dilemma more than once in his career? What retail furniture or mattress store in this country, large or small, has a surplus of phenomenally capable sales help? The answer to these troublesome questions is, of course, that virtually every store is constantly on the look-out for more and better sales help. But, even when you find and hire new, promising retail sales associates (RSAs) experienced or not, they still have to be trained before they can go on the sales floor.
DO MOST OF YOUR TRAINEES FAIL?
Training new-hires, as every small and large store owner knows, is a problem that never ends. Just when you think a candidate is making progress, suddenly one day he fails to show up for work and you never see him again. The wearisome repetitiveness of this process makes preparing new hires one of the biggest time-wasting, money-wasting and generally dreaded efforts any store owner can deal with. While there is no real solution, there are some actions that can reduce time wasted on failed candidates and thereby cut the store’s losses. And on a positive note, these actions are far more likely to produce what you really are looking for; the competent, loyal RSA.
SO, WHAT DO YOU DO?
First, let’s start by looking at an example which illustrates what seems to be a fairly common and not particularly successful practice. I once worked for a major, multi-city, multi-store mattress chain (now absorbed into a larger chain.) We had a dozen stores in the town where I worked. Even though the pay scale was generous for our industry, such was their turnover, that at least once per month, they would start a new, two week training class for new-hires. Each class might have as many as ten or twelve enrollees. The class was held at one of their busiest stores, right on the showroom floor and conducted by an experienced RSA (but not a certified trainer) who was, because of his duties as trainer, absent from the sales floor (when he should have been there) for at least half of the two week training period. The trainer spent most of his class time talking and lecturing. There were some limited written materials, but most of the information was presented in lecture form. Tests were given sporadically throughout the two week period culminating in a final exam. Even with that, at least half of the trainees usually “washed out” before the class was finished. Frequently, even the graduates would be gone from the company within a few weeks. You could probably count the successful candidates, the ones who were eventually effective on the floor and made the company money, on one hand by the end of the year. So, does that sound like success? It sounds like about a 5 percent success ratio, doesn’t it? The other 95 percent were a huge waste of time and money.
WHAT’s THE PROBLEM?
Why do so many RSA candidates fail? Is it the fault of the person who actually hired them? Maybe the applicants weren’t screened properly? Or, maybe there just aren’t very many good applicants out there to begin with. Some applicants make a good impression during the interview, and that is where their effort ends. They show their true colors when the real job starts. Or, is the training program itself the problem? Your new-hire is probably not a self-starter. He needs a tight, disciplined schedule. The weak training policy of many stores often does more harm than good.
MAYBE IT’S THE PROGRAM
After fifteen years as the owner (and now former owner) of several small mattress stores located in even smaller metropolitan areas, I feel like I can speak with experience, and maybe even some confidence, about this problem. Not that this article is aimed solely at this audience, it just seems like we small owners have more problems with new-hires. I could go off on a long tirade about the demographic dilemma that faces many small towns. It’s tough to find ambitious, talented candidates with initiative who are willing to start a new, uncertain job at low wages. I will save that discussion for another issue.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “So-and-so functions better in a ‘structured’ environment?” In the case of sales trainees, pretty much every candidate qualifies as “so-and-so,” meaning that every new hire needs to be told what he is supposed to do. Don’t let your poor new-hire, after filling out the W-4 and other necessary forms, wander aimlessly around the store for hours while you are doing a comfort exchange or paying bills. A structured training program would put them to work immediately without you being directly involved. It sounds good on paper, but what exactly do we mean by the phrase “structured training environment?” Let’s start by examining that phrase.
First, you need a disciplined, experienced trainer with real sales experience who understands your training program. This trainer should have some portion of his work day devoted to the training process, meaning that, during this devoted time, he doesn’t have to take time off the sales floor, or stop unloading trucks in order to perform his training duties. Does this individual have to be a full-time trainer? We’ll answer that in a few paragraphs.
Second, you need to prepare a full-time, rigorous class schedule that is ready to go the minute the candidate finishes filling out his or her paperwork. All courses should be defined, study material available and tests administered and graded to identify candidates who fall behind. Each and every day (and all day) should be organized so that each trainee knows exactly what is expected. There should be a training manual and a syllabus that explains the plan for every day for the duration of the training period, however long that is. Sounds a lot like high school and college, doesn’t it? Even if you think American public education is in crisis, it is probably more a crisis of current policies than the educational theory on which it was originally based.
I can almost hear the groans coming from store owners now. “I’m the designated trainer! I can’t even find one good salesperson, much less a dedicated trainer! How am I supposed to follow your well-intentioned but impractical suggestion? Emergencies pop up every minute of the day and I have to stop everything and handle them!” Well, yes, I understand the problem. As I said, I spent fifteen years in the same boat. I understand that the store owner is not only the educator but also the (1) lead RSA, (2) sales manager, (3) book-keeper, (4) warehouse manager, (5) advertising guru, (6) finance wizard, (7) and janitor (and who knows what else?) To pull all this off, you really must possess a stern self-discipline to manage your time. So, that just makes the structured program all the more important, doesn’t it? With the structured program, you don’t need to spend as much time with your trainees. The correct execution of the program should keep your new-hires busy and on the ball.
HOW DOES IT HELP?
It should be clear by now, to you, the busy store owner/manager/trainer, that anything that takes some of the load off your busy day should be welcome news. So, how, in practice, does a Structured Training Program help the harried store owner? Let’s ask the question again, “What exactly do we mean when we say “Structured Training Program?” Let’s give an example that almost everybody has some familiarity with. Let’s say you take a course, such as Interpreting Shakespeare, in your local community college continuing education program. You don’t just walk into class and find no materials and no syllabus. It’s all prepared right there in front of you, isn’t it? You just follow the plan and do what each class expects of you (or, even better, more than is expected of you.) Your instructor is probably not a full-time instructor, either. He probably has a day job. The school assumes that the student is an adult, and his success or failure is the result of the effort he applies to the course.
This example sort of describes your situation as the store owner/manager, does it not? You already have a full-time job, too. Therefore, you need a class plan that is already complete and in-place before you even hire new people. This structured class puts the burden of training where it belongs, on the trainee, not the trainer. When the trainees already know what they are supposed to study, every day, all day, the store owner/trainer spends little or no time babysitting his charges. In a college class, the instructor plays only a limited role, doesn’t he? He administers the course, lectures briefly, answers a few questions and grades the tests. Why shouldn’t the RSA training class work the same way?
WHAT DOES THIS PROGRAM LOOK LIKE?
That is a big subject, the details of which are probably too extensive for this essay. For that reason, we will only give a general outline. The big question is, “How do we construct such a program?” Before we start, let us define a couple of basic terms.
The act or process of selling retail (or selling anything, for that matter) can be thought of as comprising two distinct, but interrelated packages of information. These packages consist of two basic components:
• Passive Knowledge.
• Active Knowledge.
Now, please don’t think we are trying to rewrite sales theory, or invent any new concepts. The point of these definitions is to divide the learning process into more digestible segments.
The passive knowledge consists of the “five groups of knowledge” that John F. Lawhon defined many years ago in his book “Selling Retail”. These groups or categories are:
- Product knowledge.
- Knowledge of your inventory.
- Knowledge of your advertising.
- Knowledge of credit or financing.
- Knowledge of policies.
You could add another category which could be generally defined as “industry knowledge.” Mr. Lawhon did not invent these categories; he just grouped and defined them in a way that is easier to understand for the trainee. I refer to these categories as “passive” because just knowing them does not imply that any further action is called for. The groundskeeper might know them, or the book-keeper, but they won’t be using them on the sales floor. It’s kind of like studying your car’s automatic transmission by reading a book about it, but never raising the hood.
Active knowledge is the sales process itself, which is really another knowledge category all its own, with its own organizing principles. The sales process can use any part of the passive knowledge as a tool, when needed. Major parts of the sales process include:
- Greeting the customer.
- Qualifying the customer.
- Helping the customer select the right product for him or her.
- Presenting the features and benefits of the selected product to the customer.
- Closing the sale.
- Finishing the sale and doing a productive good-bye.
This “active” part is where you raise the hood and get your hands dirty. But, it won’t do much good unless you learn what the transmission looks like to begin with.
Now, I know that everybody in sales beyond the basest trainee is familiar with these concepts. I understand that, so don’t abandon me here. The point of this article is to analyze and figure out how to force-feed this information to the new-hire, as efficiently and quickly as possible. I know that you, the store owner, know this stuff, but how do you teach the new-hire, who is now on the payroll and devouring the company’s money. Don’t forget, every minute counts with the rookie. He needs to be educated as quickly as possible. At minimum, it will take three months to get this new guy or girl productive. Don’t turn it into six months or longer.
HOW LONG SHOULD TRAINING LAST?
Well, training never really ends, even for the professional. But for this discussion, we’re talking about the initial, intensive training that you must do before the new-hire takes his first “up.”
How long do you train new-hires? How do you know when he is trained? To answer this, let’s use a simple formula. Of course, to use the formula, you should understand what goes into the formula. First, how much do you want your new RSA to know before he takes his first up? This sounds like a tough question, and it is. But, here is a way to find an answer. The goal of training is to produce a productive RSA, right? The marker of when he is ready to go on the floor is his passing (or, preferably acing) the final test. I’d like to suggest that a lot of thought go into the composing of the final test. This test should reveal how much the trainee has absorbed. What material do you need to cover with the trainee before he is ready for the final test? Go back to the section on page 64 “What Does this Program Look Like” for an outline. Once you have decided how much material the trainee must cover to ace the final test, then you must analyze how much material the trainee can reasonably cover in one day. So, the equation is as follows: if you have 100 units of information that the trainee needs to learn and the trainee, by staying focused and busy, can absorb 10 units in a day, then the answer is: you need ten days for initial training. Note that this is just a formula. You should plug in your own numbers.
HOW DOES IT WORK IN THE REAL WORLD?
Now let’s talk about how to make this work in real life. Either during the applicant’s interview or when you offer the applicant the job, you should make it very clear to the trainee how the training process will work. Remember, the main reason you are reading this is to save time and money. Here is a list to follow:
- The trainee must be made aware that the burden of his education will fall primarily on his shoulders. He will have all the material available. It is up to him to use it.
- The trainee must also be made aware that the store expects visible and prompt results. Sales success is measured by results. I trust nobody disagrees with that. Sales education success should also be measured by results. This means the applicant must be tested regularly and consistently.
- The trainee must understand that the store will have a very low tolerance for failure or goofing off. Absence of or slowing of progress should be rewarded by early dismissal of the candidate.
- The candidate must be made to understand that the trainer will be available only at certain, pre-defined time slots. If the candidate has questions, he should write them down and ask them when the trainer is available.
- All trainees should be on probation for a certain period, usually 90 days or so. Even after the intensive early first couple of weeks of training, don’t ease up. It takes a long time to become a real professional in this business. Keep up the training even after the RSA has assumed floor duties.
- Everybody, even the guy with 10 years of experience (and probably 10 years of ingrained bad habits,) goes through the initial training. Please allow no exceptions to this rule. Your store is unique. Your products, policies, inventory, advertising and financing are unique.
- Set up a daily schedule which includes:
•The goals and study material for the day.
•Test times for the day.
• Allotted time slots when the trainer is available.
There is one point in all this narrative which, if you haven’t already figured it out, I cannot stress enough. It is so important that I’m going to write it in capital letters. KEEP THEM BUSY! Your new hires should not have any down-time while progressing through your new structured training program. If they aren’t kept busy, they are far more likely to get in your way, and their minds are much more likely to wander off into dangerous territory.
One other important point: ban all cell phones during the training period.
With this kind of program, you will achieve two important things. First, you won’t be fretting over your new-hires all day, and secondly, by regular testing, you can eliminate the non-starters quickly, before they cost you a lot of money and before they infect the other candidates with their attitude.
HOW DO I GET THIS SET UP?
Ideally, what you would like to have is a pre-built template which contains:
- The groups of knowledge in detail.
- The sales process in its correct sequence and place, in detail.
This template will allow you to plug in data that is unique to your store. It will create daily chores and learning tasks for the trainee and then generate a test so you can find out what they learned and even more importantly, what they did not learn. This is not quite as simple as it sounds. To my knowledge, no template of this type exists, so you will have to take the time to gather your information and build it yourself. Not only that, your store, its products, policies, inventory, etc. are always evolving, so it is a moving target that will never be finished. Getting a program defined and in writing, once and for all, however, will be a time and money saver for future training efforts. Don’t forget, your store, you hope, will be there for a long time. Your sales help probably won’t. You know that there is never a last time that you will train new-hires. Make it as easy as possible.
WHERE DO I FIND A PROTOTYPE FOR THIS PLAN?
Go back to the groups of knowledge and the steps of the sale to find a good outline. Fill in your unique details. Do this before you hire new people. You will not have time once you have trainees begging for your attention.
WHAT KIND OF RESULTS CAN I EXPECT, IF ANY?
Will this program produce better RSAs? Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Since success is almost always solely dependent on the drive and desire of the candidate, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that this idea will turn a mediocre candidate into a sales star. What it will do, however, is save you time, because your candidates should stay busy without your prodding. It will also save you money, because you will identify your dead wood early, before you over-pay them and get nothing in return.