Retail is in trouble. Here’s how associate knowledge can help.

It’s been a tough year for retail. Ascena (Dress Barn, Ann Taylor, Lane Bryant), Hudson’s Bay (Saks, Lord & Taylor), JC Penny, Sears and Kmart are shuttering hundreds of stores. Macy’s and others are cutting thousands of jobs. Nine major retailers alone declared Chapter 11 in the first three months of 2017. It’s no wonder The Atlantic is calling 2017 the year of the Great Retail Apocalypse.

Retail Store with Clothes

The world has changed and the demands have never been greater for brick and mortar retailers to cut costs, reduce shrink, defeat competitors, grow omni-channel, and improve customer experience in the face of online competition. It’s overwhelming! But retailers who are thinking with an agile mindset realize it’s also an opportunity—one that the most successful organizations are using to propel their companies to the front of the pack. What are they doing differently? They’re focused on customer experience and building the knowledge and expertise of the front line workforce that provides it.

Consider these stats. According to a 2016 CEI Survey, 86% of customers are willing to pay more for a better customer experience and, by 2020, customer experience is expected to overcome both price and product as key brand differentiators. In other words, customers are buying products based largely on how they’re treated by your people. It’s about knowledge: customer preferences, product knowledge, sales knowledge and customer service knowledge. If your associates don’t have it, you’re already losing out.

Knowledge as a Competitive Advantage

Not understanding how to truly improve the customer experience leaves you at best, undifferentiated from the competition and at worst, perceived more poorly. You want that competitive advantage, and employee knowledge is the way to provide it. In a recent Tulip survey, 80% of customers believed they were more knowledgeable than associates and nearly that same number (79%) said that associate knowledge was important to them.

Customers simply expect more than they ever have from both you and your associates. And if you want your associates to deliver, you need to transform the way you train them. Morning huddles, posters or infrequent classroom-style training sessions don’t impact behaviour because they don’t keep up with the pace of business. Without reinforcing the information you provide to them on a continuous basis, your associates won’t remember details that will help them transform a poor or mediocre customer service experience to a superior one that customers will remember and value.

The bottom line is that you need nimble, responsive knowledgeable associates who are engaged in your company and given frequent opportunities to learn as much as they can about your vision and your products. Make that happen and you’ve also got an irresistible combination for any potential customer.

Engagement matters. Big time. Want to know how your efforts are stacking up? Take the quiz to find out if you’re effectively engaging your frontline.


Engaging Associates in Learning and in Your Company

Take U.S. big box retailer At Home. When the company transformed from a small pottery company to a home décor superstore in a mere 24 months it needed a way to get its 3,000 employees spread across 100 stores up to speed fast. The company also needed a way to handle the massive onboarding requirements of its rapidly expanding store presence. The answer? The company brought in a new way of learning to the associates. Every shift, At Home associates take 3-5 minutes of training at kiosks in the breakroom. The learning platform learns what each associate knows and doesn’t know and repeats training questions automatically during future sessions until the system is confident the associate knows the correct answers. This ensures when associates are on the floor, they know exactly how to respond properly to a variety of situations.

The result? At Home stores that show higher associate knowledge levels on the learning platform also show an increase in the most important performance driver: sales and conversion. On average, these stores have 10% higher associate knowledge levels and achieve greater sales per week. The retailer also boasts a 36% drop in safety incidents and a 90% reduction in onboarding time—from six months to just four weeks! There is also a growing thirst for knowledge among associates. 78% of associates completed regular compliance training within two weeks of rollout and 94% participate regularly in voluntary training on everything from customer service to the company mission and values.

Building quick, accessible knowledge

At Home is not the only retailer that understands the importance of associate knowledge. Successful upscale retailer Bloomingdale’s has realized more than $2.2 million in savings per year since 2012 by focusing on learning that is woven into every shift and engages associates through leaderboards, points, rewards, and questions. The company also insisted on a training system that gave it the ability to push messages to associates quickly and consistently since associates don’t have a corporate email. The efforts paid off. When the company received word of a possible terrorist threat, it was able to successfully push active shooter training immediately to several thousand employees and know exactly who viewed the content.

Building an Employee Knowledge Database

Other retailers are also delivering regular associate training through existing mobile technology or POS systems so they don’t have to take their associates off the floor to participate. More fascinating, they’re leveraging this same technology to provide instant knowledge on demand at the point of need. Your customers want answers to their questions. How about a knowledge database where your associates can locate information at the speed of Google and respond to customer inquiries instantly?

Remember how critical the shopping experience is to sales and customer retention? This is crucial stuff. 72% of customers claim they have a better shopping experience when a store associate uses a mobile device to access product information or inventory and nearly 50% say that a store associate who can suggest products based on a quick search of their purchase history would bring them back to that store.

Imagine leveraging that kind of associate knowledge! Imagine the sales that could result. Imagine being one of the retailers to flourish while others fail.

But remember, your brand will only thrive if your customers love the experience. And they’ll only love the experience if your associates do too. Learn more about how better EX drives the best CX.

Carol isn’t your typical leader. She’s driving a revolutionary approach to employee knowledge, but she’s also a doors-open, come-see-me-anytime kind of executive. Carol doesn’t just talk the talk—she definitely walks the walk. You can read more from her on Training Industry Magazine, ATD, CLO and as a regular contributor for Fortune.

Looking for more information? We’d love to talk.