Axonify NRF Big Ideas Session – Why frontline forward is 2021’s winning strategyWatch Video
Hello, I’m Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify, and I’m so glad to be a part of NRF 2021 today. You may be wondering why this session started with a video. Well, besides the fact the message behind it is so topical, I want to point out two little words that appear about 30 seconds in that I think perfectly sum up 2020 in retail.
And retailers have been right in the eye of the storm.
From keeping large, furloughed workforces connected through lockdowns, to making sure everyone knows how to stay safe, to preparing associates to keep providing awesome customer service with new fulfillment options like BOPIS, curbside pickup, ship from store and more—agility is THE must-have survival skill for retailers. And that means creating a frontline workforce that’s ready for literally anything.
If it wasn’t obvious before, it’s now crystal clear that business runs through the frontlines. The things associates do, and don’t do, absolutely impact how your business performs.
We’ve been honoured to work with some amazingly progressive organizations over the years who feel the exact same way. And we’ve seen them reap huge benefits by supporting their frontline workforces smarter. They figured out before the pandemic hit that their frontline associates are their competitive advantage.
They know that when you give your frontline people the tools to succeed, your business does too.
We’re so lucky to have two Frontline Forward business leaders here with us today: Dr. Mark Chrystal, Chief Analytics Officer at rue21 and Jonathan Andrews, Sr. VP of HR & Training at O’Reilly Auto Parts. These transformational leaders are going to share their unique stories of constantly adapting to the needs of their frontline and their customers through the change-on-steroids that’s been unfolding for almost a year now.
I’m excited to hear what they have to say, so let’s get into it.
Okay, so let’s dive right in. I’ve got a few questions for each of you that I think are really going to resonate with our audience. And so the first one is this and how about we start with you, Jonathan, I think I’m really curious to know, why do you feel it was necessary to invest in the frontline in the first place and perhaps you can talk about how that might have changed over the last number of years. And the way you think about investing in the front line.
Sure, Carol. Thanks. You know, I would start off by saying that automotive technology can be very complex and We have to do a very good job of training our tenure team members that have been with us for a long time. But we also have to as a retailer, you can imagine we have our fair share of turnover, when you bring in new team members that typically do not grow up in the automotive World, you need to do your best job or put your best foot forward to bring them up to speed on that technology because at the end of the day for us. The individuals that come to our stores are coming due to a problem and they need top notch customer service and we cannot have men and women at our store in our store, that cannot answer their questions or help them ascertain their problems and get them on the right right path. I think if you go back 10,20 maybe even 30 years ago, you would find that there was a larger population that enjoyed working on their cars had hobbies and there still are today. I’m not, I’m not trying to say that that doesn’t exist, but There were a lot more people that did that themselves. So fast forward to the day You don’t see that as prevalent so Knowing that’s our business and knowing those are still opportunities and that’s typically why customer comes to our shop, we’ve got to do an excellent job of getting that new team member or that older team member that didn’t, you know, change his or her oil or anything like that. We got to do our best job. To get them comfortable with the terminology comfortable with the processes and obviously be able to help the customer that walks in our store, I think another reason we invested so heavily in our front line is we’re spread out in 48 states we have over 80,000 team members. and we were looking for a tool platform, we could get a consistency in our message and our communications, whether it be on our culture. Whether it be product training, whether it be compliance related risk safety training. So I would say that was a big factor trying to have consistency from coast to coast. And certainly with any other acquisition. We take on. And lastly, We didn’t really have a direct communication link with our team members and I really feel that broadcast messaging. has done an excellent job of allowing us to connect with them on a day, weekly basis or, you know, monthly basis on the message that we need to get out, whether it be the state of our business. Whether it be thank yous, I think, in this covid world we were quickly designated as essential providers and our team members. Still have gone in those businesses, day in, day out. So we’ve used broadcast messaging from our CEO to our local leaders just thank our team members when they can’t get there and see them daily, and it’s also been a real help on the safety protocols How to, you know, the reminders on the things that we’re expecting, whether it be as simple as a mask or making sure the temperature Checking procedures are working flawlessly and consistently at a location. So those would be three things that that come to my mind why we we felt so necessary to invest in the frontline team member
Excellent answer Jonathan. Mark, same question to you and rue21 is just an excellent up and coming women’s apparel brand and the women’s apparel market is just incredibly competitive. Why do you think now is the time to be investing in the frontline
Yes, it’s so for us, we’re on a kind of a while we just really completed a turnaround journey. Since late 17 we’ve really been working to reconnect with the customer reposition the brand and really modernize the company, top to bottom.. And We went in and did some analytics. So we were seeing some stores really performing well and then we were seeing, you know, other stores, really, you know, not performing and as we dug in. What we realized was actually it was it was about the store associates in those locations, more than anything else that was impacting our, our business in those locations and we identified really a knowledge gap. And and the top performing stores had these these leaders and managers and associates that were extremely plugged in, and they were able to process the training we were giving them at the time, but we weren’t providing training that everybody could digest every associate can digest and take on board and and learn from and benefit from. from from a rue perspective, we’ve gone I think from being quite task oriented in stores and expecting you know that effectively the associates to be a bit plug and play in terms of coming in and doing tasks and And that was the primary value they added, merchandising the store moving the goods from the back room into the front and ready for sale to do the checkout And I think I mentalities shifted dramatically in the last few years, in particular where We now realize that, you know, we have to serve our store associates as much as we serve our customers and really make sure we’ve got great training for them.we’re trying to Educate, but also educate on a new way of working, and you and new brand ethos, etc. And so we really set out to find a tool set that would allow us to Improve the knowledge base of every associate across our chain and bring everybody up to a common standard that we needed in terms of not only how to operate the store, but actually how to provide really good customer service. And what good customer service means to rue21. And so really, you know, excited that we found Axonify and and it’s it’s been a raging success so far. And, you know, we’ve really seen a major impact in a short period of time.
Excellent. And you touched on something Mark that leads me to my next question, which is what would you have done if otherwise, if you hadn’t had the infrastructure in place and the ability to reach every associate with that you know consistency and corporate message, what would you have done otherwise.
We were producing an amazing amount of training materials on paper and shipping them out of our, you know, home office and thinking we were doing a great job on training because we just produced a lot of it. But it wasn’t great. It wasn’t as targeted we we literally had a 400 page training document for the store managers alone. And you know that’s that’s just, you know, it’s not how people learn there was too much for them to digest and and frankly because of the customer we serve, which is You know, largely kind of teenage to, you know, early 30s customer we tend to hire associates that fit that model as well. And that is not how that that age group wants to learn anymore. They absolutely want to be on a phone on an app.And so, you know, the we were just finding it wasn’t effective, even though we felt in the home office, we were doing a good job. And we were checking all the boxes. You could just see the performance and the uptake wasn’t happening in the stores and so yeah fundamentally, Different approach and we effectively eliminated all paper from our training. Now it has has been a big win. And we’ve seen with that shift just massive adoption, so You know, I suspect you know we were probably 15% of our associates were receiving that old training in some way shape or form. And now we’re, you know, we’re in the high 80s, in terms of the percentage of engagement across our, you know, many thousands of associates with training and we were able to actively monitor and see their knowledge level ground which is. Yeah, it’s been terrific and we couldn’t monitor that before we could just measure the results of the stores and and see those disparities that I talked about before.
That’s excellent. Mark, and in fact you reminded me of a visit. I did to a very, very large grocery chain. About eight years ago. Where the head of learning and development brought me into his office and had a boardroom table that was full of black binders and he said to me. Those were the training materials for store leaders and and some of the associates and that not a single page and those binders had changed in 25 years And that this was the way that they train people. So I very much resonate with that. Jonathan, same question to you, what would you have done in the absence of the infrastructure to be able to to deliver the way that you do now.
we would have continued to operate on our legacy platform. With failing participation levels, I would tell you that our participation level our past. Do we, in compliance was probably around 30% in compliance. The time the deadlines. We did so we would have kept with that cumbersome very non engaging platform certainly didn’t have any continuous improvement. Built in algorithm to know what you know what you think you might know, but you don’t know quite so well. So being able to reinforce those things. So it cracks me up to hear Mark talk a little bit because we would have been doing the same thing. Lots of manuals. A lot of this type of change. Lot of checklist, I mean, I’ll be honest in our stores we had new hire checklist. And that’s what the manager would use to bring on a new team member, you know, kind of a check the box thing. Not very engaging, certainly not what the generation that’s coming to work in retail wants to get what I really like about our current platform is how it has really made the on the job training. Right there together the two of them just merge very well and i think i think the whole thing was as a check the box from the manual checks and then you went right into the on the job training. There was no real reinforcement or another perspective.
I’m wondering now that you know you’ve kind of switched over the mindset has shift. You modernize the way you think about it. How prepared do you feel for the future, do you really feel and, you know, of course, it’s not a year have changed. Like, no year in history. Do you feel prepared that your frontline is prepared to be able to address just constantly changing situations, day in and day out. Through the way that you’re now reaching them, Jonathan. Why don’t we start with you.
I mean, I think you’re always looking for better methods of training and whatnot, how you can supplement anything, but I know this has been the most challenging year I’ve ever been through, in Almost 25 years of HR,I think the two things that we’re diving into and using our platform to meet the future challenges is We’re really focused on rolling out a customer service program through fast track or through Axonify And that’s not something we’ve ever done. And we will roll that out this spring. It’s called Rock the lot. And the issue is We will use through video and through training. We will show our team members what rock the locks and rock the lot and look like Checking the oil of other customers car reading the codes. Right. There’s a code reader, showing them how to do that. How you properly. Look at the belts. I’m getting real automotive Geek here on you but you know how you do these things and showing them versus telling them or through a checklist. We will have a manager actually do this. And then where the follow up needs to be with a professional garage. We will show them how that conversation needs to go so that that’s not something we would have ever done by rolling out a customer service program that we want all our stores to execute. Secondly, marketing is getting more involved. We have a number for proprietary brands. And our team members need to understand that all our proprietary brands are in the good better best Type format, you know, with different cost points. So we’re going to utilize the platform. And our marketing messages on how we better educate our team members to look at the differences and selling some of those products and the attributes that they each bring. That’s how we’re going to meet future challenges in that area going forward. But, you know, focusing back on this year. And what we’ve learned. To me, the future challenges is, this timely communications. You can’t overwhelm You got to be concise, but you have to have that constant communication with your teams. And that’s something through covid and through right now that will continue to utilize to meet future challenges.
So, very true. So, very true. Mark, same question to you, how do you feel prepared for the future. Do you, do you really feel like this has kind of changed your perspective and you’re better prepared.
Yeah, certainly, you know, through covid we’ve learned we’re actually quite a resilient bunch and we’re going to, we, you know, we’re able to roll with the punches and In and out of furloughs and stores closing down for a week and opening back up, you know, afterwards, I mean, we’re just, we’re just rolling with it and we’ve still been challenged with trying to move our brand forward our technology forward our capabilities forward. A great example of the training we did before. So we rolled out buy online pick up in store a couple of years ago.And with our old training methods, it took you probably two or three rounds of training for it to stick And even then bringing on new associates. You got to kind of retrain them and you know it takes multiple rounds for them to really understand what you’re trying to do and why and And so we were seeing very patchy performance in our, in our buy online, pick up in store, which was directly affecting customers who are coming into the stores that We showed it was ready for pickup and then they’d arrived at the store and the store associate to know what was going on. So, That was not a great experience and real example of the gap we had in training and communication and We’re actually going to roll out ship from store in the coming weeks, which is an altogether more complex process I was having a conversation yesterday with head of stores and And she was just incredibly comfortable and she’s like, you know with with this tool set I feel really confident that We’re able to get this training into the hands of every single associate really step by step, walk them through how to fulfill an order when to fulfill an order what their priorities are in the store when a ship from store order comes in versus a customer walking in the door and then also that reinforcement training as well to make sure that the there, you know, kind of constantly up to speed on on that technology and what we’re doing. And as we learn In that first few weeks of rolling out. I’m sure we’re going to want to adjust what we’re asking our associates to do And that would have been really painful. Before we go those big black binders being shipped out to stores to explain this change we want them to make. And now, really, you know, at the push of a button. We can we can alter that training on the fly. And, you know, and adjust what we want them to do and see the response and measure the response. And so that’s been, I think, you know, exciting development for us and gives us a lot of confidence in the technology that we’re rolling to stores and The other thing around covid is that we’ve also been changing our roles in the stores. We’ve been adding in different positions taking out different positions, depending on the time of year And and the needs. And and within you know a few minutes. Basically, we’d set up training for those new associates that our field team was starting to hire into the stores and pushed it out. And so as soon as they came in they had the training they need specifically for that role. And so it’s we’ve gone from these yeah these big black binders to actually really targeted training by associate which has been really critical, as we’ve moved through covid and now have the tool set to be able to kind of roll with those types of things very quickly.
Yeah. So true, so much has changed. and I’m just wondering if each of you, given your experiences has one kind of good solid piece of advice for other retailers out there. Given your experience having come now through this over the last, you know, eight or nine months that you think Is a great learning that others should be thinking about as they move forward.
I would say that whether you have that tool as a retailer, you need to find some way to have some type of broadcast message utilization I can tell you our team members of work long hours. We’ve been affected by the virus inside our stores inside our distribution office inside a corporate office. You need to be reassuring to your team members. And that’s how you can use a platform like broadcast message you need to be appreciative. for those that have that platform. That’s the thing that we’ve probably we always had broadcast messaging. I don’t know that we ever utilized it better than we did during this pandemic. And if there was only one other like 1.5 thing I would add to that, as you got to keep those messages adaptable. When you’re dealing with a Crisis pandemic, like we’ve been dealing with early on the guidance changed weekly, whether it be from the CDC, or whether it be from our own internal policies and changes we made. So you’ve got to be able to. Keep it adaptable. So you can quickly follow it up and leverage it as you need. So you keep the message fresh with the team members and accurate.
Yeah, thanks. Jonathan, great perspective. Mark any piece of advice for our audience.
I do think communication is one of the keys and Using communication to make the associates feel like they’re safe, they’re cared for their heard in terms of that, you know, navigating what we’ve just gone through and still going through They in turn will then translate that to your customers and and you just, you see the benefits in the business and we’ve seen that very clearly. And so I think that would be my my kind of simple my simple message there.
So both of you have referred to the need for frequent communication constant frequent communication with your team members and Associates. Maybe you can tell the audience how you’re doing that. How are you actually reaching those people with the level of frequency that you’re now doing Mark, do you want to start?
Yeah, sure. So, So we, we certainly implemented the technology on out through our POS app, but we also gave them the option to download on their own mobile devices. And actually what we’re seeing is that 96% of the training that we’re delivering is through a mobile device at this point. That’s where they want to consume it. It’s how they’re interacting and so it’s allowing us to To really reach our associates in a way that’s most convenient to them and and put effectively put that communication right in the palm of their hands. 85% of our Associates are actively engaged in training we roll this out, actually, with our loyalty program. So we furloughed and closed our stores in March and April as many retailers did And as we opened every one of our new stores, not only, you know, do we have the, the new requirements of covid to contend with, and all the safety measures. That we decided in our infinite wisdom to also roll out a new loyalty program at the same time and have to kind of educate all of our associates on how to How to deploy that at the same time and used this technology to do it and and it was incredibly effective, we have a loyalty program is has been a wild success we’ve we’ve got almost 3 million Customers enrolled on that loyalty program in only, you know, eight or nine months. And and we just wouldn’t have been possible without this type of technology right in the palm of their hands.
That’s amazing. So, so making it accessible. And then what it sounds like a tremendous business benefit that resulted from that and Jonathan, same question to you. How are you, accessing your team members and have you seen a business benefit.
Yeah, very interested in hearing Mark and the mobile platform. It’s something we wrestled with early on. You know, we took the approach of point of sale for a number of reasons. Due to the Wi Fi, the inability of having Wi Fi and all of our stores across the country at that time. I think it is something that we will cross over in the coming years. So we just took the safe route but Our expectation is our team members come into our stores is they spend the first 5 to 10 minutes interacting with Axonify or fast track online, as we call it, and Obviously, the new team member has a much different path and it’s probably spending a lot more time on the platform. In their early weeks on the company but but I’d say the benefit is by far, been our turnover and We have seen lowering turnover I would tell you we’ve seen a five to 10% drop in our turnover, since we introduced this platform. we certainly think the way we’re training today has helped deliver some of that result.
That’s Amazing. A drop in turnover can be significant cost savings. Thank you Jonathan.Well, that was the end of my questions and gentlemen, I want to thank you so much for being willing to share your time and your advice To the audience through this. I know you’re both incredibly busy and we appreciate such great partnership with each of your organizations I can’t thank you enough. And also thank you to the audience. It has been anything but a normal year and we’re all stretched from a time perspective beyond anything
In closing, I know there was a lot of information to take in over the last half hour, so let me quickly recap the top takeaways from this insightful chat with Jonathan and Mark:
- Associates can’t be overwhelmed – they don’t function well when there’s too much information. Timely communications are key.
- Feed associates fresh, accurate information to help set expectations
- Improving associate consistency helps make every store your best
- Think mobile first. Today’s associates need information in the palm of their hand
Those are the things you’ll want to remember as you start thinking about how your own organization can adopt a Frontline Forward mindset to your advantage in 2021. (pause)
So thank you for listening and if you want to hear more please head on over to our booth. And members of the Axonify team will be happy to help with. You can also go to axonify.com and we will certainly be in touch as quickly as possible. In the meantime, be safe, be well and be very kind to the frontline. Thanks everybody.