How Homebase grows its own skills

DIY retailer Homebase recently won a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show, thanks to the efforts of 20 of its staff. Here, managing director Paul Loft explains how this hands-on approach is boosting business.

From the arbor area, overlooking lawns, walkways, and special sunken dipping ponds, it’s difficult to imagine that crammed into the 10m x 10m x 22m Homebase-commissioned show garden at last week’s Chelsea Flower Show are 4,700 plants (everything from irises, roses, borage, rhubarb and kale), full-sized trees and 28 tonnes of Yorkshire quarried stone. But even more phenomenal, argues Loft, is the fact that the whole thing was put together by 20 of the chain’s staff – under the careful eye of garden designer Adam Frost. It even won an Royal Horticultural Society gold medal to boot.

“It’s hard to imagine what the chaos of Chelsea is really like,” says Loft, speaking exclusively to Personnel Today. “Everyone else [there are 15 show gardens] is building at the same time – with cranes and diggers all over the place. It’s taken our 20 staff 20 solid days to put this together, but the result is a garden and set of people I couldn’t be more proud of. It’s tremendous.”

Developing experts

While largely commissioned as a consumer-facing exercise – to show how extraordinary spaces can be inspired by your local Homebase – Loft says the garden also symbolises the firm’s commitment to develop staff to be experts in the areas in which they work. Each colleague working on the “Sowing the seeds of change” garden has either completed, or is studying for, Homebase’s garden licence training scheme. This is a year-long course, which since 2011 has been accredited to City & Guilds standard. Already, 500 employees have completed it in 2012, with a further 1,000 currently going through the course.

Choosing the RHS Chelsea Flower Show – perhaps the biggest horticultural stage in the world – to demonstrate how the training equips staff with what it takes to succeed was a massive gamble. Professional gardeners have tried and failed for years to win Chelsea spoils, but according to Loft, the fact that his staff have managed it (and won) shows the value of the qualification.

“Some of the staff here will have never built a garden from scratch,” says Loft. “But what they’ve shown, and what I crucially believe, is that our development gives them the knowledge to understand plants and be enthused. They see how plants work together; it gives them the bigger picture, and it rubs off on customers.”

It’s not difficult to see why this matters. Some 25% of Homebase’s sales are from the gardening section, and the firm is on a broader journey of transition to position itself as the place where customers can come and get the service and knowledge they expect.

Customer service focus

“We’re on a massive programme to promote service as being at the heart of the business,” explains Loft. “When people come to our stores to fix their gardens, it’s vital they know they can talk to someone who understands what they’re talking about. Customer research told us that most people find horticulture confusing and are less likely to ask about specific plants. What they say instead, however, is that they want to know what suits shady or warm conditions, and then which plants go well around them. Our staff have a huge responsibility in being able to meet these customer demands.”

While Chelsea may be the showpiece, this philosophy isn’t just in gardening, but throughout the business.

“The future really began when Homebase opened its refurbished Ruislip store in October last year,” says Loft. Replete with special zones kitted out with “create your own” touchscreens that allow customers to upload pictures of their own home, so they can “virtually” decorate it with different colours, the new store takes the business from pure DIY to interior design, and a roll-out programme to convert as many stores to include interior design advice has just begun. Fourteen more will open this year alone. Significantly, they will all be supported by a team of City & Guilds-trained interior designers – with three or more per store.

“I firmly believe knowledge gives staff a tool to do their jobs enthusiastically,” says Loft. “Sometimes businesses expect their staff to transform without giving them what they need to do it. This is absolutely not the case with us.”

Customer feedback

Supporting this is a programme being rolled out called “Paint us a picture”, where customers (not mystery shoppers as previously used), are asked to give feedback on staff all the time. Trial stores have already reported yielding 1,000 pieces of feedback a month, and this is put straight back into staff training.

“Stores were getting good at passing the mystery shop test, but not providing consistent service all the time,” remarks Loft. “Right now, we’re calibrating what great service means, and will be able to compare stores’ and managers’ performance.”

The aim, of course, will be to improve sales. At the Ruislip store, it has already demonstrated 20% sales uplifts, increased customer densities and “strong, positive customer feedback.” Says Loft: “We don’t want customers coming away wondering why they bought stuff; just that they bought the right things, and from a point of view of being serviced properly.”

The likelihood is that they will. All staff – not just those directly involved – are now being briefed about the details of the Homebase garden, and are ready to be able to talk to customers about it.

Stores are even equipping some customer service leaders with earpieces and microphones, so that when customers have a query, even those not dealing with it can hear what sort of advice their colleague is giving.

All of this input is far away from images of uninterested staff not engaging with customers that some other large multiples carry. But Loft says he is confident that even if people still hold this view of Homebase staff, they will soon notice the difference: “The big step-up will happen when people see and experience the new refitted stores,” says Loft. “We want to show our customers that our people get things done.”

For more on learning and development, see Personnel Today’s buyers’ guide on the topic.

XpertHR also has a range of information and resources on training.

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