Playing to win

Fast-expanding retailer GAME has transformed training for its 4,000 employees in a bid to maintain its high-street dominance.  Guy Sheppard talks to new head of training Malcolm Knight

Retailer GAME Group plc appears to be winning the battle for high-street supremacy in sales of video games and computer software. The company has expanded from 280 stores two years ago to more than 490 now and it expects to reach 600 within 12 months. Gamestation, which has more than 100 stores, is its closest rival.

Such rapid expansion has inevitably placed strains on the way GAME functions and training is undergoing far-reaching changes as a result. A year ago, Malcolm Knight was appointed head of training and development shortly after the arrival of a new HR director Carolyn McMenemie. Both positions were newly created.

The training department now has an annual budget of nearly £300,000, paying for a series of initiatives designed to ensure staff offer customers unrivalled product knowledge and service.

Before Knight’s appointment, the training department consisted of a training manager and two trainers who were heavily dependent on an in-house training manual called ‘Excellence in practice’. Although this still remains the basis for training most of the 4,000 staff, delivery has been transformed by the arrival of Knight and two extra trainers.

“The point about GAME is that we are selling a commodity, so the main differentiator for us is our staff. What was missing were management skills such as leadership, time management, assertiveness and customer focus. As the company grows, we need to ensure people are developed to match the needs of the business,” says Knight.  

Extra manpower

The extra manpower means training is much less bound to head office, with each of the four trainers now directly responsible for around 100 stores each. They spend most of their time in stores organising workshops, coaching sales staff and training managers to do the coaching themselves. Knight says the trainers work closely with regional managers, looking at their objectives and how they can achieve them through specific coaching rather than blanket training covering the whole country.

“We are quite fluid in our approach to training, depending on the local need. A region might have a couple of under-performing stores, for example, so perhaps our trainers would focus on those outlets.”

Knight, who is responsible for recruiting sales staff as well as training them, says enthusiasm for video games is not a prerequisite for doing the job. “We want customer-focused sales staff who are very enthusiastic in their approach,” he says.

Managers go through each section of the training manual with new recruits, mainly using role-play during quiet trading periods to demonstrate particular skills. With seasonal staff, this process is condensed into four weeks.

Progress is monitored through individual training plans that managers are expected to review every quarter.  Knight says one of the dangers of promoting such plans is not being able to meet the training needs they highlight. “People get fed up where a recognised need for training does not get followed up,” he says.

He aims to encourage a personal sense of responsibility for training among employees through a ‘learning zone’ at head office where a wide range of training materials are on offer to staff. “There were probably only five or six training books in this organisation before I came,” he says. “Now we have a massive range of books and videos that head office staff can make use of.”

He says at least a quarter of the 250 head office staff have already borrowed materials even though the zone’s official launch will coincide with the company’s move to Basingstoke at the beginning of May.

“The Learning Zone is a comfortable area with armchairs, videos and PCs. People can either borrow equipment  or use the area to chill out.” The materials provided cover all the generic competencies needed in the company such as marketing, project management and buying as well as the languages used in the company’s other outlets across Europe.

Knight says part of the zone will be devoted to personal development subjects totally unrelated to the business. He is planning to extend access to the facility to non-head office staff as well, delivering materials they request by post or courier. “Not everyone wants to go to one our workshops to learn things,” he says. “Some people would sooner take a video home or borrow a book.”

Executive training

This explains the creation of a new-style training programme for head office managers later this year. About 20 different subjects will be covered including objective setting, basic communications and appraising staff.

“These are guys that often can’t always find the time to go on a two-day course so we’re looking to introduce two-hour, short, sharp sessions throughout the year,” says Knight

Most of the workshops run by the training team are designed in-house and the learning zone is proving a useful source of material, he says.

Knight says his objective has been to design and deliver a range of training programmes to meet the specific needs of each section of the workforce.

“We did lots of meetings with staff at head office and with regional managers to start identifying their needs. If you buy training in, it’s often very expensive and not geared up to the audience. The way we design it, it’s quite interactive and good fun. We can’t have something that is too stuffy or it will turn people off.”

One of the few training packages that have been bought in is Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership II programme. This is targeted at GAME directors and all the company’s trainers are now accredited to deliver it.

Knight says it is still too early to accurately gauge the impact of the new initiatives in terms of absenteeism and labour turnover.

Low vacancies

“We do have high turnover among sales staff, but the work is quite seasonal and we do not struggle to get people to work for us.” However, there are currently only seven vacancies for store managers among GAME’s 360 outlets in the UK and Ireland.

Last year, a ‘mystery shopper’ programme examined areas such as how well staff identified customers’ needs and informed them about the company’s various offers.

“It showed us where they had and hadn’t improved and there was an overall improvement in service,” says Knight.

Because Knight is responsible for recruitment of store and distribution staff, he says training is well integrated into the company’s HR strategy.

“I see the HR director every day and work with her to set the HR objectives for the year. When you look at things like succession planning and under-performance, it means that everyone is going in the same direction rather than having a fragmented approach.,  he says.

At the same time, he says increased investment and the range of new initiatives introduced over the past year have raised the profile of training throughout the company.

“Two or three years ago, training would have been sucked into the HR department whereas now it’s almost seen as separate and it’s much more visible,” says Knight.

Malcolm Knight

2003    Head of training and development, GAME

2000    HR executive, Kwik Save

1999    HR consultant, Somerfield

1998    Regional training manager Kwik Save

1996    Regional trainer, Kwik Save

1994    Store manager, Kwik Save

1984-87           Management positions with various retailers

Knight’s crusade across Europe

Apart from 360 stores in the UK and Ireland, GAME has 130 stores in Sweden, France and Spain following acquisitions in 1999 and 2001.

Knight says he aims to provide a supporting role to these Continental outlets, but is wary of trying to impose anything because of their different cultures and operational methods.

In-house training workshops and parts of the ‘Excellence in Practice’ training manual have been translated into French and Spanish and last month Knight went to Spain to organise workshops in how to train sales staff.

“I am learning Spanish and one of my training managers is learning French. We’ve just had the French HR manager over here for a couple of weeks and the Swedish one is about to do the same thing. They take away any things they like and after that it is up to them.”

He adds that although the feedback about the manual has so far been positive, much of it will need modifying because of differences in employment laws and cultures.

New thoughts on NVQs

The first four sections of GAME’s training manual are currently being cross-referenced for NVQ Level 2 in retailing accreditation by a support agency. A bid has been submitted to the Government to help fund this.

“I would like to think we can start to trial it in the next three months,” says Knight. “It costs about £800 to put someone through the award so we need to make sure it is right for the business and is connected to our objectives.”  

If successful, Knight plans to do the same with the fifth section of the manual, which covers the role of store manager, and make it compatible with a Modern Apprenticeship in retailing qualification.

Around 35 staff are already doing NVQs in subjects such as team leadership and business administration. This follows several open days last year promoting the idea of doing NVQs.

“Enthusiasm for NVQs was higher than we expected and now people have seen the benefits of doing them, we reckon that take up will be high in future,” says Knight.

He says implementing retail NVQs coupled with relocating the head office will dominate much of his attention this year, but in the longer term he hopes to introduce  coaching and mentoring initiatives as well.

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