Imagine if staff in your local supermarket were able to tell you not only where to find a product, but also where it comes from and how to cook it. That’s the vision of Maxine Dolan’s team at Tesco which is tearing up the training rule book to create higher levels of service. By Rob McLuhan
In the latest Management Today poll of Britain’s Most Admired Company, Tesco not only walked away with the overall award but also came top in the category of staff recruitment, development and retention.
"To maintain our number one slot we never forget we need staff who are the best in the business," says head of retail training Maxine Dolan. "That is what we want our training to deliver."
Turnover of new recruits, though no worse than average, was a concern, she reveals.
So two years ago the company took the unusual step of asking its 150,000 store staff – termed general assistants – what they actually wanted from training.
Through a combination of focus groups and interviews Tesco discovered they were virtually unanimous in disliking classrooms and preferred an on-the-job approach.
This came as something of a surprise, admits Dolan. "We found the way we had been training in the past was entirely inconsistent with what they were telling us about their preferences," she says. "We had been giving them a lot of written material, but they were saying, ‘We don’t like reading big manuals, we prefer someone to tell us what we need to know in short chunks and then give us a chance to practise’."
Rather than tinker with the existing training, Dolan and her 12-member team, based at Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire, decided to take a completely fresh approach.
Between May and November 1998 they came up with a new training framework which following a trial has now rolled out to all 700 stores.
The new system is based on three levels of on-the-job training that staff gradually work through.
It is cheap to run and quick to update, Dolan says, and enables store managers to adopt a pick-and-mix approach that provides assistants with the skills they need in a manner they are comfortable with.
"The challenge was to make the training feel as thought it had been developed for that store and for that particular group of people," she says.
The first tier, termed bronze, aims for a good basic level across the whole store and gets newcomers over the transition stage of joining a large outfit. It is designed to give staff the basic skills and knowledge to do the job, build their confidence, and introduce them to the Tesco team culture.
In addition to a general induction, the framework offers training in 25 specialisms, such as fresh produce, fish, bakery and deli, and gives staff the opportunity to learn more about the products they handle. But rather than trying to cover everything it focuses only on key items.
"In fresh produce, for example, about 10 products account for 75 per cent of all purchases," Dolan explains. "So instead of having a huge manual full of every fruit and vegetable known to man we aim to get assistants knowing enough about the main ones to be able to reply to customers questions with confidence." This might mean learning where asparagus comes from, when it is in season and the best ways to cook and eat it.
At the silver level staff learn about other products and receive coaching into how to deal with difficult situations, for instance placating awkward customers or handling stolen credit cards.
At the gold level they will become experts in their specialist area, able to help out with the their section manager on tasks such as deciding which products to discount.
An interesting finding thrown up by the initial research was that learners tended to fall into one of three types. "See its" prefer to see the object of the training being demonstrated.
But there are also "try its", who need to act out the work themselves, and "know its" who don’t feel comfortable with a topic unless they have the theoretical background.
In practice, Dolan says the majority turn out to be "see its", but in-store managers delivering training are made aware of the other two types and shown how to accommodate their needs, for example by giving them a chance to act out what they are being shown or, in the case of the "know its", by providing them with more in-depth material to study.
During the initial trials, staff were given a folder to help them keep track of their progress. But in feedback sessions these were found to be unpopular – they were too big to fit comfortably into lockers, and no-one read them anyway. So the team decided to replace them with a card that covers the essential points along with plenty of colour and illustrations.
"We had thought we would need to give people information to help them remember what they had been learning and it was quite a significant decision to go from giving them a lot to giving them nothing." Dolan says.
"That’s why this framework is successful, because we are prepared to listen to people," she adds. "When we understood what they were saying, we said, ‘Right then, we won’t do this’.
"A lot of training falls down because it is not sufficiently tailored to the environment."
Coaching in the aisles
In contrast to the old training courses based on workshops, store managers can now coach staff while they are walking the aisles and handling the products. That helps everyone feel they are actively engaged, rather than being back at school.
Doing away with written manuals makes regular updating more practical. At present this takes place every six months, but by next year Dolan aims to have the information up on the company intranet so that it can be updated on an ongoing basis, as well as providing easy local access to managers.
Another key characteristic is flexibility. Rather than having to complete every section at prescribed times, trainers can dip into it at will to provide individuals with what they feel they need to know.
"One of the framework’s strengths is that it can be used not just by a new joiner but to improve the skills of people who have been with us a long time," Dolan says.
Supermarkets seem to be constantly in the news these days, with accusations of profiteering and worries about adulteration by genetically modified ingredients.
So will the new framework equip staff with the information to reassure customers on these sorts of concerns?
In practice the situations change so fast that this is impractical, Dolan says. But although GM is not specifically part of their training, the company does keep staff up to date with what the customer is likely to be thinking.
Individuals receive a certificate after passing each level, based on a full evaluation session rather than a formal test. Instead of a pass or fail it is left to trainers to decide when they have reached the required standard.
The crux of any training programme is how visibly it adds to the bottom-line business value.
"At Tesco people are included as a key performance indicators, together with customers, finance and operations," Dolan says. "In my experience, not many companies do this at the moment."
Before and after
But Dolan concedes that setting up an evaluation process will be difficult, although she expects that before-and-after comparisons will eventually show an uplift in sales and reduction of waste. At present it is still too early to come to conclusions, as the training, though present in all the stores, has yet to cover all the departments.
"As training professionals one of our challenges is to be able to say what we do that adds to the bottom line of the business," she agrees. "I think we do add hugely, but because we don’t try to establish what it is, our contribution is sometimes underestimated.
"You will hear the commercial people saying their new branding or labelling has contributed 2 per cent to their sales and they are quite happy to claim that, where training people are still reluctant to talk in those terms. It is a different mindset."
The effectiveness of the training may be hard to establish in relation to sales, but clearly the obvious concerns have been amply met.
Dolan says, "The anecdotal evidence from assistants is that this framework is easier and more enjoyable than anything they have used before – those measures are there in spades."
1983 BA (Hons) Business Studies – Manchester Polytechnic
1984 Personnel officer, Landis and Gyr
1986 Regional personnel office (distribution), Tesco
1991 Training manager (distribution), Tesco
1995 Project manager (retail training), Tesco
1997 Retail training manager, Tesco
1999 Head of retail training, Tesco