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Retail Reset: Dealing with a Tight Labor Market While Keeping Existing Frontliners Happy

A customer has a question but can’t find anyone to help. When they finally track someone down, the employee doesn’t know the answer. Maybe the employee pages someone. Or, if you’re lucky,  the employee has a walkie-talkie and they call for help. Then, everyone waits.

Hopefully, someone gets back to them in a reasonable amount of time. But the whole time, the customer is frustrated and getting more unhappy with each passing second.

For the employee, the experience isn’t any better. They’re stuck dealing with an unhappy customer and their frustration mounts too.

With the high turnover rate leaving fewer experienced frontline workers spread so thin, scenarios like this are happening more frequently. Employees become increasingly disconnected and disengaged in their work and may just choose to move on.

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Sound familiar?

What it doesn’t sound like is a recipe for providing the superior customer service today’s consumers demand. Yet it’s these front-line workers that are the ones your customers engage with most and set the tone for the shopping experience. Customer interactions with frontline workers leave lasting impressions — positive or negative — and determine the customers’ likelihood to shop with a business again.

EY, formerly known as Ernst & Young, says that 57% of consumers choose a brick-and-mortar retailer predominantly based on the customer shopping experience. Every interaction holds the potential to impact overall customer satisfaction and long-term customer retention.

Adopting New Technologies to Keep Frontline Workers Engaged

There’s been a lot of discussion about how to retain workers. Ideas include offering additional wellness benefits, mental health services, more flexible schedules and reducing workloads. Few are even talking about the role of technology in reducing stress for frontline workers. Interestingly, providing better technology to make their jobs easier outranked all of the other items: 46% of frontline workers say tech is key, only coming in behind better pay (64%) and more paid time off (50%).

Retail is dominated by younger workers from Generations X, Y, and Z. They have grown up with information at their fingertips and have high expectations for technology that makes their lives easier.

In today’s retail environment, multiple tools can substitute for traditional methods. Voice-enabled apps are quickly replacing expensive walkie-talkies and intercom systems. These apps let frontline workers access a wealth of information, including product information, inventory and promotions.

This allows employees to get the information they need quickly while continuing to work heads up and hands-free. At the same time, they stay connected with a larger number of coworkers. In some cases, they’ll have direct access to workers at other locations. If they have to check if something is in stock at another store, they do so instantly. They may even have access to product specialists or corporate staff regardless of their location.

When employees have fast access to the information they need, your frontline workers feel empowered to better serve your customers.

Connectivity with coworkers is another powerful way to supercharge your frontline employees. It acts as a force multiplier that lets employees learn from each other and find the right person with the right expertise.

Almost every store has that one person who’s been here for a while and knows certain products inside out. The right tech allows every employee to tap into that person’s expertise. If they are using voice apps, that product expert doesn’t even have to stop what they’re doing or leave their location to provide the insight a customer needs. Even if they work at a different location, the right tech tools can connect your in-house expert with associates in other stores.

Here’s another situation that happens. Store management decides to make a major change to store policies, but not every employee gets the message. They might be off during the day it’s announced or they didn’t look at the new sign posted in the employee lounge. So they end up telling a customer the wrong information. This can cause all sorts of problems.

Communication is key, of course, but how information is disseminated and how available it is for employees is a crucial component. Today’s tech lets you distribute information to every employee electronically, even leaving a voice or video note. So if employees are off one day or work a different shift and miss an announcement in the morning huddle, they’ll still get the information they need.

Tech is also helping to reduce ramp time for new employees. Rather than sitting through training sessions learning the information they may or may not need, you can get employees on the floor faster. Knowing they can get what they need fast gives them more confidence in dealing with customers because everything they might be asked can be answered quickly.

Engagement is Key to Employee Satisfaction and Performance

When employees are engaged and feel empowered, the results can be dramatic. A Gallup study showed that highly engaged employees outperformed others by 10% in customer ratings. Companies with highly engaged teams were as much as 20% more profitable than their peers.

Engaged employees are more productive on the job and less likely to be absent. Even in industries like retail, which have significantly high turnover rates, highly-engaged workforces reduce turnover by 59%. That means less recruiting, hiring and training for retailers, and more experienced frontline workers to manage customers more efficiently and effectively.

The Secret Weapon for Keeping Frontline Workers Engaged

The rise of eCommerce has put a big dent in store traffic and revenue. 2021 set online sales records. Despite rising costs, 2022 is outperforming monthly year-to-year comparisons with 2021. Consumers today expect the same level of service when they’re shopping online or in person. Retail stores need to be able to provide the same level of depth and knowledge consumers can find on their computers or phones, and do it with a smile and personal attention. Your frontline workers need to be empowered with the tools they need to do that.

You are trusting your frontline employees to represent your company well and create great experiences for your customers. And don’t forget about the employee experience. Whether we like it or not, the great retail reset is in motion. Tech can be your secret weapon in keeping frontline workers engaged.

As retailers continue to struggle to fill positions, the best way to deal with massive labor shortages is to keep existing employees more connected and happier, making them more effective at serving the customers. If you do this, no one ends up frustrated and standing around waiting for answers.


Kimberley Drobny is an experienced Marketing and Sales executive with a passion for creating dynamic and engaging customer experiences across all channels. Throughout her career, she has led high-performance teams to support strategic initiatives across the enterprise to increase brand awareness and impact overall business growth. As the CMO at Theatro, she is focused on breaking into new markets and helping enterprises digitally transform frontline communications.

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