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Are managers presenting the company's best face to the customer?

By Bob Mason, rlm@planleadexcel.com

What image does your company present to the customer? More importantly, what image does that question bring to your mind? Commonly, leaders think of store fronts, attractive displays, clean floors and windows and high-speed information systems. But, there's another part of the image that's very important but too often overlooked: the associates. At some point in a customer's shopping experience they will interact with an associate who can make or break the customer's relationship with the company.

Everyone knows that right? That's why the associates are trained to smile and say hello, why there's a dress code, why the company hires a mystery shopping service to make sure those associates are friendly, courteous, and helpful. But think about the last time you were in a store. Did you think the associates you interacted with were just going through the motions, or were they genuine?

A 2008 Gallup survey indicated the most common reasons employees in the United States quit their jobs are things managers control. Couple that with the extremely high rate of turnover in the retail industry (over 3.6 million people quit retail jobs in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) and these questions take on added importance. So, are your associates really putting your best image to the customer?

A lot of things influence associates to stay or leave. One of the most common cited is pay and benefits, especially with health care in the national spotlight. These are serious considerations; your associates are trying to make a living and it often isn't possible on what you pay. Can you afford to pay them better? Many corporate leaders point to very tight margins and say no, but look at it from a different perspective. Those unhappy employees are costing you money now! High turnover is expensive. Beyond that though, unhappy employees are not providing the best customer service and that, while extremely difficult to quantify, is also expensive. Associates are wondering why you expect them to see themselves as a valuable part of the company when the company doesn't treat them as though they have much value. Many of your associates are single parents and they want to pay the rent and buy something extra for the kids every now and then.

While the issue of pay and benefits is something that must be addressed at the corporate level, there are other issues that affect retention. If you honestly surveyed your associates, what would they tell you?

Some would complain they don't feel truly valued. This issue has historically been a factor across all industries in employee's decision to leave. When managers dismiss an employee's suggestions without serious consideration or even feedback, or treat them as a tool to be seen and not heard, the result is an unhappy employee ready to bolt at the first opportunity. That attitude can be apparent to your customers as well and is even more common among the Millennial Generation.

Others will tell you they can't handle the schedule. Not that they don't want to work at night, or on weekends. They understand that comes with the job. But they would like to know when they're working week after next. It may come as a newsflash to some store managers, but their employees have a life outside the store and some of them even like to plan those lives more than five days in advance. Also associates don't like closing and rushing home so they can try to get a few hours of sleep before they have to open the next day. Yes, that happens!

Many will tell you they are just tired of being treated like children, or worse, like prisoners. Some of them actually say that! Too often your associates endure managers who talk down to them, are disrespectful, and even worse, verbally abuse them, sometimes even in front of customers.

These three examples point to the root of the turnover problem. To be blunt, the retail industry, as a rule, does not train its managers to manage the human resource. It's rare for department, or even store managers to receive much, if any training in leading people. As a result, their emphasis is always on what they see as the bottom line. Ironically, ineffective leadership negatively impacts that bottom line. There's a more insidious effect as well. These managers are the ones training new managers, so the lack of leadership ability is passed on to new managers. Those who come in with some leadership knowledge find that isn't the way it's done and their knowledge quickly becomes dormant. When they raise questions, they're told "that's just retail."

All this paints a pretty negative picture, but it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, it's pretty easy to turn this around with just a few simple steps. First, add some leadership training to your management training program. Help managers understand people's needs and what motivates them. Start by helping them learn those things about themselves. Train them in the basics of leadership and help them understand how those concepts apply to their job.

This type of training is often called soft skills because these concepts usually can't be plugged into a formula or laid out in a spreadsheet. Quite simply, your managers lead people and people are individually different. A leader must be able to apply leadership techniques that are appropriate to the situation and the person involved. The idea of treating everyone equally is good, but leaders should understand that means giving everyone the same consideration while responding to each individual's unique needs, motivations, and situation.

Whether they realize it or not, managers are leaders and their ability, or lack of ability to lead has a big effect on profits. Are those effects positive or negative in your company?

Bob Mason is a speaker, trainer, and author of "Planning to Excel: Strategic Planning That Works." After 30 years of leadership experience he founded RLM Planning and Leadership to transform leadership by developing great leaders. Mason works with organizations that want to excel by training managers to lead and creating great strategic plans to keep leaders focused. See what he can do for you at planleadexcel.com or contact him at rlm@planleadexcel.com.