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The Importance of Soft Skills in Retail

  • 4 Min Read

Modern learning-powered soft skill development can help propel employee engagement and better customer service.

Digital disruption has reshaped every business sector to varying degrees, although its impact has arguably been felt most acutely within the retail environment, and that’s made developing key soft skills in front-line staff more important than ever for today’s retailers.

According to Deloitte, 56 cents of every dollar spent in U.S. brick-and-mortar stores—approximately US$2.1 trillion—is now influenced by digital technologies. Digital has empowered retail customers, who have become increasingly fickle as brands compete for their attention. A study, for example, found that the average shopper now regularly uses between five and seven retail channels.

At the same time, e-commerce giants like Amazon are redefining what constitutes a great customer experience by remaining in constant contact with their customers. By contrast, a typical brick-and-mortar retailer interacts with its customers an average of only six to eight times per year. While the prognosis for traditional retailers might seem dire, they still possess one resource that can serve as their salvation: Their employees.

In this age of escalating digital disruption, the customer experience has become a key competitive differentiator for traditional retailers. Front-line retail employees are the primary custodians of that experience— 68% of consumers say it’s absolutely critical or very important to interact with a salesperson who understands their preferences or needs.

However, high employee turnover is an issue for traditional retailers. According to recent statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor, 53% of retail employees left their job in 2016, up from 46.1% in 2012 and well above the 41.9% turnover rate for U.S. businesses overall.

This kind of employee churn has significant financial implications for businesses, with one study from the Center for American Progress suggesting that the typical cost to replace someone earning $30,000 or less a year is 16% of an employee’s annual salary.

It’s against this backdrop that retailers should focus more of their attention on the development of key soft skills in their front-line staff.

Soft skills in retail

In its 2017 report “The Future of Work: The Augmented Workforce” Deloitte noted that “skills such as empathy, communication, persuasion, personal service, problem-solving, and strategic decision-making are more valuable than ever.” Janette Marx, SVP of Adecco Staffing US, the agency that commissioned the study, noted the need to teach soft skills in order to strengthen the United States’ workforce.

This is particularly true in retail, where employees represent the front-line of the customer experience.  Poorly trained, dissatisfied, or disengaged workers can have a staggeringly adverse impact on business, whereas retail employees who are engaged in their work naturally provide better customer interactions than those who don’t:

Learning and development plays a key role in keeping retail employees engaged. The good news is that today’s employees, particularly the millennials that comprise more than one-third of the U.S. workforce (and growing), are interested in on-the-job learning. In fact, they look to learning and development as the most valuable benefit available in potential employment opportunities.

By leveraging learning and development to help their front-line employees to develop key soft skills, retailers can boost employee engagement while improving the quality of their customer service interactions and, ultimately, increase customer loyalty.

Here are 10 essential soft skills for front-line employees:

  1. Confidence
  2. Positivism
  3. Empathy
  4. Respectfulness
  5. Proactiveness
  6. Innate friendliness
  7. Flexibility
  8. Ability to multitask
  9. Patience
  10. Articulate

How can a modern learning strategy help?

Modern learning—utilising tools like video, mobile learning, gamification, coaching and mentoring—is aligned with how these younger, modern-day employees want to learn, typically providing just-in-time learning that can be accessed when required. It can be particularly effective when incorporating elements of brain science, such as situational learning, which allows them to improve on-the-job skills without impacting customer interactions.

Social Assessment™—a system that leverages contemporary social learning and collaboration tools to solicit continuous feedback—is a particularly effective and engaging modern learning strategy that retailers can use to help front-line support staff improve their soft skills by better measuring the impact that training has on their development.

A 2015 report from the Harvard Business Review revealed that millennials are 50% more likely than non-millennial employees to seek out employer feedback, with the majority wanting it monthly. Social Assessment offers a framework for providing regular, cost-effective mentorship and coaching at scale.

Read our ebook “Social Assessment™: New Ways of Learning, A Modern Framework for Feedback” to learn more about Social Assessment and how you can use it in the workplace.

Read the ebook

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