In this example essay we explore a possible response to a question about whether training is likely to be the best way to improve the performance of a retailer's workforce.
The essay question is:
To what extent is training likely to be the best way to improve the performance of a retailer's workforce?
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Whenever we visit a shop we hope (and perhaps expect) to receive a high quality of customer service from store staff. But, is training the best way to ensure that shop staff (and their management) perform effectively? Or is there a better way?
A reason why training might be the best way to improve the performance of a retailer's workforce is that the quality of customer service is at the heart of successful retailing and this requires sustained investment in all types of training. The role of staff in retail environments has changed significantly in recent years. Not only do they need detailed product knowledge; they also need to be familiar with digital systems inside the store as well as online if their employer has a multi-channel approach. Store staff increasingly find themselves dealing with customers who are visiting the shop simply to learn more about the products but with the intention of buying via a different distribution channel (e.g. through a smartphone app). So training has a crucial role to play in ensuring that customer expectations are met. For example, induction training might focus on helping new staff become familiar with store layouts, transaction systems and online options. Continuous on-the-job training might help improve performance by making staff aware of all the products in different departments. Off-the-job training could improve performance by taking staff out of the shop environment to train them in handling difficult customers better. So whilst training is often expensive, it can be seen how it leads to staff better-placed to deliver good customer service, which itself should improve a retailer's performance if it leads to to higher levels of repeat visits or recommendation. Of course there is no guarantee that training will have those positive benefits on performance. The training programmes may be poorly designed or delivered; they may be for the wrong staff at the wrong time. And of course a major problem for training in retailing is the high levels of staff turnover, which may mean staff leave soon after completing their training and before the retailer's performance benefits from the investment made.
To explore a counter argument, might there be a BETTER way than training to improve a retailer's workforce performance. For example, could financial and non-financial methods of motivation be more important than training? And what about the role of recruitment and selection which takes place before training? There is certainly a strong argument that before training can yield benefits, a retailer must first get its recruitment and selection right. Attracting the right kind of staff to meet the person specifications in retail is challenging, particular since much employment in retail is temporary in nature and staff regularly move from one employer to another. A new recruit with the right experience and/or personal qualities should respond well to training, whereas a poor recruitment decision may in turn lead to wasted training costs and minimal performance improvement. Similarly, the quality of customer service in retail must be closely linked to how motivated staff are, which in turn will be influenced by the attractiveness of financial and non-financial methods of motivation used. For example, a retailer may find that offering particularly high-levels of sales-based commission is more motivating to a store employee than a place on a training course. To take another example of non-financial motivation, the use of job rotation (e.g. working in different sections of a store) and empowerment (e.g. giving store staff authority to make customer service decisions) may have a significant effect on customer service levels and, therefore, retail performance. Of course there is no guarantee that any particular method of motivation will improve performance in retail and much depends on whether the overall employment package is perceived by the employee as being competitive. The levels of customer service can also be impacted by other factors outside an employee's control, such as the physical environment of a store. You might also argue that good training helps shop staff achieve higher levels of commission and other financial benefits, which further emphasises the importance of training.
In conclusion, my judgement is that, whilst training is an important part of improving workforce performance, it is not the best way. I justify this conclusion because of the vital importance of recruitment and selection in service businesses like retailing, together with the role that financial motivation plays in retaining the best staff. The effectiveness of training is to a large extent determined by the "raw materials" involved - the people attending. If a retailer fails to recruit the right kind of employee, then training is unlikely to be so effective. Similarly, if the reward systems offered by a retailer are not competitive, then many potential benefits of training on performance are likely to be lost through poor staff retention. By way of balance, this is not to say that training isn't a vital part of many retailer's human resource management strategies - it is. The graduate recruitment and apprenticeship schemes of major retailers in the UK all shown how important training is seen by senior management and not every employee being trained actually works in the stores! And of course we might debate what is meant by the "performance" of a workforce. Do we mean the way that retail staff interact with customers (in which case training can be very important) or do we mean the financial performance of a retailer? However, overall I feel that the best way to improve a retailer's performance is likely to be through a combination of effective recruitment, selection and employee retention, supported by competitive rewards and non-financial motivation. Retail staff who motivated and incentivised to "close the sale" are fundamental to any measure of workforce performance.
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