Today’s Retail Workforce Management: Beyond Automation and Cost Savings

by | Aug 8, 2011

I spent some time reminiscing with my wife this week about my career in Retail Workforce Management. Actually, I think she did very well to keep eye contact as long as she did, and apparently it’s not at all what she had in mind for our anniversary dinner.

My earliest introduction to WFM was color coded magnetic “slugs” stuck next to employee names on a steel board in a supermarket corridor back in the United Kingdom. On my very first day on the job at a tender 16 years of age, I was immediately horrified as I leant against the magnetic board knocking off most of the slugs, and inadvertently providing the formidable office manager her chance to give me my first scheduling lesson.

As I worked my way up through the ranks, I got my hands on the new home-grown green screen mainframe scheduling solution. It was run on a computer that wouldn’t look out of place in the villain’s lair in a James Bond movie. Did it work? Well almost, and only if you had infinite patience, endless time to devote and a backup process on paper just in case.

Next came the even more modern UNIX-based solutions: finally, time and attendance and scheduling on the same system. The downside was that you had to be able to remember a series of unmemorable key strokes and shortcuts only bettered by airline check-in desk workers. This was at the point where if asked “do you know anything about this new system?” and you happened to be the one that nodded and still eager to impress… Congratulations! You were the new WFM expert for the company! Did it work? Yes, if you didn’t mind endless manual cross checking and tedious schedule edits, but at least we got rid of the paper.

In the late 90’s I left retail to join a vendor in the United States helping to bring to market the first Microsoft Windows-based solution. Heady stuff. We were all swept away with the ease of use and amused by stories of employees rubbing the mouse on the screen! Did it work? Locally in store, yes, and for the first time I actually felt good about the solution I gave to the end users which, coming from the store management myself, remains important to me to this day. But, without central controls, it was always going to be difficult to administer.

Finally, came the internet, and we now have web-based solutions that have been designed holistically, integrated, centrally controlled, scalable, flexible, functionally rich, modular and easy to use. In fact, the solutions you use today represent a new landmark. They finally work exactly the way the sales people suggest.

What else has changed over the last 25 years? Well, the reason you, the retailer, buy and invest in the solutions.

Up until the last economic dip, I challenged retail executives to show me where on their past WFM Request for Proposals they ask the solution “to facilitate a legendary customer experience”. Over my career, I have seen literally hundreds of RFPs for WFM and almost without exception the reasons for purchase have revolved around automation, cost control, speed, scalability and the need for lots and lots of functionality. Don’t get me wrong, these are and were very valid reasons, but I think we can all agree these requirements have been realized.

Today, I suggest the sole reason you now buy a replacement WFM solution or invest in evolving the ones you already have are to deliver your customer experience. The experience that satisfies your customer’s needs, that resonates locally and positively changes their buying behaviors, and ultimately matches the promise you have publically made about what your brand stands for, to the point where the customers feel emotionally invested. As advocates, they become a marketing force for your brand, telling their friends and family about how their local store and their favorite employee went above and beyond, helping to acquire new customers, and firmly retaining the ones you have. Yes, we have to do this cost effectively, and yes, we have to be compliant at all times. But, think about this idea in terms of your brand and how you deploy your people.

My question for you today is this: How are you going to align your brand promise and the delivery of an exceptional customer experience to your WFM strategy?

Diving deeper:

  • Do your labor standards support what you say you will do for your customers?  
  • Is your staffing model truly customer-centric?  
  • What percentage of your time is really spent customer facing?  
  • Do your deployment rules actually facilitate employee/customer engagement?  
  • Is there a correlation between schedule coverage levels and customer satisfaction / loyalty?  
  • How are you measuring the success of your WFM strategy in these terms?

Is it really a success if you get to the end of the week and the forecasts were accurate, the schedules looked operationally acceptable, the sales were close to your target and the payroll budget was spent? What if one quarter of those customers walked out the door dissatisfied because they couldn’t find an employee? Or, what if the employees didn’t have a single moment to have a meaningful and authentic interaction with a regular customer that week? Or, what if your customers simply couldn’t find the products they desired and left empty handed?

I hope you’ll join me to continue these conversations in subsequent posts. For each question I’ve posed there is an opportunity for you to explore and harness. Our recent work with clients and partners is now yielding the links between a well aligned and executed WFM strategy and an increase in customer satisfaction. We know by segmenting your customers that driving customer satisfaction and loyalty will in turn increase shopping frequency, basket size and long term sustainable and dependable growth. We are confident that the return and financial impact is significant and obtainable. I look forward sharing our results.

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