Let’s face it: Retail is a notoriously challenging industry when it comes to creating a great workplace. From its largely part-time and seasonal workforce, to high turnover rates, and to an often decentralized structure, engaging employees in a meaningful way can be difficult, to say the least. But doing so is critical to business success today, especially for retailers seeking to attract customers to their bricks-and-mortar stores amid a wealth of online shopping options.
For the past 20 years, we’ve studied the best workplaces in the world, largely as a part of our research in selecting the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For in America each year. And we have found that while challenging, building a “Great Place to Work for All” at retail companies — and at their close industry counterpart, hospitality — is not impossible.
In fact, the great retail and hospitality companies have cracked the same code. What they have found is a customer experience that differentiates them from their competitors is rooted firmly in the power of their people — all of them. To that end, many of these companies believe that all employees, especially those on the front lines, should be treated as well as the customers they serve.
That’s because authentic customer care can only come from someone who is authentically cared for themselves. Picture the cashier who has just been berated in the back room by his or her manager, coming out to help a customer with a challenging transaction. How can that employee show up and provide genuinely great service to the customer?
Most likely, they can’t. Research shows that it’s very difficult for people to move on from an interaction where they felt disrespected. These feelings fester, and can ultimately have a negative effect not only on the employee, but on the end customers’ overall experience of the business and brand.
However, many companies are creating a positive experience for employees and customers alike. Hilton is a recognized 100 Best Company that has gone to great lengths to do just that. As a part of a much broader initiative toward improving the team member experience, chief executive officer Chris Nassetta requires all executives to participate in a weeklong “immersion program,” where leaders work on the front lines alongside cooks, housekeepers and front desk agents. This not only prompts executives to walk a mile in the shoes of hourly team members, thereby developing a deeper understanding of the frontline experience, but to get a feel for the on-the-ground customer experience as well.
Hilton has also invested in brightening parts of the property that guests don’t even see, such as break rooms and staff locker rooms. These upgraded facilities do more than just inspire team members to treat guests well. They also send a message to all of Hilton’s people that they are highly valued team members.
These actions aren’t just good for team members. Hilton’s own analysis shows that these and other improvements in the team member experience are positively correlated with business metrics including customer satisfaction, property loyalty and overall guest service.
At cosmetics retail giant Sephora, a recognized Best Workplace for Women, employees are inspired by a higher calling than simply pushing product. Rather, the company’s mission is to “inspire fearlessness” by helping women feel more confident. As such, a running theme of empowerment permeates the company from top to bottom, as the feeling they want to inspire in customers is cultivated in employees themselves.
For example, every employee has a tailored development plan with actionable items to help them get to the next step in their career. Sephora also nurtures innovation at every level, using a program called “Idea Central” to allow employees to submit ideas that peers vote on to test and innovate — and many are implemented. At the corporate office, employees can also sign up to attend half-day Hackathons, where they tackle a current business challenge the company is facing.
These practices don’t just position the company for greater success against competitors (our research shows that companies that are Great Places to Work for All are four times more innovative than less-inclusive counterparts). They also send an important message to employees: No matter your level in the company, we believe you are a valuable contributor, and your ideas matter.
As a Sephora customer, I see this in my own experience with the brand. I find that employees approach me confidently to ask if I need help when I enter the store, and consistently demonstrate a deep knowledge about any one of their hundreds of products that I may have questions about.
As one Sephora employee shared with us, “What makes this company unique is how employees can express themselves and be who they can be. It is a place where we can find ourselves. This company not only helps customers or clients feel confident, but also their employees.”
In a nutshell, this employee’s sentiments reflect what makes the brand authentic for anyone who touches it.
Leadership perspective: More powerful than programs or policies
These positive experiences at Hilton and Sephora come from something more powerful than the various programs. While the programs are important, the full experience is driven by an overarching philosophy that all employees are highly valued members of the organization and are integral to the brand — this comes from the top of the company.
This is, in part, because great leaders understand that frontline employees are the ultimate arbiters of the company’s brand. They also understand that there is an inseparable connection between customer service and employee experience. They are two sides of the same coin.
Leaders from any industry can reflect on their beliefs about employees, to help guide their treatment of employees and, by extension, the customer. Programs and policies aside, there are everyday actions that go a long way toward building a Great Place to Work for All. For example, how do managers speak to employees? Do they communicate with the same level of patience and respect as they would a customer?
Another litmus test is observing how managers speak about frontline employees when they are not present. Are employees regarded as highly responsible adults who are deserving of respect and capable of greatness, or as people who need to be kept in line and cannot be trusted? If it’s closer to the latter, your employees may be having a negative experience of work — and this will be reflected back to customers.
Ultimately, the strength of a brand relies on how customers and employees alike feel when they are engaging with the organization. In order for customers to think your brand is truly great, employees need to believe it, too.
Jessica Rohman is director of content at Great Place to Work and co-author of the just-published book, “A Great Place to Work for All.”