Lessons From the Military for Improving the Retail Customer Experience
Retailing as a business model is being challenged by e-tailers and demands for an ever-improving customer experience.
Despite the pressure of e-commerce, traditional retail is still delivering some of the best customer experiences, leading to return business and an accompanying need to maintain the same levels of high service.
Surprisingly, military leadership and strategy skills can help retailers to deliver some of their very best customer-facing experiences. Critical to this success is how they can enhance the in-store and in-person experience.
Improving employees and their skill sets is the best way to enhance the customer experience. The military offers lessons in leadership, planning, and technology that can be easily and rapidly adapted to enhance the effectiveness of front-line business employees that are charged with delivering product.
Here are five lessons for retail, derived from military experience:
Train your team for the challenges of today and tomorrow. Training, both formal and informal, is a constant for the U.S. Army. Formal training is provided by a professional school, such as those that teach how to parachute or execute the basic skills of an infantry officer. All soldiers regularly attend such schools every three to four years throughout their careers.
Informal training ranges from professional reading to lectures and hands-on learning. Most training in the military takes a “do-as-I-do” approach, which reinforces the soldier’s ability to perform in times of stress. Training themes focus not only on the challenges of today, but also uncover and correct weaknesses in the organization, and identify future challenges. Likewise, training for retail teams is critical, because it both develops and retains talent, and ultimately delivers an improved experience to the customer.
Great strategy delivers by creating options for success. Strategy is about finding and creating options that reach a common goal or outcome. During my Special Forces training, our instructors loved the “what if this happens” scenario. What if your primary helicopter for medical evacuation fails to arrive? What if the enemy is twice the estimated size? To help anticipate and plan for all these possible “what-if” events, we had the P-A-C-E (Primary-Alternate-Contingency-Emergency) planning process. It requires the development of a minimum of four ways to ensure that steps critical to your plan’s success get accomplished. In my military experience, we were taught that “can’t” was never an option – we always had to find a way to accomplish the mission. P-A-C-E is a great tool for retail teams to drive creativity in any process affecting the customer experience, yielding alternative yet still effective methods for meeting the customer’s expectations.
Develop retail leaders that lead by example in all actions. The military places heavy emphasis on the concept of leadership by example. In the Army, the most senior leader always eats last, no matter what. Under the leadership-by-example principle, a leader ensures that every person is taken care of before himself or herself. Central to the practice is the idea of the leader as mentor and coach. The latter is concerned both with the individual player and the performance of the team. Retail leaders who sweep floors, help stock shelves, or deal with an angry customer serve as examples that their employees will emulate.
Train employees with high skills and promote initiative to deliver a world-class customer experience. The June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion hung in the balance during those first few critical hours. On the beaches, troops landed under deadly enemy fire, leaders were killed, and airborne soldiers dropped the night before were scattered and unorganized. How then, less than 12 hours later, was success achieved?
Two factors explain the outcome: high levels of training, and the concept of initiative. American soldiers were relentlessly trained in their own combat tasks as well as those of their leaders and the soldiers beside them. Furthermore, soldiers learned the tasks in classrooms, then perfected them on training beaches at night, in the rain, and in the snow, so they could be carried out correctly regardless of conditions. The concept of initiative took form in the expectation that soldiers must achieve success even when the plan fails. Train retail employees not only for their jobs, but for those of others as well. Retail training also needs to emphasize the importance of initiative, so employees know they are expected to adapt their actions to meet the needs of customers.
Teach your teams to improve themselves. The military uses the After Action Review (AAR) to learn from every activity. The purpose of the AAR is to help a team understand what happened, what worked and what didn’t, then formulate an improvement plan as a team to be better the next day. In retail, an AAR can be as simple as gathering everyone together at the end of a shift for 15 minutes to understand one or two challenges for the day. Team members discuss what went right in meeting those challenges, and what needs to be done differently the next time. In addition, AARs create employees who view problem resolution as their personal responsibility.
In the world of retail, working directly with customers is a rewarding experience. Understanding how to coach and develop your business team to become more effective and customer-focused, and produce better leaders for the organization, are the results of adopting military strategy and leadership techniques.
Chad Storlie is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer, author, and adjunct Professor of Marketing at the University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management.