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The link between employee training and corporate culture, and how that impacts your customer base

By Belika Stein

After a year and a half of dedicated training and eating right, 21-year-old Jamie Kraig had gone from a size 18 to a size 8. Ready to purchase a pair Lululemon pants that until now she “never felt she deserved,” Kraig confidently walked into a Lululemon retail store in Ohio.

“I transformed my body, and therefore transformed my selfesteem,” said Kraig.

Having tried on a pair she liked, she then received unsolicited feedback from store staff.

“Although I was pretty content with the pair I had on, several employees gave me unwarranted suggestions on different styles better suited for my body based on assumptions they drew from looking at me,” said Kraig. “I never stated that I had issues with friction between my legs, or felt concerned about the amount of stomach control that the pants provided. Unwanted comments were made to me about finding leggings that would cater to these problems that I didn’t even know I had. It was clear that the employees assumed that I had these concerns based on my size.”

Feeling embarrassed and humiliated, she left the store without purchasing anything.

Heather Albert, a 36-year-old wife and mother of a toddler, had lost over 80 pounds with the help of surgery and diet. To reward herself for all her hard work, she decided to purchase a pair of Lululemon pants at one of their retail locations in Utah.

“So much has changed since losing weight,” said Albert. “I have more self-esteem, more self-confidence and most importantly, I feel healthier overall. I decided to channel my inner warrior and brave the retail store.”

But as Albert looked through the clothes, she overheard the sales associates whispering about her – the only customer in the store, allegedly saying, “Do we even have anything in her size?” and giggling.

“I was humiliated and felt that I was not welcome in the store. Moreover, I felt that I didn’t have the right to be shopping there because I’m close to the upper end of their size ranges,” said Albert. “I was so embarrassed, I just paid for the two items I had in my hand and left the store as quickly as possible. I wanted to be out of there.”

While these two events might seem isolated, attributed to some immature staff, customer experience expert, Marc Gordon, sees it another way.

“To me, both these situations are the result of a disconnect between corporate culture and training,” said Gordon. “Lululemon is a company built on fitness – and the image of fitness. Sometimes the image that a company wants to create can manifest itself in negative ways with regards to the communication skills of staff.”

At a quick glance, it may seem like HR is removed from customer relations and not directly responsible for customer experiences, as it’s better known for its hand in the internal workings and relations of a company. However, HR’s direct responsibilities include being the keeper of corporate culture and ensuring that employees are properly trained for their duties. When your front-line workers are interacting with customers in a way that contradicts your brand or they are poorly trained, your public image is damaged, and so are relationships with your customers. It’s critical that HR support frontline workers to make sure that your customers have a positive experience with your brand.

Gordon has worked with companies from multiple industries, helping them to create positive customer experiences. HR Professional sat down with him to find out his thoughts on how these stories came to be and what can be done to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Based on the way the staff in these situations communicated with the customer, would you say this is a company culture issue, or an employee training issue?

Marc Gordon: I would say that it’s a combination of both. I have always believed that employee training and company culture have to be in sync. One will be ineffective without the other. Think about a store owner that trains his staff to be polite, professional and customer focused, yet creates service policies that go against the very things he instils. This will render the staff powerless to deliver the level of service that they have been trained to provide.

So would it be fair to say that culture is the foundation of effective employee training?

MG: To a degree, yes. When you stay in a nice hotel, the staff greet you. Everyone from the general manager to the cleaning crew will show you the same smile and warm approachability. This is built on a culture that empowers each employee to embrace the role of company ambassador. From there, they are trained how to put this belief into practice.

“Ask front-line employees what the brand means to them – and what it should mean to their customers.”

How can companies effectively bring together culture and training?

MG: Company culture is a belief, and training is a process that supports that belief. For many companies with multiple locations and a wide hierarchy of management, culture can be impacted on a micro level. For retailers, the CEO may have a customer-first philosophy, and pushes it downward through management. He may even implement polices to support this. However, at the store level, overworked managers with budget constraints and high employee turnover may be more focused on keeping their jobs. All the feel-good messages from above mean nothing when they don’t feel they are given the resources they need. At that point, a new culture takes over at the store level – one of scarcity, fear or frustration. Training then becomes meaningless.

Based on this, what was the source of the problem for Lululemon?

MG: In the case of Lululemon, I have to wonder what the culture of each store is. In the first story, the staff were trying to be helpful, but seemed to lack training. In the second story, the staff were unprofessional, which may have either supported or ran counter to the store’s culture. That could also mean a lack of training.

Could Lululemon be suffering from bad culture?

MG: In any corporate hierarchy, it is important that each level of management embrace the values passed down from above. Internal resources must then exist to support this. For example, adequate staffing and inventory control. At that point, training comes naturally because all staff have already bought into the culture. They are just being taught how to translate that into action. We don’t know what the company culture of Lululemon really is. Based on their marketing, it seems to be about yoga, relationships, happiness and a healthy lifestyle. But based on the two stories, it seems more about looking good in a size 4.

So can Lululemon and other companies in similar situations use culture to improve training?

MG: Without knowing what their company culture is, I would start at the bottom. Ask front-line employees what the brand means to them – and what it should mean to their customers. Then report back to upper management. If there is synergy, then you know it’s likely a training issue. If the responses are all over the place, then there is clearly a company culture issue. If so, the next question would be, “What’s the message from the top and why is it not making it to those who deal with the customer?”

What would be your suggestion be to an organization regarding social media backlashes that come with negative situations like these?

MG: There are two options. First, publicly apologize, reiterate the company culture and terminate the employees involved. Second, do nothing. If not done right, going on the defensive can sometimes be viewed as an admission of guilt, opening you up to more scorn. Also, getting into a shouting match never ends well for the company. In most cases, I tell management to view this as a wake up call. Get their act together, earn the affection of their customers and let one bad story fall off the first page of Google.

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