Few retailers welcomed 2009 with a smile. In planning how to chart troubled waters, Ian Tomlinson of EPoS and e-commerce solution provider Cybertill recommends a seemingly counter-intuitive strategy. Rather than shedding staff, he advises retailers to invest more in training and developing their people. This makes sense in good times, but becomes critical when retail falls on hard times.

That means employing the right people, then focusing on training, motivating and communicating with them so they engage completely with the business, feeling a sense of shared ownership and accountability for its survival. Here Ian shares a few remedies for success when it comes to treating people not as a cost, but as your most important business asset.

'We're all in this together'

Hold frequent briefings and share management information with your staff. Give them the opportunity to ask questions and have the confidence to open the business to them. Make its workings and finances transparent, and remove any sense of 'us and them'. Being candid with them, treating them as adults not children who can't be told harsh truths, will make them more loyal.

A roadmap for change

Highlight areas that need to change, demonstrate how you plan to manage any downturn and work together on strategies. Make sure staff understands the effects of their actions on the business. Encourage candour and give them challenges and the chance to come up with ideas and tactics based on their front-line experience. Even if the business is struggling, staff will worry less about losing their jobs if they feel part of the solution not the problem

Train to gain

More than ever before, it's important to know how each member of staff is performing. At a time when training budgets need to be cut, you and other business owners will have to shoulder much of the task of training and counselling. Look to get more from your staff, and support them in their move to more demanding roles. And whilst you may not see a recession as a time to consider professionally-accredited programmes such as Investors in People, they can contribute a lot in terms of consistent processes and staff involvement.

Recognise and reward talent

As budgets fall and pay restraint is required, it's nevertheless important to reward talent and outstanding contributions. Employees still need to be compensated for their expertise and for going the extra mile. Lack of recognition is damaging, so make sure to single out star performers and let them to enjoy the admiration of their peers or positive customer comments. At the same time, the slowdown may enable you to recruit staff of a calibre you couldn't previously afford.

Customer service is back in fashion

Exemplary customer service is no longer an option and should be considered a life-saver rather than a cost. It's maybe time to return to a world where goods were sold, not simply displayed for self-service. Staff passivity should be a thing of the past. Train your till-point operators to ask did customers whether they found everything they were looking for. Have a member of staff on the shop floor, gently asking browsing customers the same question, and motivate call centre staff to up sell offers or complementary items before a sale is concluded. All these approaches will unearth interest or unfulfilled purchases that can be acted upon.

Make staff your front-line lookouts

Build feedback mechanisms, formal or informal, for staff to report their impressions on what works and what doesn't. Put to good use observations on where customers linger and handle goods, then buy or don't buy. Monitor how customers react to promotions and record any anecdotal comments they make.

No one enjoys a recession and, with the barometer of sales directly reflecting diminishing customer confidence and spend, retailers are less cushioned than their peers in other industries. For them, a downturn is obvious and more brutal. Nevertheless, retailers can turn hard times to their advantage.

Working more closely with employees can engender a greater sense of solidarity and enable owners and managers to dip into a pool of talent and ideas. As staff become more empowered and driven to do a better job, they will become better informed and more motivated. Customers will notice the difference, and your business might just come out of the downturn in better shape than it entered it.

About the Author:

Ian Tomlinson is the Founder and Managing Director of Cybertill Limited, a provider of managed EPoS and e-commerce solutions for retailer of all sizes and in all sectors.