8 Minutes of reading

Why teamwork is an essential soft skill in retail

The retail sector has experienced unprecedented upheavals over the past couple of years. Successive lockdowns during the pandemic, compounded by the supply chain issues brought about by Brexit, have had an adverse effect on the sector’s sales and profits, leading to redundancies and causing many workers to leave the sector.


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According to retail leaders, the resulting skills shortage in the retail sector has become critical. A staggering 94% of retailers are worried about talent shortages in the sector, with confidence in the clothing, automotive and attractions industry being particularly damaged.


However, it’s not all doom and gloom. While e-commerce has certainly experienced a boom during the pandemic, the good news is that UK consumers are still attached to the high street, which retains one key advantage over online shopping: its ability to offer an enhanced customer experience.


As the retail sector begins to rebuild itself, how can retailers ensure that they attract and retain the best talent? Focusing on teamwork might just hold the answer.

 

Why teamwork?

 

While hard skills, such as product knowledge and tech literacy, are an important foundation for retail professionals, soft skills like teamwork are equally essential.


That’s because retail workers often have to juggle a variety of different tasks, from serving customers to merchandising and dealing with payments and returns. Regardless of the size of the retail outlet, the most efficient way of achieving these tasks is by working together.


Encouraging team members to work together has a range of benefits. It encourages staff to listen to one another, which promotes empathy and means that individual members are more willing to be flexible.


And when your team are working together seamlessly, the positive atmosphere creates a great impression on your customers and is likely to translate into repeat visits and purchases.


As mentioned above, what gives retail the edge over online shopping is that it can offer an unparalleled customer experience – which all starts with teamwork.

 

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Teamwork in detail

 

So, what does teamwork really mean in practice? What are some key teamwork skills that you can develop in your existing and future employees?

 

Conflict management and resolution

Retail jobs are known for being stressful, given that there are often competing priorities at play. Employees may have to deal with conflict in the form of a challenging customer.


Retail workers therefore need to be able to have the confidence to address challenging situations. They need to be able to listen to the customer’s point of view and find a solution, all while looking after their own wellbeing in the process.


Active listening is a good way to develop conflict management and resolution skills. Conflict often arises from a miscommunication. While it can be tempting to jump in and resolve a situation as quickly as possible, this might escalate the situation if the other party feels that you aren’t listening to them.


Active listening is about taking a step back and making the other party feel heard. Exercises in active listening can easily be integrated into group training workshops.


For instance, you could split your participants into pairs, where one is the speaker, and one is the listener. The listener isn’t allowed to say anything at all, but just listens. Have the speaker talk about something for 2–3 minutes (e.g., a life experience that changed them, or someone who they admire). Then, have a debrief. Did the listener find it difficult to refrain from intervening? Did the speaker feel listened to, even though there were no responses? What kind of non-verbal cues indicate that the listener was being attentive?

 

Mediation

Similar to conflict resolution, mediation is a more structured way of resolving a dispute. It therefore relates to conflicts within teams or individual staff members, rather than customer complaints.


When we talk about workplace conflict, this doesn’t have to involve full-blown disputes but simply friction between two employees. While this might not seem like much of an issue, it can have a damaging effect on morale and create an ‘us’ and ‘them’ scenario within the team. How can you reduce grievances within teams and create a more harmonious working environment?


One way is to do a mediation role play exercise. Have two of your employees play competing parties in a fictional dispute, with the rest of your employees as the jury. The jury start by standing in the middle of the room. Each party then takes it in turns to present their side of the story. At any time, a member of the jury is free to move to stand in front of the party who they support.


For example, let’s say the claimant feels that the respondent isn’t pulling their weight at work: they arrive late, they were rude to a customer the other day and, when confronted about this, were very defensive and stormed out.

 

Initially, the respondent doesn’t have much to say for themselves. At this point, some of the jury might already be convinced that the respondent is in the wrong.


The trick is to gradually add more and more detail to the story, to make it less one-dimensional. For example, when probed about the incident with the customer, the respondent reveals that the customer made a personal remark to them, which they found particularly upsetting. Moreover, they have recently taken on some unpaid caring responsibilities to look after a family member who has become ill, which is making them feel exhausted and irritable. Does this new information change how the jury view the respondent?


The aim of the mediation exercise is to show that understanding and empathising with a team member’s point of view – rather than making assumptions – is key to mediating conflict.

 

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Exchanging ideas

Sharing ideas is another important component of teamwork. While some team members might be full of ideas and confident enough to contribute them, others may be a bit more reluctant. How can you create a working environment in which everyone feels comfortable making a suggestion and giving their opinion?


Put creativity on the agenda: encourage employees to voice their suggestions for how to improve sales or customer satisfaction during team meetings. Place equal value on good and bad ideas: while employees often think that their idea isn’t worth sharing if it isn’t perfect, the point is to stimulate creativity. Plus, a ‘bad’ idea can often lead to a better one when you start unpicking it – why doesn’t it work, and what would be a preferable alternative? If staff are still reluctant to speak up, having a suggestions box is an anonymous way of stimulating creativity.


Trial new ideas: demonstrate that new ideas are valuable by putting them into practice. For instance, if an employee has suggested showcasing a particular product range because they think it will sell well, give it a go. Treat your staff as experts in their field and let them apply their expertise.


Have an open-door policy: you want your employees to be able to approach you with new ideas and feel that you respect and trust their judgement. Make time for them and view all staff members as trusted partners. Part of this is being open and honest yourself. If their idea hasn’t been received well, for example, can you share some of your own mistakes and learning curves with them?

 

Cooperation

Your employees might see themselves as team players, but are they actually cooperating as much as they think? For example, let’s say that an employee is due to finish their morning shift in a couple of hours and an order arrives early. Technically, dealing with the order is the responsibility of the afternoon team. The temptation is to leave it for the afternoon team to deal with – but how can you create a culture of mutual generosity in which employees regularly go out of their way to help one another?


Recognise and reward team players: has someone overstayed their shift to help a team member? Or have they implemented a new process to make life easier for everyone? Recognising and rewarding good practice is key to ensuring that other employees follow suit.


Set team goals: to encourage team thinking and move away from individualistic behaviours, why not set team goals? You could even gamify this and have a leader board, where teams compete against one another for sales of impulse items or the number of sign-ups to the shop’s mailing list.


Encourage employees to learn from one another. Everyone has unique skills and knowledge to offer. Think about how you can embed a learning culture within a team – such as through mentoring and shadowing initiatives.

 

Why creating a good team ethos is good for you and your customers

 

Effective teamwork skills are a good way to strengthen engagement between employees, and this also results in a great experience for your customers.


By focusing on key soft skills, such as conflict management, mediation, ideas sharing and cooperation, businesses in the retail sector can maintain their competitive edge over online suppliers. Ultimately, creating stronger connections between employees leads to better results.


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