In-Store Mobile Training Trap: It Just Isn't That Easy

Best Buy isn't putting an iPad into the hands of every sales associate—but it's thinking about some kind of in-store mobile use. Home Depot has handed a mobile device to most associates. JCPenney, Nordstrom and Gucci are all piloting iPad use in some stores. But giving tablets to associates is a recipe for high-profile disaster if retailers buy into the idea that tablets are easy to use—and then skimp on associate training.

Lack of training, coupled with little or no signage and marketing support, will be the silent killer of many in-store retail mobile efforts. For example, Starbucks' mobile payment scheme remains invisible in some stores, where associates still don't know how to use the scanners that read payment codes off customers' mobile phone screens. And Shopkick is in many retail locations where there's no signage about Shopkick and the associates don't even know what it is.

There's only so much IT can do to market mobile in-store projects. Signage just isn't something that IT is in charge of. But training associates is crucial, even for mobile efforts that don't require them to use new technology. If customers see a sign or hear about a new in-store gimmick, their next step will be to ask an associate. If that associate doesn't know what the customer is talking about, the mobile effort will fail.

Case in point: A quick tour of four different Shopkick-equipped stores turned up no signs, and in three of the stores employees had no clue about Shopkick. In the fourth store, the only information an associate offered was misinformation. That's 0-for-4.

And that's just for the simplest mobile projects. When associates need to learn new technology—whether it's how to accept mobile payment at Starbucks, how to do on-the-spot checkout at Home Depot or how to show customers products that aren't in the store at JCPenney, Nordstrom and other retailers—training is even more crucial.

That's a problem Home Depot ran into when it deployed mobile devices to associates in all its stores last year. Training on the devices wasn't delivered by the IT department; it was instead handled at the individual store level.

The result: Associates in some stores were well trained and able to use the devices effectively. In other stores, however, associates were on duty in the aisles with the devices but literally didn't know the basics of how to use them to scan a product—never mind how to check inventory or do mobile checkout for a customer.

Let's face it, most associates hate training. At the point where they're actually asking for more time spent in training, you know how bad the situation is.

There's a more insidious problem for retailers like Best Buy, JCPenney, Nordstrom and all the other retailers that are thinking about using mobile devices in-store. Unlike Home Depot's customized devices, these chains are looking at off-the-shelf smartphones and tablets—devices that associates might already have used or even own themselves.

It's true that if associates don't already know how to navigate their way through, say, an iPad, they can probably figure it out in just a minute or two on their own. That can lead both associates and managers to assume that the iPad is so easy to use, no more training is necessary.

But that's a dangerous assumption. The apps that you hope to get real value from—mobile payment, inventory checks, electronic catalog, virtual dressing room—are bound to be more complicated, less intuitive and in critical need of good training for associates.

Without that training, the best you can hope for is a few embarrassing moments in front of customers. And the worst case? Misinformed or aggravated customers, lost sales and—worst of all—botched POS transactions.

But there's a perverse catch-22 with almost all training on new technology.

But there's a perverse catch-22 with almost all training on new technology (and it's one of the reasons associates hate training): If the training goes deeply into all the useful bells and whistles, that part won't sink in with most associates because they haven't yet mastered the basics. And if the training just covers the basics, associates won't be told about all the bells and whistles that should make them much more productive.

One obvious solution for in-store mobile devices: Split training into two parts. Get associates up to speed on the essentials in the first training session. Then let them use the devices for a week on the job, both to let the training sink in and to get practical experience. Then they'll be ready for a second training session that focuses on advanced features.

What's wrong with this approach? Mainly that store managers already hate the idea of paying associates to do anything that's not making money. Pulling them off the job for one training session is bad enough. Pulling them out twice—even if the two training sessions add up to the same amount of time that might have been slotted for a single session—is just too disruptive.

Those managers may not be right, but they're the ones on the front lines. They're also the ones who can decide that training just isn't necessary or, at least, can be delayed indefinitely—which usually means delayed forever.

That's why IT has to take responsibility for making sure training happens. If multiple training sessions aren't practical, maybe IT can furnish associates in advance with a cheat sheet for each in-store app and access to the mobile devices. This way, at least some of them will go into the single training session with a grasp of the basics and a good shot at learning the bells and whistles.

If there's a real possibility even that single training session will be "delayed," those cheat sheets could be supplemented with advanced how-to handouts, online walk-throughs and quizzes or anything else that can get associates up to speed. Lists of questions associates actually ask, along with responses, are especially useful—not just for associates looking for answers but also for developers and IT project managers trying to determine what works, what doesn't and what just needs better explanations.

Forget expensive "learning technology"—associates just need information. Some of them will be able to get it from co-workers; others will look for it themselves. As long as you've got it for them, they have a chance of finding what they need.

If you don't, the chance of the associates getting trained at all is about the same as your mobile project succeeding.