Finding a way to make training stick with staff members is always a challenge. Although we had tried several things at Four Seasons Greenhouse and Nursery in Dolores, Colo., it never quite seemed to work the way I really wanted it to until I had an idea a few years ago.
While it’s not practical to take everyone in our company on the big garden center tours because of the expense involved in travel from our part of the world, it started me thinking about how I could replicate the experience on a smaller scale and still have it be meaningful and effective.
It also started me thinking about how staff members learn. Because about 65 percent of the population are visual learners or do better with hands-on training, we invented Tour Trip Day. This day is set aside to take staff members to non-competing garden centers to visually see what we try to preach on a daily basis. It’s a combination of a “day out with the boss” and a mystery shopper program all rolled into one. There are some criteria for being included in the Tour Day exercise. A staff member has to be with the company for several months – in our case that usually means they are a new hire and have survived the spring season. They have to be someone we believe will benefit from the training and will put it into use, (we have to believe that they have a future with us) and they have to be open and willing to learn and grow with the company.
The concept behind Tour Day is quite simple: We choose as many staff members as will fit easily into one vehicle. We tell them to dress in street clothes because to the rest of the world we are simply a group of friends on a day out. We give them a small amount of money to make a purchase and tell them that they can buy anything they wish and that it will be theirs to keep. They are simply to observe the customer service given to them when they make that purchase. The staff members are instructed to talk to the staff at the businesses we visit – ask for things and ask advice on gardening problems. They are also instructed to split up when they are in the garden center to see if they can notice different things to share later. I tell them to look at everything – the layout, the lighting, the product mix, the signage, the prices, the quality of the plant material, even down to making sure at least one person visits the restrooms at each stop.
Because of the way the centers we usually visit are situated geographically, we try to visit three in the morning, break for lunch, and visit two in the afternoon, spending about 45 minutes to an hour at each. Two of the big box stores are included on this tour to provide contrast between them and the independents. After each visit we compare notes. Our company treats for lunch as well, usually at a place with table service so we can sit down and discuss what we’ve seen and learned.
The program has accomplished several things. By doing the site visits our staff is able to see first-hand examples of both good and bad displays and merchandising. They are able to note signage and how effective it is or is not. They come back with a new standard of measurement for customer service. When they return from the day, they often better understand why we change displays regularly and are fanatical about presentation. And, since some of the centers we visit are kept less than tidy, one of the best benefits for me is that no one ever seems to complain about cleaning or weeding tasks around the garden center again!
Tour Day also gives me, as an owner, a chance to work one on one with staff members and suggest improvements for their performance, in an informal setting other than a formal evaluation meeting. The total cost – about $100 for the day. The results have been immeasurable.