Help for New Hires

Cynthia Compton - August 26, 2019

Our summer crew has dispersed, our college student employees are back on faraway campuses, and last year’s high school helpers are only available for precious short after-school shifts (as long as there’s not a home football game, a pre-cal test the next day, or a cute bunch of boys on the soccer team this year….).
In short, we’ve been hiring booksellers, which means training and explaining and showing-then-watching every single task in our business, hoping that some of this voluminous amount of information will stick before the holidays begin, when we just don’t have time for inexperience or hesitation. Every year, the process reminds me of childproofing our home before each new toddler pulled away from creeping around the coffee table, as we new parents crept around on the floor looking for dangerous things that might poke or trip an unsteady walker in the space. We tried to imagine every potentially dangerous interaction, and altered the environment to remove the hazards.

Bringing new employees on to the floor can be a bit like parenting. So often, it’s tempting to say “Here, I’ll just do this myself” as a business owner, because it’s just faster and more likely to be done correctly and efficiently, and no one’s feelings or elbows get hurt. I have learned, however, to slow down and let new employees find their balance, and take as many steps on their own as they can.
There’s a couple of tools that we use to help bring new staff up to speed, and I’d love to hear some of your training tips, too. Here’s a starting list of tricks for imparting all the bookselling knowledge to the newest staff members:
The Great Big Book of Everything: A few years ago, I began writing one page (or less) how-to instruction sheets for completing basic tasks in our store point of sale system. Making a sale, taking a return, entering a special order, selling/redeeming a gift card…. all the things that an employee at the register needed to know were written down in numbered steps using short sentences and clear directions, with screen shot pictures whenever possible.  New employees made their way through the notebook, read and reviewed each task as they needed refreshers, and used it to train other employees. Over time, the book grew. We added pages for receiving, purchase orders, shipping orders and returns, and performing spot checks on inventory. Store opening and closing procedures, standards for cleaning the bathroom (oh, this one saved me from some VERY long conversations about the use of a toilet brush), and all kinds of other tasks were written down and slipped into clear plastic sheet protectors, hole-punched and clipped into the binder. As systems changed or were improved, employees redid the pages, and even added photos of former displays for annual events (there was a year that I might have had a bit of a temper tantrum about being sick to death of yellow hazard tape to mark Banned Books Week, and so suggestions for other props were added to the Banned Books Week page.)  Pages as varied as “Managing Offsite Author Events” to “What to Do When You Smell Gas in the Store” and “Loading the Pricing Gun” (this one just has the link to the YouTube video, which we have to watch every single time. The narrator, Bill, may be the single best example of retail training technique I know, and is such a calming influence on a busy day: As the binder grew, it became more valuable, and is probably a better manager than I am, on a day-to-day basis – always calm, clear, and happy to repeat instructions as many times as necessary. (It’s just like Bill, as I think of it. I wonder if he’s interested in a job application?)
Apron Pocket Cards: Not all of our employees wear aprons, in fact, I’m the only one who wears one on a regular basis (POCKETS, people, POCKETS!) but that’s what these little cards are called in my store. Each holiday season, we handwrite 3×5 index cards with a short list of recommended titles for each age group as follows: 0 – 2 years, 3 – 4 years, Kindergarten (which can encompass ages four to seven in Indiana, which is probably a topic for another day), 1st and 2nd grade, 3rd to 5th grade, middle school, 8th grade (sometimes this is Jr. High, sometimes not) and then high school readers. On each card I write 3 frontlist titles that we are all excited about for that season, and leave two spots blank for each bookseller to add their own favorites. We punch a hole in the upper left hand corner of the cards, and slip them on a ring. This little stack of cards is a cheat sheet of sorts, a kind of prompt to help staff as they jump from one customer to the next on a busy selling day.  Of course, it’s important to ask questions about each young reader we’re selecting books for, but the apron pocket cards are a terrific boost, and make everyone feel like they have a starting point for customer conversations. I started giving these cards to new employees when they start, too, and by the next holiday season, they are active contributors to the lists.
See One, Do One, Teach One:  Borrowing from a classic nursing school technique, we’ve learned not to let new employees shadow for too long before practicing new skills. Our goal is always to let them watch a task one time, perform it (even in slow motion, with lots of coaching, such as learning to receive a mixed box of inventory from a certain distributor who fails to understand the value of bubble wrap), and then as quickly as possible take responsibility for training someone else in the same task. I recently eavesdropped as one of my new hires took the phone from another employee to call a customer about a special order. “Ummmmmm…. I just wanted to let you know that your book is here at 4 Kids, and we’ll hold it until you can come in to get it. How late are we open? I’m not sure. Let me check. OH…. it’s here on the form. Is 7 pm ok? I could stay later if you need me to.” (Yes, she’s already got the idea, don’t you think?)
We’ll have a few bumps and skinned knees, and probably some end-of-day register reports that don’t quite balance, but I’m feeling pretty good about this year’s crew. And if you have any great tips that help your new staff members master the basics, please share them!

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana, a 2600 sq. ft. childrens store founded in 2003. She serves on the board of the American Booksellers Association, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and is a former member of the American Specialty Toy Retail Association board of directors. 4 Kids was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013 and has received numerous "best of" awards in the Indianapolis area. The opinions expressed in her posts are her own, and sometimes those of her english bulldogs.

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