Can Employees Produce Without Trust and Empowerment?

walmart-self-checkout.jpgWal-Mart's struggling to grow market share and increase stock value, and according to Business Week and retail consultant Patricia Pao, poor customer service is to blame. The obvious explanation is that employees just don't care because they're not compensated enough to do so (which creates a vicious cycle; weakened employee morale forces the store to compete solely on the basis of price, tightening margins and making it difficult to increase compensation -- which contributes to lowered morale.)

The blogger (and Wal-Mart employee) at Behind the Counter adds another layer of insight: the average Wal-Mart employee is sometimes powerless to offer assistance. When Business Week and Pao visited a few Wal-Mart locations, they noticed that sales associates didn't offer to locate out-of-stock items at different stores for customers. Behind the Counter notes the computer system that locates said items has to be unlocked by management, and that regular sales associates don't have -- and often don't know about -- that option.

Wal-Mart knows it employees are disgruntled, and therefore doesn't trust them (hence the need for management approval for as simple a task as locating product.) Perhaps Wal-Mart needs to consider the demographic at each individual location when training and empowering staff (as suggested by Cynthia Cohen, president of Strategic Mindshare, a retail-consulting firm.) For example, in more upscale locations, where the shoppers will be accustomed to a certain type of retail experience, allocate more resources to compensation, training, and, empowerment. Choosing to match their staff with their desired customer could prove a smart approach -- and let's face it; the company has to do something. You can only roll back prices so far.

(Wal-Mart Self Checkout image by Willem van Bergen)