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Wal-Mart Academy aims to better careers, improve customer service

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Can classroom time for employees reduce hassles for customers at big-box retailers and also improve the bottom line?

Wal-Mart believes it can, and that was part of the reason it was back-to-school time recently for about 30 of its employees in the Columbia area who were the first South Carolina graduates of Wal-Mart Academy.

The academy is a two-week training program for Wal-Mart employees who are department supervisors, and was launched in 2015 as part of a company-wide push to improve employee morale and the customer experience.

“The academies are focused on giving functional, hands-on training to our supervisors who spend the most time with our associates and our customers,” said Kristen Wilkinson, senior director for Wal-Mart Training Academy.

The first academy was held in February 2016 in Dallas, and 38 were up and running by the end of December. Wilkinson said by summer the goal is to have 200 nationwide. The Columbia classes were held at the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Bush River Road.

Classes are taught by fellow Wal-Mart employees rather than outside instructors, and the curriculum covers everything from how to supervise employees and give performance evaluations to setting up appealing merchandise displays.

The heaviest focus, however, is given to customer service. Wilkinson said employees are taught how to greet customers and make them feel welcome, how to quickly locate merchandise and fulfill whatever other needs the customer might have when visiting the store.

“We’ve had resoundingly positive feedback,” Wilkinson said. “Employees who complete the academy say they feel invested in their jobs. They have a confidence level they didn’t necessarily have before the academy, and they are better able to work with their associates and with customers on the sales floor. Customers are noticing and management is noticing.”

Travis Brown, hardware department manager at the Supercenter on Bush River Road, is one of the recent graduates. He has been with the company for 15 months and thinks the training will help him improve department performance and further his own career.

“I consider myself a lover of lifelong learning, and I love professional development, and this provided both,” Brown said. “I especially appreciated the focus on customer service and how to use our store technology to be more efficient.”

Wal-Mart’s decision to train employees in the importance of customer service comes at a pivotal time for it and other large retailers. In recent years, Wal-Mart’s market share has dwindled, even though it is still considered the world’s largest retailer. Surveys on customer service have often ranked the company at or close to the bottom.

The goal of programs like the academy is to improve customer service enough to draw more customers to the stores and keep them coming back.

Training retail employees on how to do their jobs better and focus on customer satisfaction is a strategy that has already worked well for some companies.

A 2015 study by the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania found that training sales associates generally leads to a 23% rise in sales, and that sales associates who received training averaged 46% more sales per hour than those who didn’t. 

Making customer service top priority has helped retailers like Nordstrom, and will be even more important as the retail market continues to change, said Marianne Bickle, chair of the department of retailing in the College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management at the University of South Carolina.

“We live in an era where consumers can get everything they want from around the world   online,” Bickle said. “If consumers don’t like the experience they have in your brick-and-mortar store, they will simply find a different way to get the items they need. Companies are learning that they need to give good customer service if they want to survive and thrive. It’s a way to get customers to stay with you.”

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