As Ombori’s HR Manager, I was really interested to hear Microsoft’s ShiSh Shridhar talking about how AI can help with employee onboarding at May’s launch event for StoreAI. I’ve always thought about how store digitalization can make shopping easier and more enjoyable, but I've never really considered how it could apply to HR and training.
As ShiSh said, “AI speeds up knowledge transfer and the ability to tap into organizational knowledge.” That’s a huge benefit for retailers. We often forget how much information a store associate is expected to have in their heads. Many of us think that all a store associate's job is simple, but it’s not. There’s a lot more to it than we realize.
The most obvious thing they need is in-depth product knowledge: store associates have to know pretty much everything about all the products they sell, including features, specifications, benefits, potential drawbacks, and any relevant warranties or guarantees. And, of course, they should be familiar with prices, as well as any available discounts or promotions. For retailers who carry a huge product range, associates may need to be familiar with thousands of individual products.
It’s not enough to know the basic facts – associates need to be able to make informed recommendations that meet the customer’s needs and address their concerns such as reliability and value for money. These days, customers may also want to know about issues like sustainability or recycling. Ideally, the associate’s knowledge is not just limited to items currently in-store: they are also familiar with competitors’ products, out of stock and discontinued products, and upcoming products – basically the entire subject area.
Acquiring this depth of expertise can take years. For new employees, it can be overwhelming. AI gives them a massive boost by putting all this information in the palm of their hand. It’s not the same as actually knowing everything, but being able to access it on demand is the next best thing.
But there’s much more that an employee needs to know, most of which customers never see. Their knowledge isn’t just limited to what they sell, but also how to sell it. For example:
- Store policies and operational procedures, such as return and exchange policies, payment methods, customer interactions and escalation procedures, loyalty programs, opening and closing procedures, and essential administrative tasks like clocking in and out, or requesting time off.
- Safety and security procedures, including emergency protocols, loss prevention strategies, or handling spills and hazardous materials.
- Depending on their specific role, they may also need to know how to operate checkouts or other workstations, handle pickup orders, prepare items for deliveries, stack shelves, or take inventory.
- Store layout, so that they can help customers find products or service desks efficiently. They may also need to know about other stores so that they can direct customers to a different location.
- Omnichannel customer journeys, and how stores integrate with online services.
- Sales techniques and customer communication, including corporate messaging and brand promotion.
That’s a lot to learn, and it’s often all crammed into a few days of training right when they start the job. They may need to be trained on multiple different systems and apps, and they’ll be presented with a huge amount of paperwork, handbooks, or forms to sign. Employees can’t take it all in, and so they forget essential procedures.
AI makes onboarding easier by simplifying processes. Instead of having to learn lots of different systems, they can interact with everything through a single portal. And because many routine tasks are handled by AI, they don’t have so much to learn. For example, instead of having to learn how to handle issuing store credit, they could simply say “return this item for store credit”, and the AI could process everything for them.
Even better, much of this information can be permanently available on demand. For example, they don’t need to know where to find every item in the store. They can simply ask the AI and get a map that shows them exactly where to find it.
Improved retention, decreased costs
Replacing experienced staff is a painful process. Not only is it a costly process to hire and onboard new staff, but all that valuable knowledge is lost.
Staff turnover is unavoidable, but AI can help in three ways.
- By improving the work experience for frontline staff, AI can increase retention. It takes away much of their routine and repetitive tasks, and enables them to focus on engaging directly with customers and delivering high quality service. It also reduces customer frustrations, which makes for a less stressful work environment. This decreases the likelihood that they will quit because they’re unhappy with their job.
- When new staff are brought on, AI can speed up the initial training process, which makes onboarding quicker and cheaper. They can start handling customers sooner, and it also reduces the burden on more experienced staff who have to mentor them.
- AI makes it easier for store associates to acquire in-depth product expertise. This enables them to transition from novices to experienced staff much faster.
From the HR point of view, this is a huge, and yet mostly hidden, benefit. Staff turnover is one of the top issues for many retailers, so anything that can make this less problematical is well worth considering.