The myth of motivation in retail and the customer experience
Years ago I had an incredibly talented retail associate working for me. He was smart, charming, a fast learner, and one of the best salespeople I ever met. There was, unfortunately, one major problem: he was lazy. He did only enough to get by.
I spent an incredible amount of time and energy trying to motivate him. I could sometimes get a one or two day bump in his performance, but he invariably slid back into mediocrity. It drove me crazy.
What I didn't understand at the time is that the ability to motivate others is a myth. I know that sounds like leadership blasphemy, and it's a statement I would once have scoffed at, but I'm convinced you can't motivate the unmotivated.
Motivation is the desire or willingness of someone to do something. The desire to work with customers has to come from within. The willingness to proactively engage and sell customers has to be something a person likes and wants to do. You can't successfully motivate people to do something if they just don't want to do it. They have to want to do something, and they have to enjoy doing it.
But wait. Doesn't money motivate people? A study by Edward Deci, a psychologist at Rochester University, found that students offered cash prizes to solve puzzles were less likely to continue working on them after payments had been made, compared to students who were offered no money.
Deci's work helped clarify the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation — doing things because you like doing them in their own right or doing them because you want a reward that has been offered. This is why hiring the right person is so important.
Offering a motivated person more money could result in higher performance, but it will have little or no effect on the unmotivated. I've said for years that if you pay more to a mediocre employee, all you have is a more highly paid mediocre employee.
Instead of trying to motivate people, I believe the key is to inspire the motivated and remove the unmotivated. Here’s how.
1. Make work fun. As many of you know, one of my favorite sayings is, "You can't ask people to give service with a smile until you give them something to smile about." That pretty much says it all. The best leaders I've worked for and with have the ability to make each day a great experience for their team.
2. Make each day challenging. I like to compare working retail to the movie Groundhog Day. Every day can be the same day over and over — if we allow it to be. That's why good leaders challenge their employees to try new things, and to strive to improve something they were maybe not so terrific at the day before.
3. Constant and consistent staff development. Motivated people want to learn. They want to grow. Many of them want career opportunities. This is one of the most important parts of a leader’s job, but unfortunately it doesn't happen nearly enough in retail. A development plan doesn't have to be complicated, but it does need to be constant and consistent.
4. Regularly recognize each individual's effort and performance. Never underestimate the importance of specific recognition. People want to contribute to a store's success, and they especially appreciate it when their effort is called out. Recognition makes an even bigger impact when it's put in writing.
5. Create a strong sense of team. Good teams bring out the best in each member, provide mutual support, and bring more purpose to each person's work. A group of people isn't a team. A group of people committed to a common cause and enabling each other's success, is.
6. Opportunities to earn more and win prizes. Short-term contests, games, and incentives are a great way to inspire motivated people. It can also be wasted effort with the unmotivated. It's as important to focus on and reward the right behaviors as it is to achieve the desired results.
7. Empower and simplify. You can tell an employee how special he is, or how much you appreciate her, but they're not really feeling the love and respect if they have to get a manager every time to complete a small refund or other simple activity. Give people ownership. Show you trust them. Make their work easy. Of course you have to have checks and balances in there, but I'd rather have an inspired and empowered team than spend time worrying about a fraudulent $10 refund. But that's just how I think.
8. Have well defined standards and expectations, with the appropriate accountability. One of the fastest ways to demotivate a motivated employee is to not hold everyone accountable for the expected standards and expectations. Most people will rise to what's expected of them, but they'll also lower themselves to the level of accountability set for others.
9. A voice. Motivated employees want to contribute and be a part of the future. They have good ideas and would like to share them. They feel inspired when they can bring ideas up with their manager and their manager's manager or the owner, and potentially see that idea successfully put into practice.
10. Remove the unmotivated. An unmotivated person who doesn’t meet the acceptable level of performance drags the entire team down. Motivated employees resent it when the management team accepts and even enables poor performance. Moving underperformers up or out will actually inspire motivated employees, and improve the customer experience and results.
So let me ask, how much energy are you wasting trying to motivate the unmotivated? More important, are you putting enough energy and focus on inspiring the motivated.
Doug Fleener Doug Fleener, the former director of retail for Bose Corporation, is president and managing partner of Dynamic Experiences Group LLC, a proven retail and customer experience firm that works with progressive retailers and other customer-focused companies. www