by Kevin Tapscott , re-posted by Ryan Krawczyk
July 12, 2023
In a time when the retail, banking, and hospitality industries are facing massive headwinds, we know that the right set of workforce management solutions will differentiate the companies that thrive from those that lose market share and customer loyalty. So, assuming you need some help navigating the storm brewing around your business, let’s talk about the different tools you can take advantage of to turn challenges into opportunities.
Considering everything boils down to two things – people and money – let’s put the focus on people first. For, without people, there is no money to be made.
We know the labor market is tight and probably will be for the foreseeable future. That means hiring is going to be hard and retention possibly even harder for those who don’t listen to what workers want and/or don’t give workers what they want. But you don’t have to be the one struggling. You could be the “employer of choice” – the one company with which everyone is fighting to get a foot in the door. You just need to understand and commit to a few things right now:
1. You need to write off pen-and-paper and spreadsheets once and for all. They’re outdated and, as such, frustrate store associates and managers to no end. Plus, they’re wasteful. Yes, from a landfill/tree save perspective, but also from a time perspective. Have you asked your managers how many hours they’re spending trying to manage and create employee schedules with these manual techniques? If not, do that today. I guarantee you that as soon as you hear that horrific number you’ll be willing to do anything to recover that time, mainly because it’s time they could instead use to coach associates, serve customers, or generate revenue – all of which will make your business’ bank account healthier, in part because you won’t have to spend so much money hiring people (churn is expensive) and also because more happy customers = more sales.
Let me say it again: do not force them to have to go through manual, cumbersome scheduling processes! There are software tools that can automate so much of the scheduling process and (bonus) automatically incorporate employee preferences. In fact, some tools enable staff to request shift swaps or call outs, pick up shifts at alternative stores and more without much, if any, manager intervention. And these tools are smart.
Yes, they have roots in AI, but not the generative AI that everyone is afraid of. These workforce scheduling tools rely on well-controlled, well-trained AI that always listens to your needs and does what’s best for your business. In fact, once this type of workforce scheduling software tool understands what your employees’ needs are, and the current demand levels for your business, it can look at all the parameters and automatically generate schedules. That’s right. The schedules created automatically using this type of AI-powered software will both accommodate your employees’ needs and ensure that enough labor will be available to sufficiently meet forecasted demand. No one has to guess at the numbers and then cross their fingers and toes hoping they won’t end up over or understaffed. They can free their mind of worry and focus instead on other things critical to getting the results (and revenue) you want, such as training, inventory management and customer service.
So, talking through this now, I think I would rephrase the first recommended action item to this:
Learn to trust AI so you can finally write off pen-and-paper/manual processes once and for all.
If that means you need to do more research to understand the difference between regenerative AI and AI that’s trained to automatically generate demand-aligned labor schedules, take the time to dig as deep as you need. Ask lots of questions. Then find out what types of questions you may need to answer in the software tool to help it do its job and make your team’s jobs easier.
2. Once you’re comfortable using AI to generate labor schedules, you need to start automating everything else. Every once-manual task needs to become software supported. Now, that doesn’t mean that you need to take people out of the equation. Quite the opposite. The goal is to get more people on board with working on the front lines of your operation. You just need to use technology to entice them.
How do you do that?
By first understanding why they currently spend hours each week assigning, updating, tracking, completing, and logging a variety of admin and operational tasks. What is it that takes so long? Once you figure that out, then it should be easy to automate most, if not all, of those workflows – even if you choose to automate one workflow at a time.
For example, the team at Lowe’s Home Improvement has been using Zebra’s Reflexis Task Management software to drive the efficient sharing of information throughout its ecosystem. The software application integrates seamlessly into third-party systems, such as the one associates use to manage store equipment requests and exchanges and is leveraged by corporate and field leaders to communicate and monitor the execution of vital store projects, like signage changes and safety recalls. Essentially, associates receive assignments and updates on their mobile devices in their preferred language so they don’t have to switch back and forth between multiple apps to receive, coordinate and close-out requests. Store managers also use Reflexis Task Management for store audits, reviews and equipment swaps. The use of this software, in combination with a few other complementary mobile technologies, has enabled Lowe’s to flip store operations from 60% task based and 40% customer service based to 40% task based and 60% service based.
While I can’t advise you on what you should do specifically without talking to you and understanding your current processes and goals, here’s what I can recommend in general: look for a task management software platform that provides a 360-degree view of all tasks. This will enable you to:
- Provide real-time, best-practice actionable information to associates so they can respond to routine tasks, like freezer temperature dropping below safe levels, and special situations, like product recalls. - Make sure the tasks your employees are getting are appropriate for their skill level. - Enhance accountability while ensuring employees aren’t overloaded with work.
In turn, you will be able to simplify workloads, drive more efficient store operations, and improve customer service.
3. Speaking of customer service…don’t make any technology purchase decisions without considering (and confirming) its impact on the customer.
Putting the right people on the schedule and assigning them the right tasks while on the clock will go a long way to improving the customer experience. However, that’s not enough. Knowing what to do and being able to effectively do it are not the same thing. And the reality is that most customer service actions these days require a team effort. Sometimes that team is a group of people. Sometimes it’s a human working with an autonomous mobile robot (AMR). And sometimes it’s a human working with AI. The point is, make sure your store managers and associates can consult and collaborate with whoever or whatever they need to get the customer what they want. In many cases, a tool like Workforce Connect will do the trick as it enables associates to ask questions or share updates with one another via push-to-talk, instant messaging, PBX calling, calendars, and more. You can even set up Workforce Connect to connect inbound customer calls to the right associate in the right department. My colleague Alex Fryer explained how that works in this blog post. In other cases, especially if their role is in a warehouse fulfilling online orders, they may need to lean on an AMR to retrieve picked orders and deliver them to packers so that they can keep up the picking momentum. Of course, being able to get voice-directed guidance on where to go and what to grab once there is always appreciated by time-crunched (and new) front-line workers, whether that guidance is stemming from a wearable, a robot, or a task management app on a handheld mobile device.
In Other Words
If you’re smart about how you’re building your tech stack, and your incorporating AI to help automate decisions related to everything from scheduling to task prioritization, then your workers are finally going to feel like things are manageable. And when everything is under control, in part because your employees are controlling their schedules more, everyone is going to feel better about how their days go. Employees will actually be happy working for you and smiling (versus stressed) when a customer approaches for help. You’ll be excited when you see how much more efficiently your employees can work with a little help from their (human and tech-based) friends. And customers will be more than happy to come back or recommend you to their friends, knowing the experience will be great. Revenue will increase. You’ll have a larger labor pool (and bank account) to work with. What more could you ask for?
Side Note: Did you know Zebra’s workforce management suite was named a “Leader” by Nucleus Research for the fifth consecutive year?
While I realize accolades typically mean more to the one receiving them than to anyone else, there is one reason why this repetitive high ranking should matter to you.
The pressure you’re feeling to do more – or push your team to do more – isn’t going away anytime soon. That “post-pandemic” relief everyone was hoping for isn’t going to come anytime soon, at least not if you rely on external threats to your success to suddenly disappear. Customers are always going to want more and expect a certain level of service and support. Economic headwinds will always exist; the only thing that may change is the direction they’re blowing. Inventory availability and pricing performance will always be somewhat at the behest of someone else. Worker availability…well, same thing. Others are going to decide if and when they want to work. So, labor shortages may not ease anytime soon.
That means you have two choices:
1. Accept these challenges as normal and use them as excuses.
2. Accept them as normal (for now) and figure out a way to make them non-issues, which is where the Nucleus Research ranking matters.
If you choose to fight back against outside forces, to make it so easy for your team to do their job no matter what storm is swirling around them, then you’re going to need to ensure they’re well-equipped with the tech tools they need to be in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. But equipping them with such tools isn’t as simple as buying some mobile devices and downloading software. You need to make sure all the components of the tech stack are working in harmony with back-end systems so that those on the front lines can trust the direction they’re being given. As such, you need to be able to trust the direction you’re being given from the technology provider. And that’s where we hope the Nucleus Research ranking will help. We hope it will give you confidence in our capabilities to guide you toward, and through, the best next step.
If you’re interested in learning more about how Zebra’s cloud-based software + hardware + service solutions (and team of industry experts) can help you effectively engage front-line associates, optimize inventory and improve the customer experience, contact us here.
Kevin Tapscott is Vice President of Solution Consulting for the Americas at Reflexis, which is now part of Zebra Technologies. He leads a team of retail operations experts who help retailers simplify their operations and optimize their labor with intelligent task management and workforce management software solutions.