Frontline staff put best foot forward

by Carmen To

Karen Lee, senior human resources and training manager, Mirabell

A major retail chain recognises that customer service standards hold the key to remaining competitive

The retail sector suffered more than most during the economic downturn of recent years. Local consumers naturally cut discretionary spending, even on items like clothing and footwear, and only started to loosen their purse strings in early 2005 once it was clear that the recovery was continuing. Now, though, things are looking up and, with the boost given by the purchasing power of mainland and international tourists, there is a feeling of optimism in the air.

"With better incomes and fewer concerns about jobs, the general public are more willing to spend on non-essentials and luxuries, which has contributed to a noticeable growth in retail sales in the last year," says Karen Lee, senior human resources and training manager for footwear chain Mirabell. "Tourists have also been having a real impact on sales."

Ms Lee is upbeat about the general outlook for the sector in 2006, but still admits to a few worries. "We all hoped the opening of Disneyland would have more of a positive effect on retail sales, but the results last September and October were not overwhelming. I'm therefore predicting a moderate upward trend for the coming year," she says. To explain this viewpoint, she notes that retailers have been under pressure from increasing interest rates and have also had to contend with higher staff wages and soaring rental costs. Even in the better economic environment, competition has remained intense and has kept margins tight.

Sales skills

According to Ms Lee, one way to get an edge has been by creating a stronger sense of belonging among staff and training them in the skills needed by today's sales and customer service professionals.

"By doing this, we have seen a change in their attitude and mindset, as well as a greater interest in offering a consistently high level of service," she says. "Frontline staff have become more eager to learn about the business and acquire management skills." This has been especially evident in the efforts made by individuals to acquire greater language proficiency in English and Mandarin. It largely resulted from the desire to communicate more fluently with customers and to be more responsive to whatever requests or enquiries they might raise.

Determined to be competitive in terms of salaries, Mirabell's management team has put together comprehensive remuneration packages and introduced a number of fringe benefits for staff. Ms Lee refers to the stable base salary on offer as a "hygiene factor", while sales staff are also on commission and eligible for other incentives which provide additional motivation. "We provide medical cover and are also aiming to make consultations with Chinese herbalists available for staff," she adds.

Checking competition

The company does informal benchmarking exercises to compare packages and fringe benefits with other similar retailers. Commission is based on 10-day, monthly, quarterly and yearly targets, and productivity is monitored for both individuals and teams in order to allow people to achieve on two different levels. Every effort is made to accommodate staff requests for time off for special family occasions as part of a policy of encouraging a sensible work-life balance. The back-office team enjoys similar benefits, but is on a different scheme for performance-related bonuses. "We hope the lives of staff can be as worry-free as possible while working for us," Ms Lee says.

She adds that the senior management team uses rewards, motivation, recognition and care to establish a good relationship with staff and maintain company morale. They are known for valuing the feedback and opinions of employees and are willing to listen to any problems that are voiced, seeing this as one of the best ways of making improvements.

Mirabell was established in 1986 and is now a major footwear chain retailing a variety of brands, including Joy & Peace, Inshoesnet, Fiorucci and Geox, through outlets in Hong Kong, Macau, mainland China and Taiwan. Ms Lee attributes their ongoing success to a policy of trying to treat staff like family and using the results of marketing surveys to keep pace with change and make the company a better place to work. "We also have seminars with the HR managers of other companies to share ideas and discuss such things as how to reduce staff turnover rates," she says.

Retail details

  • Retail sector generally optimistic about prospects for the year ahead
  • Increasing interest rates, rental costs and staff salaries are a cause for concern
  • The spending of inbound tourists has provided a noticeable boost
  • Emphasis on improving levels of professionalism and customer service
  • Attractive remuneration packages and fringe benefits are needed to retain frontline staff
  • Seminars are held with HR managers from other companies to share thoughts about common problems

Taken from Career Times 06 January 2006
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