Steps for Success

Following these four steps will help employees master new skills.




Whether you are training new employees on the basics, preparing experienced associates to take on new responsibilities or helping poor performers do better, skills coaching is critical to your store’s success. This article lays out a four-step process to help your employees learn and perfect new skills.


Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills

Before you begin coaching, start by figuring out what type of skill you plan to teach. “Hard” skills typically involve following a specified procedure or process where there often is a single, right way to perform these tasks. As a result, you can easily evaluate whether an employee has, or has not, mastered a new skill. Examples of hard skills used in pet stores include:

• Stocking a store shelf to match a planogram.

• Operating registers.

• Setting up aquariums.

• Cleaning animal enclosures.


In contrast, “soft” skills describe how people relate to and interact with each other. Rather than being specific to a particular task, soft skills are broadly applicable to any work environment and to everyday life. Examples of soft skills include:

• Communicating clearly.

• Solving problems.

• Working effectively as part of a team.

• Resolving conflict.


Soft skills can be more challenging to coach because there are so many different scenarios and variations. Role-playing allows you to coach employees on soft skills in a controlled but realistic environment.



Four Steps to Building Skills

Whether you are coaching employees to develop hard or soft skills, simply explaining a new skill is rarely effective. To help associates master new skills, use the following four-step process:

1. Explain the skill.

2. Demonstrate the skill.

3. Allow the associate to practice the skill.

4. Provide feedback on the employee’s performance.


In some situations, it may make sense to combine two coaching steps. For example, you may need to explain and demonstrate the skill at the same time. Or it may be appropriate to provide feedback while the associate is practicing the skill, rather than waiting until they are finished.


Step 1. Explain

Start by providing a clear, logical explanation of the new skill. Your explanation should include:

• A description of the skill.

• Why the skill is important.

• How the skill relates to other skills or tasks the employee has already mastered.

• When the skill should be used.


For more involved technical skills with many steps, be sure to think through the entire process upfront so you can explain it in a logical order. Once you’ve finished, ask the employee if they understood your explanation.


Step 2. Demonstrate

Once you have clearly explained the new skill, the next step is to demonstrate. This step can be done after or during your explanation. Showing how to perform the new skill gives the person being coached a clear understanding of what is expected and helps more visual learners.


For technical skills, you can demonstrate by actually doing or completing the task. For soft skills, like how to handle a difficult customer, using role-play allows you to demonstrate the skill in a controlled environment.


Step 3. Practice

After demonstrating the skill, allow the associate to practice while you watch. As they practice, encourage them to tell you what they are doing at each step, so you can make sure they understand the process. During this practice step, be encouraging to motivate the employee.


Step 4. Give Feedback

Once the associate has practiced the skill, provide feedback. You can give feedback during or after the practice step.


It’s important to provide positive feedback, as well as constructive criticism about areas that can be improved. Be clear and specific. Identify what the employee did correctly and provide helpful advice about any elements that should be done differently.


Make sure that your feedback is focused on the employee’s actions. Avoid any personal remarks that may question her competence, judgment or intelligence, or that may undermine her confidence.


Repetition & Reinforcement

When coaching to build skills, it’s important to remember that people learn at different speeds. Even after you’ve explained, demonstrated and asked the employee to practice, he still may not have mastered the new skill.


In this situation, you should give feedback and then allow him to practice the skill again. If it’s clear the employee is still unsure, repeat the explanation and demonstration before allowing him to practice as many times as necessary. You should end the coaching session only when the associate can perform the task correctly.


Tips for Success

As you work with employees to build their technical and interpersonal skills, keep the following tips in mind:

• Confirm past experience. When coaching employees on new skills, it’s important to build on existing knowledge. As you begin a coaching session, take the time to ask whether the associate has done that task or a similar activity before. This allows you to refer to employees’ past experience and avoid de-motivating associates by coaching them on things they already know how to do.

• Be clear. It’s important to explain the task in a logical order to avoid confusing the associate. Having a written procedure that lists steps in the order they must be completed can help when coaching technical skills.

• Look for signs of confusion. Some employees may try to save face by saying they understand an explanation, even when they don’t. Be sensitive to body language, facial expressions and vocal tone, which may indicate possible confusion more clearly than what the employee says.

• Be patient. As a coach, you need to be tolerant and patient. Different people learn at different speeds. Some associates will need the opportunity to practice more than once. Others will need you to explain or demonstrate the skill again.


Coaching Soft Skills

Soft skills are difficult to observe, quantify and measure—which can make them challenging to coach. And because soft skills are used in so many different situations, it’s impossible to prepare associates for every variation.


However, role-playing the most common scenarios will allow you to coach employees on these skills in a controlled environment. For example, you witness an employee having difficulty dealing with a demanding customer. Using role-playing and the four-step process, you can coach him on improving his customer service skills.


1. Explain. In this situation, you could start by explaining that listening to an unhappy customer lets her know that you care. Make sure the employee understands that customers tend to cool down once they believe they’re being heard, so letting them vent is a good first step.


Next, encourage the employee to apologize. Explain that even if the customer wasn’t angry about something the associate did, he represents the entire store and should apologize on the store’s behalf.


2. Demonstrate. To coach the employee on how to handle an unhappy customer, start by taking the role of the sales associate while having the employee play the part of the difficult customer. This allows you to demonstrate what to say, as well as the tone, body language and non-verbal signals that will help convince a customer that you genuinely care about her and her problem.

After running through the scenario explain what you did and why. This is also an opportunity to explain other things you might do in this situation to deliver exceptional customer service.


3. Practice. Next, run through the same scenario again so the associate can practice his customer service skills. This time, you play the role of the unhappy customer. Try to avoid repeating the exact language the employee used in Step , to more accurately reflect real world customer service.


4. Give feedback. Start by highlighting what the employee did well. Then identify areas that may need work and suggest how he might have done better.
Give specific examples: what he said (or did) and how it may have been interpreted (or misinterpreted).


For more complicated skills, it may make sense to have employees play both roles while you watch and take notes. No matter who’s involved, keep role-playing until the associate gets it right.


Your team’s and store’s success rely on helping employees build the skills they need to perform their current tasks and take on new responsibilities. This four-step process will make it easier to coach associates to develop both hard and soft skills. PB


Stephanie A. Kaplan is the director of online education for the Pet Industry Distributors Association. She manages PIDA’s free online training program, Pet Store Pro. Since it was first launched in 2008, more than 6,000 retailers have turned to Pet Store Pro for brand-neutral training on critical skills for associates, managers and owners. Pet Store Pro is free to qualified retailers; visit to register and begin using the program.


This article was adapted from “Coaching & Motivating Employees,” one of 29 chapters available as part of Pet Store Pro’s online training. Lessons cover coaching techniques to build skills, clarify expectations, boost confidence, increase motivation, encourage flexibility and resolve conflict, as well as identifying employees’ coaching needs.


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