Six Essential Communication Skills for Managers

The performance of pet store employees ultimately depends on their leaders’ ability to effectively communicate expectations and goals.



How you communicate with the employees you manage directly affects their performance, the success of the team and the store. Communicating effectively with team members is critical to building strong internal relationships, moving average employees to excellence, and maximizing sales and productivity.

Hiring good people is one way to maximize productivity. However, for many independent pet stores, new hires represent only a small percentage of total staff. Developing existing employees is critical to achieve a store’s goals.

Research indicates that an employee’s manager is the single most critical factor affecting attitude and performance. Managers who support and work to develop their team produce stronger performers than those who don’t.

Committed, satisfied employees do their best without constant supervision, leading to satisfied customers. Understanding how to develop the staff’s commitment is key to your store’s success.

In any group, some people are always top (or committed) performers, and some are poor  (or resistant) performers. However, most people are in the middle. These compliant performers meet standards, follow the rules, and may even excel in some areas.

It is easy for retailer managers to fall into the trap of spending most of their time on employees at both ends of the scale. It is natural to focus on high performers who get the work done, and resistant employees often require a lot of attention and direction.

However, working with the middle group offers the biggest opportunity to maximize productivity. Because compliant employees make up the largest portion of any team, even small improvements in their performance can produce enormous results for a store. Communicating effectively with employees is critical to turning compliant employees into committed ones.

Because sales associates are the direct link to a store’s customers, your team means the difference between achieving the store’s business goals and falling short of the target. A communication style that focuses more on asking or coaching than telling or directing will encourage employees to take on more responsibility and commit to succeeding. 
With this in mind, here are six communication skills that any store manager can use to get the most out of their staff.

Skill #1: Maintain or Enhance Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is how people feel about themselves and comes from how they are treated. An employee’s self-esteem and job performance are closely related: employees with high self-esteem and confidence are more productive than those with low self-esteem.

Managers who act or communicate in ways that challenge employees’ self-esteem trigger defensive behaviors—such as anger, verbal attacks or withdrawal—that undermine associates’ problem-solving abilities and productivity.

To avoid negatively affecting employees’ self-esteem, managers should choose their words carefully and focus on building associates’ confidence. There are many ways to maintain and enhance self-esteem, including simply saying, “Thank you.”

Skill #2: Focus on Specific Behaviors & Outcomes
Getting results depends on the team understanding what the manager wants them to do. Whether you are assigning a task, praising a success or correcting a problem, focusing on specific behaviors and outcomes eliminates guesswork by employees. As a result, the team benefits from less wasted time, fewer misdirected activities and higher productivity.

Focusing on behaviors—a specific action you can see and hear—also allows a manager to avoid targeting personality issues and attitudes, reducing the likelihood that employees will react defensively to criticism.

Identifying the desired outcome—the results or consequences of a specific behavior—helps associates understand how their performance fits into the bigger picture. When employees understand why a particular behavior is important or why a task needs to be done a certain way, they are more motivated to make it happen.

Skill #3: Use Reinforcement Techniques
Reinforcement is anything managers do to encourage the behaviors that they want and discourage those they do not want. Reinforcement includes:

• Rewards (positive reinforcement) to encourage behaviors 

• Consequences (negative reinforcement) to discourage undesirable behaviors

• Ignoring, which is a useful way to deal with nuisance behaviors that are annoying but not true problems.

By shaping the behavior of associates over time through reinforcement techniques, managers will begin to develop a team that understands performance expectations. Employees will be better able to react to situations appropriately and independently without constant direction, making the manager’s job easier.

Skill #4: Listen Effectively
Effective managers understand the value of knowing how to listen first, instead of simply reacting or immediately moving to find a solution. Becoming more effective listeners enables managers to build trust and rapport with their teams. It will also uncover new and better ideas to maximize productivity.

The true challenge of listening is not to add your own approval or opinion prematurely. Many managers tend to jump in with their own solutions or statements before really understanding what the issues are. The focus of effective listening should be on what the other person is communicating.

Repeating what you hear back to the employee encourages more discussion and allows you to gather more information. Listening skills not only ensure that you are communicating with the employee, but that you are also building rapport and trust in the relationship.

Skill #5: Ask for Feedback
Asking associates for feedback on your management style is an important communication skill. Gathering feedback provides a realistic progress check on your effectiveness as a manager. It also creates an opportunity for two-way communication.

When soliciting feedback from associates, it’s important to be receptive to what they have to say. Defensiveness stifles communication and is counter-productive. A good strategy for dealing with feedback is to paraphrase what employees are saying to make sure you understand it correctly.

A manager’s interaction with employees will change as time goes on. Making assumptions about what motivates each individual on the team is a risk. Even well known employees may be motivated by different feelings at different times or in different situations. Effective managers frequently ask for feedback to ensure that their perceptions of how they manage are accurate.

Skill #6: Set Goals & Follow-Up Dates
Setting goals and follow-up dates helps managers communicate their expectations to employees and helps the team achieve objectives. Being as explicit as possible about what you want done and when you want it done increases the chances that associates will succeed.

Research has shown that employees are more productive when they are focused and know what goals need to be accomplished. With properly set goals, employees are energized by the challenge to meet the store’s objectives.

When helping employees set goals, make sure that they are specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and timely. Using this model makes it more likely that employees will find goals achievable and less overwhelming, improving overall productivity.

Remember that, in your role as a manager, you are the most important factor affecting employees’ on-the-job performance. Using the six essential communication skills discussed in this article is an important way to improve employee productivity and accomplish your goals for your store. 

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, almost 5,600 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 “Communication for Retail Managers,” one of 28 chapters available as part of Pet Store Pro’s online training. Lessons cover communication skills to maintain or enhance self-esteem, use rewards and consequences to reinforce behavior, and setting goals and follow-up dates. The chapter also includes a downloadable worksheet to help managers develop an action plan for setting and meeting goals


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