Contemporary Watercrafters
Contemporary Watercrafters

Certain things are inherent to the role of operating a retail store: meeting with vendors, picking out a POS system and, of course, hiring that all-important staff.

But before an employee is deemed fit for face-to-face customer contact, or even to spend days logging inventory in the stock room, he or she must be trained in the ways of the store. That process can last from a few hours to a few weeks, but it’s a critical part of nurturing an employee into becoming an asset to the company.

Given the seasonal nature of the pool and spa business, retailers may find themselves hiring more temporary employees than permanent. The issue then becomes how to walk that fine line of adequately training temporary staff without spending too much time or money on those who will only be with the store for a few months.

“We have to figure out how to combat the training side of it and the best way to get [our temporary employees] prepared for our short season,” says Blair Lynch, director of operations at Mermaid Pool, Spa & Patio in Anderson, Ind.

Start early
Lynch’s temporary employees, who typically are high school and college students, join the Mermaid Pool team for about six months each season. Early hiring is a key factor in effectively training his team.

“We try to bring on new staff members before we get into the heat of our season,” Lynch says. “We’ll bring them on in February or March and really work through our training process to get them up to speed.”

That instruction involves a job shadowing program, where new temporary employees are paired with seasoned workers who teach them the ins and outs of the business. Aside from basic housekeeping responsibilities, Lynch’s new hires are typically tasked with basic customer service and cash wrap duties in addition to a job that’s unique to the pool and spa business: water analysis. His temps are expected to analyze pool water and make product recommendations to customers. The peer-to-peer assistance provides the new hires with a point person to whom they can turn when faced with obstacles that come along with the busy season.

Help from the pros
Outside-the-box job duties such as water testing is just one more factor that can make temp job training a bit tricky.

“Our industry is in-depth, if you will,” says Stephanie O’Neil, retail operations manager at Contemporary Watercrafters in Gaithersburg, Md. “We build the relationships with our customers and we’re supposed to know more about the customer’s pool than they do. So it gets a little complicated in the training process.”

To lessen that complication, O’Neil often turns to retail training programs provided by manufacturers, such as BioGuard and Lonza, to get her workers up to speed. Retailers can get access to the instruction through their vendors. The Association of Pool & Spa Professionals also has provided its members with another training option: the Retail Sales Associate Program. It is targeted toward new retail sales professionals, including seasonal employees, who need basic pool industry knowledge to help provide good service. The program includes a retail sales associate manual, as well as technical and customer-service workbooks. An update is scheduled to be available online in March, according to Patrick Giambalvo, vice president of business development for APSP.

Some retailers also turn to Xmente, an online training course covering the basics of pool care, from pool types and cleaning to filtration, circulation, and chemistry.

“That one is probably the very first one that I start [with] when I have someone who really doesn’t know anything about a pool,” says Debbi Leclerc, co-owner of The Pool Doctor of Rhode Island in Coventry, R.I.

Online training tools seem to resonate with temporary employees, largely because of their age. “The younger generation really grasps online training,” says Leclerc. “They don’t have to sit down and do eight hours of it. You can break it up. … It’s a whole lot better than giving them this big, fat manual and saying, ‘Read it.’”

Leclerc also uses other online training tools, including YouTube videos from manufacturers such as Hayward and Polaris.

Homegrown solutions
Outside parties may have their ideas about how to educate retail staff, but some store owners take matters into their own hands and create personalized training systems.

O’Neil has created her own program that she continues to modify and perfect over the years. She began using the APSP retail program, then realized that the timing of the electrical and heater training was not right for her staff.

“So I [modified] and have tailored the training to what I need seasonal staff to know,” she says.

She has a training checklist that covers how and when new hires are going to learn their water chemistry, safety, telephones, computers and the point of sale system. Day one always starts out with a safety lesson, so new hires know how to handle products safely and what to do in case of an emergency. Those lessons are followed by point-of-sale and water-test training, which respectively take about a week, says O’Neil. The finer points of both areas of study come with time, practice and patience, she adds. Lessons on using the phone system actually come toward the end of the training, since there are plenty of regular staffers who can handle that task.

The merits of homemade training materials have not escaped the managers at DesRochers Backyard Pools in Wilmington, Ill. In fact, they’ve been using that method for quite a while.

“Over ten years ago, we sat down and made our own training manual,” says Brooke Rossi, retail general manager. “It’s a pretty in-depth training manual, so that someone who possibly didn’t know how to train could take the manual and train someone.”

The manual is targeted to both full-time and temporary employees and is a collection of information gathered from various vendors, including flash cards to help trainees learn about the pool business.

The manual is broken down into sections that reflect four-hour lesson blocks. New staffers refer to the manual while being trained over the course of the day, learning a certain amount of information (phone systems, shelf stocking, etc.) during the first period of time, then moving on to more lessons in the second period.

Using the same manual and trainer provides a consistent form of education and reduces the chances that new employees will walk away from the program without a thorough understanding of their responsibilities, Rossi says.

Training sessions at DesRochers last for two weeks and are typically held while the trainees are on the sales floor. Then, if their supervisor needs to assist a customer, the new employees then perform a combination of job shadowing and/or assisting the customer under the watchful eye of their trainer.

“[They’re] not by any means experts after that two weeks, but they’re definitely able to help a customer during the busy season with the help of the managers,” Rossi says.

To instill an extra bit of enthusiasm for the arts of customer service and water testing, new employees at DesRochers are given a little added incentive to finish their training. Once they have completed the program and passed their evaluations, they’re given a significant pay increase. “It makes them want to train faster and learn faster,” says Rossi.

Temp to permanent
Although retailers are aware that they’re hiring employees who are only going to be around during the busy season, their training methods are actually laced with the hope that their temps will come back for a few more seasons.

That possibility encourages trainer and trainee to take the process more seriously. “We look to hire seasonal [employees] to potentially transform them into permanents, and we set that expectation,” says O’Neil. “If you become a good seasonal staff [member], then we try to find a spot for you, or at least have you come year after year.”

Many of Contemporary’s workers have returned to the store after their first season of temporary work, and a handful have even moved up in the company, O’Neil says. The company’s training efforts can, therefore, be viewed as an investment that pays off each and every year. Rehiring temps who are already familiar with their job responsibilities and how your store operates is definitely more cost effective than starting from scratch with new hires every season.

“We invest a lot of time and effort and resources into educating our seasonal staff,” says O’Neil.

More training or dismissal?
If employees engage in the following activities, is it a sign they need more training, or to be dismissed?

• Doesn’t know the inventory “They just need more training,” says Stephanie O’Neil, retail operations manager at Contemporary Watercrafters in Gaithersburg, Md. Sometimes retailers must hire temp help in the middle of the season. They simply don’t have time to learn everything about the products. They wouldn’t be expected to know as much as other temps, she says.

• Tardiness “If they’re consistently late then we will address it with them, but … I always teach my managers to just give them a verbal warning when they’re late,” says Blair Lynch, director of operations of Mermaid Pool, Spa & Patio in Anderson, Ind.

• Rude to customers “I don’t even know that I would reprimand,” says Brooke Rossi, retail general manager at DesRochers Backyard Pools in Wilmington, Ill. “I’d question whether that employee should work for us,” she says.