Author, Combat Leader to Corporate Leader and Battlefield to Business Success Lieutenant Colonel, Special Forces, US Army (Retired)

Lessons from the Military to deliver Improved Retail Customer Experience

Retailing is a business model that is challenged by e-tailers and customer expectations that demand an ever-improving customer experience.  Despite the pressure of e-tailers, traditional retail still delivers some of our best customer experiences that consumers desire and return to repurchase that same level of high service.   Surprisingly, military leadership and military strategy skills can help retailers deliver some of their very best customer facing experiences.  Critical to this success is how can they enhance the in store and in person experience.

Improving employees and employee skill sets is the best way to improve the customer experience.  The military offers concepts in leadership, planning, and technology that can be easily and rapidly adapted to enhance the effectiveness of front-line business employees that are charged with delivering.

Lesson for Retail #1 – Train Your Team for the Challenges of Today & Tomorrow.  Training is a constant for the US Army.  The training that the US Army practices is both formal and informal.  Formal training is a professional school such as learning how to parachute or learning the basic skills of an Infantry officer that every soldier regularly attends every 3-4 years throughout their career.  Informal training ranges from professional reading to lectures to hands-on learning.  In the military, most training is hands-on and “do-as-I-do” training that reinforces the ability to perform in times of stress.  The themes of training focus on training not only for the challenges of today, but also identifying and training to correct weaknesses in the organization and for identifying future challenges.  Training for retail teams is critical because it both develops and retains talent and ultimately delivers an improved experience to the customer.

Lesson for Retail #2 – Great Strategy Delivers by Creating Options for Success.  Strategy is about finding, determining, and creating options that all reach the same goal or outcome.  During my Special Forces training, our instructors loved the “What If this” happens scenario.  What if your primary helicopter for medical evacuation fails to arrive?  What if the enemy is twice the estimated size on the objective?  To help anticipate and plan for all these possible “What If” events, we had the P-A-C-E planning process.  P-A-C-E represents Primary-Alternate-Contingency-Emergency.  P-A-C-E is a tool to ensure that you develop a minimum of four ways to ensure steps that are critical to your plan’s success get accomplished.  In my military experience, we were always taught that “can’t” was never an option, we had to always find a way to accomplish the mission.  P-A-C-E is a great tool for retail teams to help drive creativity in any process that effects the customer experience to find alternate and still effective methods to meet the customer’s expectation.

Lesson for Retail #3 –Develop Retail Leaders That Lead by Example in All Actions.  The military places incredible emphasis on the concept of leadership by example.  Leadership by example is that the leader personally sets the example in job performance and professionalism both large and small of what to do and how to do it.  In the Army, the most senior leader always eats last – no matter what.  In the leadership by example principle, a leader always ensures that every person is taken care of before himself or herself.  Central to leadership by example is the concept of the leader as a mentor and as a coach.  A coach is the best concept for military leadership development because a coach is first concerned dually with the player and the performance of the team.  Retail leaders that sweep the floors, help stocking the shelves, or deal with an angry customer instead of a team member display not only leadership by example but serve as examples that their employees will emulate.

Lesson for Retail #4 – Train Employees with High Skills and Promote Initiative to Deliver World Class Customer Experience.   Few people realize that the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion hung in the balance during those first few critical hours.  On the beaches, troops landed under deadly enemy fire, leaders were killed, and the airborne soldiers dropped the night before were scattered and unorganized.  How then, less than 12 hours later, was success achieved.  Two factors explained the success: (1) high levels of training and (2) the concept of initiative.  American soldiers were relentlessly trained in both their own combat tasks and also in their leaders combat tasks.  All soldiers were expected to know their job and the jobs of the soldiers next to them.  Furthermore, soldiers learned the tasks in classrooms, then perfected the tasks on training beaches, at night, in the rain, and in the snow so that no matter the conditions the tasks were performed correctly.  The concept of initiative fit in to the plan because soldiers were expected to achieve success even when the plan failed.  Every soldier, down to the newest Private, knew what a successful outcome of the mission was.  Therefore, when the plan needed to be adapted, everyone was expected to take the initiative to adapt their actions to make the plan a success.  Train retail employees for not only their jobs, but other jobs as well.  Furthermore, retail training needs to emphasize the importance of initiative so employees know they are expected to adapt their actions to meet the needs of the customers.

Lesson for Retail #5 –Teach Your Teams to Improve Themselves.  The military uses the After Action Review (AAR) to review and to learn from every activity.  The purpose of the After Action Review is to help a team understand what happened, what worked, what did not work, and then to formulate an improvement plan, as a team, to be better the next day.  In retail, an AAR can be as simple as gathering everyone together at the end of a shift for 15 minutes to understand 1-2 challenges for the day, what went well in meeting those challenges, and what needs to be done differently the next time to address the challenge.  Furthermore, the use of AAR’s create employees that view problem resolution as their responsibility.  Employees see themselves as the solution to their problems.

Retailing and working directly with customers is a rewarding experience.  Understanding how you can coach and develop your business team to be more effective, more customer focused, and produce better leaders for the organization are the results when you combine military strategy and leadership techniques focused on improving the customer experience.

About the Author:

Chad is the author of two books: (1) Combat Leader to Corporate Leader and (2) Battlefield to Business Success.  Chad’s brand message is that organizations & individuals need to translate and apply military skills to business because they immediately produce results and are cost effective.  Chad is a retired US Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel with 20+ years of Active and Reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units.  He served in Iraq, Bosnia, Korea, and throughout the United States.  He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Special Forces Tab, and the Ranger Tab.   Chad is an adjunct Lecturer of Marketing at University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Business in Minneapolis, MN.  In addition to teaching, he is a mid-level marketing executive and has worked in marketing and sales roles for various companies, including General Electric, Comcast, and Union Pacific.  He has been published in over 200 separate publications including The Harvard Business Review blog, Business Week Online, Forbes, Christian Science Monitor, and USA Today.  He has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University.

Author: Chad Storlie

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