With an associate population that numbers in the hundreds of thousands, Home Depot is a formidable organization in the retail sector. What makes the company unique is not its sheer size, though, but rather the considerable knowledge of its workforce regarding the products it sells.
“In general, in retail, I think [a learning and development strategy] is very important because customer expectations rise every year, and it becomes a clear, competitive differentiator from retailer to retailer,” said Leslie Joyce, Ph.D., vice president and chief learning officer of Home Depot. “The extent to which your associates are more knowledgeable, or more helpful, or more engaged makes a big difference in the business outcomes that occur. It’s very important to instill a sense of professionalism into the retail industry, and training and development is a big part of that.”
Home Depot’s sales associates have a defined required curriculum that they must complete within the first nine months of employment, known as “Before the Apron.” Before receiving their apron, employees must complete a training session that lasts between two and five days. Then, there is a set of classes that must be completed within the first 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, six months and nine months of employment.
“What we know is that those individuals who believe that they received the training that they needed to do their job within the first 90 days to six months tend to stay with us far longer than those that did not,” Joyce said. “We have tried to front-load curriculum as much as we can, which means we put as much learning as in the very early days of an associate’s tenure as we can without overloading them.”
These initial learning experiences cover product knowledge, service and expectations, and safety and wellness. The centralized curriculum that Home Depot uses has been in place for about seven years. Prior to that, the stores handled it all themselves, Joyce said. However, she added that not all of the training is controlled by the corporate learning function.
“The stores themselves create lots of learning opportunities for their associate population that reflect the customer expectations and the customer buying habits within that store,” she explained. “I think that the ability to localize other aspects of learning and development to the environment in which each associate works is equally important as consistency. The challenge is balancing both of those, knowing what needs to be consistent and what is best done with local flair.”
For the learning that they develop and deliver, Joyce and her team rely on a wide array of tools to bring that content to Home Depot employees.
“We try to match the learning method to the content and the desired outcome,” she said. “We use nearly every learning strategy, from self-paced to e-learning to coaching to mentoring to classroom based to video based to broadcast based. All of those are tools that we utilize to create a varied learning experience so our associates don’t get bored of the same old methodology. It ensures that things for us are scalable, so you’ve got to be able to get learning to associates any time, any place, and it ensures that the learning method and the content resonate with the associate.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Home Depot looks at customer feedback to determine how these development programs contribute to business success.
“As do most retailers, we gather customer feedback electronically through our Web sites, and a couple of the questions deal directly with the knowledge level of our associates and the extent to which that helped or hindered the shopping experience,” Joyce said. “We know that the more knowledgeable an associate, the better the shopping experience, and the better the shopping experience, the better the likelihood of customer loyalty.”