Regular training and educational opportunities give staff confidence in their jobs and often lead to higher retention rates.

I know that staff training can feel like an overwhelming task, especially when we have so much work to do for spring.

Training retail staff in a fast-paced environment can be particularly challenging. If we’re honest, staff training can feel tedious and burdensome; even like an interruption in our workflow. But, as owners and managers, employee training is one of our very most important responsibilities. Saying you don’t have time for staff training is the same as saying you don’t have time to help customers. Not making time for customers isn’t something anyone in the garden center industry can afford in today’s marketplace.

The starting line

For a new staff member to get to the goal line of good service, they must know exactly where to start. One of the best things you can do as an owner or manager is to get organized before you hire a new employee. If the job description and list of daily duties aren’t clear for a given role, then chances are you’re not going to do a good job training. Plus, your new employee won’t have clear expectations of his or her position. Audit your existing documentation for each job position to make sure they clearly define who should be taking the job. Re-write your job descriptions if they are too vague. Next, write a very clear list of duties and day-to-day expectations for each position to accompany the job description; a document to be presented (along with the job description) to new employees when they come in for their first interview.

When you better define what you need an employee to do for you each day, it’s a lot easier to improve your in-house training program. Having hiring expectations in order also helps you hire better; remember that personality and communication skills go a long way in retail. Fluency in botanical Latin won’t always win you the most points with customers. Look for new recruits who can balance a passion for plants with a commitment to good customer relations.

Have a system in place

Once your job descriptions and job duty lists are in order, review your existing training program. First question: do you have one? If not, set aside some time now to create an outline of step-by-step training tasks for each position in each department (start with the ones you need to hire and train first). If your existing training program documents are outdated, give them a refresh. You should prepare both a pre-spring train-up orientation and an ongoing training calendar. Unless you have good documentation on how and when to train new staff, you’ll never be able to delegate some of that work to other responsible employees.


Speaking of delegating, putting other experienced staff in charge of new-hire training is a great way to make them feel valued and trusted. Even if you execute all the training yourself, I always advocate employing the buddy system for new hires. In my retail days, I required that all new staff be paired up with a seasoned staff member for two weeks before they were let loose in the wild. Of course, this system is much easier to execute for hires you bring on before your spring season kicks off.

Training can be an ongoing aspect of the job. Keep giving your employees new opportunities to improve.

Words matter

Putting words in your staffs’ mouths is not always a bad idea. Retail environments offer up endless opportunities for complicated customer service situations — young and inexperienced employees won’t always know the right things to say in a tough spot. Consider writing out scripts for your staff for different scenarios (on the floor and on the phone), then role playing during your training meetings. Knowing what to say and when to say it can do wonders for confidence levels.

Keep learning

Everyone needs to keep learning and to stay on top of changes in company operations. Ongoing training is key for successful long-term employees. I love the approach used at Chalet Landscape, Nursery and Garden Center in Chicago; they developed the “Chalet College” that runs March through December. The first week of every month, on Wednesdays and Saturdays (staff can choose which day to attend), they provide a one-hour program for staff before opening. Full-time staff are required to attend, and part-time employees are encouraged. Different managers and staff lead the programs, which cover topics ranging from plants and seasonal items to radio protocol and e-commerce. Smart.

Need a helping hand with on-going training sessions? Brokers and sales reps from plant and product companies are often more than happy to come to your location for PK (product knowledge) sessions. Recruit them to help!

What not to do

Don’t put off training until spring starts. Don’t wait until a new hire has been with you for weeks — or months — to start training. Get them at the start, because rehab is expensive and often ineffective. Don’t be vague about job duties and expectations.

Don’t ever stop training; even long-term employees will benefit from new learning opportunities.

Retaining good employees is tough in this competitive market. If you don’t make obvious attempts to invest in your new recruits by on-boarding them in an organized and in-depth manner, then you can’t really expect them to invest in you long-term.

Most employees leave their job because they are unhappy with the work, their lack of control and how they are treated. It’s not always because of money.

A confident, well-trained employee who feels secure in their understanding of your expectations is more likely to stay put. Keeping good employees always costs less than re-hiring.