Despite the growth of eCommerce, the physical store environment is still the bread and butter of most retailers. Unlike digital channels, the key ingredient is the face-to-face customer experience, which can only happen with exceptional store associates who are equipped with the proper skills and training. Furthermore, store operations are greatly strengthened when backed by the home office, from product development and planning to marketing and supply chain. Unfortunately, most retailers today still struggle with finding and keeping solid candidates.

Employees are typically hired for their specific skills set and experiences. Savvy hiring managers, whether at the store-level or the home office, also attempt to find people who are aligned with the brand mentality and company culture. This does not mean hiring duplicate Stepford employees and associates; instead, it means identifying strengths and weaknesses to create synergies.

Easier said than done.

As part of a volunteer commitment to my alma mater, I am on a board whose mandate is to provide recommendations for the MBA curriculum to prepare students for the expectations and demands of the real world. This is a somewhat of a herculean challenge, but not dissimilar from a hiring opportunity or client project. We have to consider the varying personalities, experiences and demands of potential students as well as the overall mission and goals of the MBA program and individual concentrations. And the irony is not lost on us, that we too bring a wide array of experiences and viewpoints to the table.

While preparing for a recent meeting, I reviewed a report by the Institute for the Future, titled Future Work Skill Sets 2020. The report identifies 10 skills for the future workforce:

  1. Sense-Making
  2. Social Intelligence
  3. Novel & Adaptive Thinking
  4. Cross-Cultural Competency
  5. Computational Thinking
  6. New-Media Literacy
  7. Transdisciplinarity
  8. Design Mindset
  9. Cognitive Load Management
  10. Virtual Collaboration

Thinking holistically (and imaginatively), all of these traits could indeed form the superhuman employee of the future. This particular report advocates for the need (and importance) of the soft skills listed above. While we agreed on this ideal, it is very hard to teach these skills when they are not innate to an individual. I do, however, think some of these traits are more readily on display in social, familial situations versus professional or academic situations. This means that candidates might have some or part of these traits, but they may not come out in the workplace.

I feel there are two traits from this study which retail hiring managers should strongly consider when evaluating their customer-facing candidates: Sense-Making and Novel & Adaptive Thinking. Let’s explore how these translate to retail associates.


Definition: the ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed

Personal: If you’ve ever asked your significant other where they want to eat, and the response is “I don’t care,” then there is a 99.9% chance that they actually do care. Why? Because (a) you are not a robot who takes everything literally and (b) you’ve probably have had this discussion many times before, with optional eye rolling. The more realistic answer is “I don’t know. I would like to be presented with options and only then will I let you know which one I like.” Those of us who are not robots and do not want to sit in uncomfortable dining silence because of an ill-advised restaurant choice are willing to go through the process of narrowing down the choices.

Professional: A “yes” or agreement with hesitation or discernible uncertainty is not really a yes. That “yes” will often manifest into cognitive dissonance—this concept is applicable both behind the scenes (headquarters, distribution centers, etc.) and in consumer facing roles. If store associates do not understand the “why” of behaviors outlined in a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), training materials or as explained by their manager, then the execution will likely be inauthentic and ineffective.

You may have encountered someone who continually asks the same questions or questions over—it is likely the questioning person has anxiety about whatever they are asking or is not asking the real question to which they want an answer. Sense-Making involves taking the time to clarify, valuing the importance of getting on the same page, and not making assumptions based on past experiences that may not be applicable in the current situation. If this is not a natural inclination, start by listening—truly listening—and asking clarifying and thought-provoking questions that move the conversation forward and form a realistic picture.

This series of images is funny because it is true in many instances. The first and last panels reflect the perspective of the customer, but are obviously different. Customers may say one thing but really want or need another. This is not because they are trying to purposely be misleading, but instead need to go through the process of talking through possible options and consequences.

While oftentimes retailers use standardized scripts for helping customer-facing store associates or call centers handle the myriad of customer questions and situations they encounter on a daily basis, the ability to pleasantly, empathetically and (sometimes.) patiently understand a customer’s real needs should be a very highly coveted skill.

The other trait that stands out is Novel & Adaptive Thinking because after truly understanding what they need and / or want, it is important to find an answer or solution for your customer.

Novel & Adaptive Thinking

Definition: proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond those that are rote or rule-based

Personal: It is 10pm and you are starving. Upon opening your pantry or refrigerator door, you discover a very limited and sparse selection. It is too late to order delivery yet somehow, you cobble together what you now consider one of your foodie masterpieces. How? Because you were motivated by hunger and possibly your love of reality cooking shows. Regardless of where you found inspiration, in these types of scenarios you are forced to break conventional norms and find a way to make it work.

Professional: Many of the greatest idea and marketing campaigns were created because someone was not afraid to “think big” or differently. Furthermore, the originator did not settle for business as usual. If you’ve ever been around great, innovative leaders you’ve heard them brainstorm and come up with ideas in a similar fashion. Usually it goes something like:

Group: We have a problem that no one can solve. We tried A, B and C. We’ve even combined A and C and came up with D.

Innovator: Have you tried…orange?

Group: *pause* Why didn’t we think of that?

Many times the answer is there, but we are often too close or default to the usual thought processes. If you’ve ever played or watched a child’s made-up game, chances are the game is nonsensical but fun. Kids are often able to take in the environment around them and cobble together purpose and actions that provide them with a source of entertainment and enjoyment. Essentially, their need to evade boredom calls on use of their innate, innocent, and unabridged creativity.

It is exactly this type of novel and adaptive thinking that can be an invaluable skill in addressing customer wants and desires (after thoroughly understanding them of course.). It is far from a training script or standard answer—from a retail store associate’s perspective, it requires understanding the store’s assortment, products, services and capabilities across all channels and using that knowledge to develop a viable solution—or even multiple options—for the customer.

Granted, both of these skills are difficult to identify until the associate is tested in a live customer situation (or at best during a role-playing training exercise)—especially during the typically quick retail interview—and they are virtually impossible to glean from a resume or application. However, there are some key questions to consider adding into your interview repertoire to get a deeper understanding of your retail store or home office applicants and whether or not they have the propensity for these two key skills. We will explore those questions in a future post.

– Courtney