The ‘Genius’ Behind Putting HR In Charge of Apple Stores

Deirdre O’Brien

On February 5th, Apple announced that retail chief, Angela Ahrendts, is moving on after spending five years in the role. This news in itself isn’t terribly shocking, considering the average tenure for a C-suite executive hovers around 5 years. What’s most interesting about this story is that Ahrendts’ successor is Apple human resources chief, Deirdre O’Brien, who will be operating in an expanded role of senior vice president of Retail + People.

The merging of these seemingly separate areas of business might leave some scratching their heads, but it’s a very smart move by Apple’s leadership team. Recognizing that their frontline people are inextricably tied to the success of their retail strategies, and empowering one leader to execute on an interconnected vision, will put them in the enviable position of taking their customer experience (CX) initiatives to a whole new level.

The frontline drives the bottom line

Despite CX being one of the hottest topics in retail right now, brands are still challenged with getting it right. According to Forrester‘s US 2018 Customer Experience Index (CX Index), multichannel retailers’ CX quality remained flat, and 36% of digital retailers’ scores decreased significantly since last year. According to Forrester Chief Research and Product Officer, Cliff Condon, “Few industries have felt disruption like retail, and many are choosing the wrong path forward because they’re not focusing on the drivers that improve customer experience where it counts.”

One key CX driver is the customer’s interaction with the in-store associate. After all, in today’s omnichannel retail environment, when a customer chooses to step into a physical store, it’s because they want to be there. The store associates they meet are key to providing a remarkable experience that keeps them coming back for more. If frontline employees don’t feel engaged in delivering on the brand’s CX strategies, they have a big problem.

Here’s the rub: According to Gallup, only 34% of employees in the U.S. say they are engaged in their work. This lack of engagement is further compounded by recruitment and retention issues. With the unemployment rate in the U.S. hovering around 4% — the lowest it’s been in almost two decades — attracting talent is a struggle for all retailers, even highly successful brands like Apple. Consulting firm Korn Ferry has further reported that 29% of human resources and compensation professionals at 53 major retailers have seen employee turnover increase since the beginning of 2018, especially among part-time hourly store workers – 81% on average, compared to 76% in 2017.

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Engagement matters

This is where O’Brien’s mindset as the vice president of People for the past few years at Apple will really up the brand’s CX game. She’s been living and breathing employee engagement, recruitment and retention, and that puts her in the enviable position of having a focused lens on the frontline factor when setting her retail strategies. Adding retail to the People equation of her leadership means she has her finger on the pulse of what’s happening with employees, so her team can react fluidity if issues arise that threaten to undermine the brand’s CX plans.

From my perspective, the issues will be few and far between if O’Brien’s team keeps employee performance and engagement top of mind. Given the increasing difficulty of attracting talent, it’s imperative to get new hires off to a strong start with positive onboarding that makes them feel confident to deliver on brand promises from day one. But the support shouldn’t abruptly halt after onboarding. It’s important to continue reinforcing key information and upskilling employees through ongoing training that’s easy to digest and remember. In addition, communicating consistent messages across a geographically dispersed frontline goes a long way towards keeping them in the loop and feeling aligned to the larger brand vision and how their contributions make a difference. Finally, building in recognition and rewards is a great way to keep employees engaged and motivated to perform. Smart brands are seeking technology that lets them do all of this from one platform.

Human resources leaders everywhere should be paying close attention to what happens in Apple brick-and-mortar stores over the next while. With Deirdre O’Brien’s dual focus on Retail + People, I predict they will continue to thrive as customers delight in interacting with their products supported by frontline employees who are empowered to make the experience totally unforgettable.

Carol Leaman, President and CEO of Axonify, is an award-winning thought leader with an impressive track record of successfully leading tech companies. Not only is she a disruptor in the corporate learning space, but she’s also the brains behind the Axonify Microlearning Platform. Prior to Axonify, Carol was the CEO of PostRank Inc., a social engagement analytics platform she sold to Google. She was also the CEO at several other technology firms, including RSS Solutions and Fakespace Systems. Carol is a celebrated entrepreneur and trailblazer (Sarah Kirke Award 2010, Waterloo Region Entrepreneur Hall of Fame Intrepid Award 2011 and the Profit500 Award for Canada's Leading Female Entrepreneur 2017) whose articles appear in leading learning, business and technology publications. She also sits on the boards of many organizations and advises a variety of Canadian high-tech firms.

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