F J Benjamin: Training to serve

HRM,Shalini Shukla 15 Dec 2011

The name behind fashion and lifestyle brands like Banana Republic, Gap, La Senza, and RAOUL, and timepiece brands such as Guess Watches, Nautica and Victorinox, F J Benjamin Holdings Ltd has a significant foothold in the service sector. While the industry has immense talent management challenges such as traditionally high attrition rates and other recruitment issues, F J Benjamin still looks to develop its people through training.

Being squarely in the service industry, the group invests heavily in upgrading the service quality of its retail staff with regular and consistent training. “Our multiple industry sector-topping performance in the Retail Industry Mystery Shopping (RIMS) is testament to the effectiveness of our training, and the dedication of our people at every level of the organisation,” says Terence Lim, F J Benjamin’s Divisional Manager – HR. “We recognise the true value of our people, and investing in them is a top priority.”

For instance, when many smaller retailers hire new sales associates, only basic training in how to operate the cash register is provided. They start work immediately without knowing the finer points of service, or how to handle different situations that inevitably arise in-store. F J Benjamin believes that by the time new staff enter its boutiques, they should already possess the mind-set and skills needed to provide customers with an exceptional experience. “I think it’s evident that without training, service suffers,” says Lim.

Clocking the hours

Clocking over 22,000 hours in employee training since 2009 is no mean feat. The luxury and lifestyle retailer accomplished this through mandatory basic service training as well as advanced specialised programmes like foreign language courses and ‘Styling for Success’ – a course that equips retail staff with working knowledge of the fundamentals of fashion styling techniques.

The company adopts a practical approach when planning training schedules for personnel. As most of F J Benjamin’s shops are already running a tight ship, the training department has its work cut out for it.

“Our training section works hand-in-hand with our retail operations to find suitable times for training,” says Lim. “There is commitment on both sides to make it work, because we understand the importance of customer service.”

For instance, HR works around major sale periods, as well as manpower requirements, even increasing the number of available training dates to accommodate lean store headcounts.

Operations managers also frequently adjust their rosters to ensure that everyone in their brand has the opportunity to be trained. Furthermore, a significant proportion of training is done on-the-job, within the work environment, which allows flexibility in terms of venue and timing.

This year, F J Benjamin hopes to develop new Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) modules to enhance its training capability, as well as increase the number of staff trained through the WSQ framework. “In previous years, SPUR funding has been a great aid to our budget, and needless to say, we will miss its demise,” says Lim. The Skills Programme for Upgrading and Resilience (SPUR) was a funding scheme developed to subsidise training programmes during the economic downturn and was made available until 30 November 2010.

Training leaders

However, that has not deterred F J Benjamin from partnering with Temasek Polytechnic to avail the WSQ Diploma in Retail Management certification to senior retail operations staff in late 2008, at the height of the recession. Its inaugural intake graduated in July last year. The second batch of promising staff is currently attending the diploma course.

The course includes modules that address such areas as merchandising, service excellence and retail operations to marketing strategies and finance. The holistic programme ensures that employees will acquire critical retail knowledge while applying a wide range of capabilities for decision making in a dynamic environment.

With course fees fully subsidised by the WDA and F J Benjamin, 10 promising senior level candidates are selected to undergo a rigorous 17-month course each year, graduating with a Diploma in Retail Management on completion.

Employees have to undergo a stringent selection process to qualify for enrolment. Besides positive performance appraisal ratings, they must display aptitude and potential to be groomed for management positions within their organisation.

“These are staff we have earmarked as potential future leaders,” says Lim. “Of course, there are many factors that determine their future with the company, however, sponsoring their diplomas shows our commitment to providing professional academic opportunities for our employees’ career progression.”

This highly successful endeavour has highlighted the value of WSQ to the industry, and to F J Benjamin. Staff have had the double benefit of graduating with a nationally-recognised diploma, while at the same time applying what they have learnt on the sales floor. Many of those from the July graduation were promoted, and are now part of vibrant leadership teams in the company’s numerous brands.

“The feedback so far has been fantastic, with our diploma students saying that the programme has helped them gain a bird’s-eye view of how the organisation works, and how various departments and processes integrate with each other,” says Lim.

Learning principles

In any organisation, a vision is set from the top. The group’s CEO has long held the belief that “employers have a responsibility to provide personnel with professional academic opportunities that will enable their career progression”. The company has stood behind his words steadfastly.

“Our approach to talent management is to identify potential leaders and groom them for higher positions,” says Lim.

For example, most of the individuals who were earmarked to attend the diploma programme have just recently been promoted to supervisory roles where their experience, leadership potential, and learning can come together, enabling them to lead more effectively.

“When someone is promoted in F J Benjamin, we also want to equip them with new skills that they will need for their new roles and responsibilities; promoting someone without equipping them adequately is counterproductive and can hinder more than help them,” says Lim.

To stay ahead in the fast-paced service industry, F J Benjamin is also embarking on a landmark analysis throughout the organisation to determine if the training needs of staff at every level – from senior management right down to front-line staff in stores – can be met more effectively.


Trained to style

Beyond conventional training programmes concerned with customer relations and selling skills, F J Benjamin Holdings introduced a ‘Styling for Success’ programme that covers the fundamentals of fashion and essential styling techniques.

“Have you ever gone shopping, and come out of the fitting room with an ill-fitting outfit, only to be told by the sales staff that you looked ‘great’?,” asks  Terence Lim, F J Benjamin’s Divisional Manager – HR. “At F J Benjamin, our priority is to make sure our customers truly look great in our apparel and accessories, and ‘Styling For Success’ helps our staff identify different customers’ shapes, and how to help them dress their best.”

Staff are taught basic colour theory to help customers match their apparel to their skin tone. When sales associates help customers mix and match, they know what they’re doing. “We teach our staff to be tactfully genuine – if something doesn’t look good on you, our staff will find you something else – no patronising, no disingenuous advice.”


Talking the talk

With statistics from the Singapore Tourism Board showing a rise in travellers from destinations such as the Middle East, Russia, Thailand and China, foreign language classes conducted now include those in Arabic, Russian, Thai and Mandarin languages, which aim to equip staff with the ability to provide top-notch service to this emerging group of customers.


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