Ann Summers is the most talked about shop on the high street – but what is it really like to work there? Career Camel interviewed one of its employees to find out.
After 11 years working for Ann Summers, Gayle Tong has overseen big changes and faced plenty of challenges. We spoke to the talent and development partner about her day-to-day role and the challenges posed by product training. Gayle also tells us about how her role has given her the variety to stay interested and engaged for so long, her predictions for learning and development in 2019 and beyond, how she engages colleagues and the secret behind Ann Summers’ loyal workforce.
Can you give us an introduction to you and your role at Ann Summers?
I’ve been here for 11 years – I’m not sure how that happened! I’ve got a degree in retail management, so retail was always my background. I came to Ann Summers as a retail training officer. Before then I was a store manager for Monsoon and Accessorize and this was my first training role. I guess my role really varies, I probably don’t do the traditional learning and development role like it would be in any other business, I get involved in all sorts of stuff from strategy to values to recruitment. I have fingers in lots of pies! I started as a field training officer where I went around the country and delivered workshops, supporting our retail colleagues going through to the Retail Academy. Over the years, as the business and role have changed, as has training for learning and development, I’ve ended up with the responsibility for all the learning and development across Ann Summers.
So, it’s evolved that way over time?
It has evolved. I say that, but I worked hard to further my career and learn and develop. I’ve been quite lucky to be able to take opportunities and make the role my own. I think I’ve been lucky to be able to shape my role into whatever I wanted it to be over the years and that’s what’s made me stay, it’s been exciting and interesting.
Do you think the company you work for makes a big difference to that job satisfaction?
Definitely. I think there’s a lot of things. We say ‘We’re Ann Summers’ and when you meet people and talk about Ann Summers you get such a varied reaction. After eleven years it’s now interesting trying to think “how is that person going to react?” I’ve had people that go on to tell you the ins and outs of their sex life to people that have got up and walked away from me and that’s what makes it interesting. I think for me, saying “here’s this role, mould and shape it to what you want it to be” has been important. I think if I was still simply delivering workshops up and down the country I’d be bored by now and I’d want more, I’d want to learn and develop more.
What’s your favourite thing about working for Ann Summers?
I think it’s the variety. I’m always learning, always being challenged to think differently but I also have that autonomy to shape my role and try something different. No two days are ever the same. We want to be a nurturing environment, but I don’t think I’ve lost sight of the fact that we also do some great normal learning and development stuff – as I would call it. One day I might be looking at product training, which is sometimes a challenge, and then the next I may be in a coaching session with somebody. It’s such a wide span of things that I get involved in that makes it interesting. For example, I’m currently involved in evolving our brand values. This means that, as a company, we are looking to define exactly what Ann Summers is about, as well as our goals and beliefs as a company.
You say product training can sometimes be challenging. Tell us more about that?
Product training has been a challenge to get right for our colleagues. Times and products change, as do the needs of our customers who want more expert information about our products. When I first started here all those years ago, I remember thinking “oh my god, there’s all these toys out there, different lubes and different things” and really, we weren’t telling our colleagues about this. I thought it’d be a great little project to start some product training, of course it’s such a massive beast. Over the years we’ve done various things; from physical cards with top selling tips, features and benefits, right through to our latest one, which we’ve put onto eLearning and Facebook live. Product training is a bit of a challenge because I’m not the product expert, so I need to find who in the business is. It’s a bit of a team effort with marketing, buying, and retail managers who sell them all the time.
You’ve got to be a bit careful – particularly working from home! I’ve had a rampant rabbit on my screen while having my house alarm serviced! We always say to our colleagues during product training or on our eLearning website, please be careful when opening attachments and files, think about who you might be sat next to on the bus or train! I think we become desensitised to it, I remember we launched a customer service programme a few years ago and we were talking about our nervous customers. We were looking at our bullet toys, which are probably our smallest sex toy, our store colleagues just see it as an item we put on the till point, but we were trying to explain that, if this is your first sex toy, it’s a big deal! As I say, I think that comes down to the natural desensitisation – not much embarrasses me anymore!
How important do you think the learning and development strategy is to the success of Ann Summers?
I would obviously say very, very important! I think that the two are so closely linked that you almost can’t have one without the other. Our expertise is what sets Ann Summers apart from the competition, so allowing colleagues to have informed conversations with customers is crucial. We like to start by talking to customers about their needs, and then helping them to find the products and guidance they need to bring that to life. Without learning and development, that just can’t happen.
That said, with modern pressures at work, I think it can be a challenge to set aside time for learning and development. I was on a webinar the other week, a company called Skillsoft have done some research around how much time we spend individually on self-development in a week, it’s 1 percent of the working week, so 24 minutes spent on personal development. That’s quite a scary statistic!
I think we learn in so many ways nowadays. How many times do you say, “just Google it?” or “why don’t you just look it up on the internet?” those kinds of questions? We’re learning all the time but maybe don’t realise it. I wish all businesses would invest more money in the development of colleagues.
How do you ensure key messages, for instance when you roll out the new company values, filter all the way down through the company?
One thing that we’re focusing on currently is around content and communication. We’re currently working on our brand DNA, so we’re rolling out a ‘Team Time’ every Wednesday where there are no cross-functional meetings and it’s all about being with your team and you can do whatever you want with the time. We also have regular activities based around what we’ve already learned around brand DNA. It’s about getting together as a team, thinking about what this means for us and how we take it forward. Following on from that our line managers play a massive part. In retail we have about 800 colleagues, so our regional business managers and store managers play a key part in getting the message all the way down.
One thing that has helped us a lot over the past year in retail has been the eLearning platform. This means we can speak to every single colleague, if we just go back to product training, over the last six months we’ve reached out to over 50 percent of our colleagues directly with product training rather than us relying on the managers to print it out and stick it on the back of the toilet door. That’s what I did when I was a manager!
How do you measure the impact of what you’re doing?
That’s a really challenging question. Measuring the impact of what you’re doing is a difficult question for any learning and development professional. With the amount of conversations I’ve had around this, I’ve found most people will say “do you know what, how do you measure it? It’s not tangible”. You could say if a product is successful then it’s obviously down to the training and the information given to colleagues, but if I’m in buying, I’m likely saying it’s about the packaging and where we place it in the store and the innovation. So, I think a lot of the time learning and development is a contributing factor and you can’t measure it. However, I think you can measure it in one-to-one development with colleagues. I’ve been a coach now for nearly two years and I think I’m able to measure that more directly, because I can see a change in a person’s behaviour from that one-to-one interaction.
How do you ensure that learning initiatives are effective and engaging?
I’m always looking for new ways to do that. I like to try and make sure, as old fashioned as this sounds, that we capture learning styles in anything that we do, particularly on eLearning, because we recognise that doesn’t reach out to every learning style. For example, we’ve got a few colleagues that are dyslexic, and they struggle with eLearning, so they love videos and visual as opposed to a lot of text. I like to find something that will engage each person in the group or the audience. Also, I like to engage in discussion and conversation and give real-life examples, particularly when you’re doing a workshop or a webinar. Let’s make it real for people. Then you talk about supporting theory and give them a chance to practice in a safe environment.
To me, it’s still a traditional way of doing things. I think eLearning has brought its own challenges, anyone can go online and complete a quiz and say, “Oh, look at me, I got 100 percent”. It’s about how they then demonstrate that in front of the customer. We have some supporting documents that enable the line manager to follow that through, which would then constitute a blended learning approach.
How important do you think the recruitment and development of talent will be to the future of Ann Summers?
We always want the best person for the role. Even though we’re all about female empowerment, it doesn’t matter to us whether you’re female or male. If you’re the best person for the role then that’s enough, and I don’t think that’ll change. I think learning and development here will need to evolve and become more individual-focused over the next 12 to 18 months. In the past a One Stop Shop workshop may have fitted a few people’s needs, I don’t think it’s going that way anymore. I think this is more about coaching, mentoring and giving those individuals one-on-one support to deliver the strategy. I think that’s going to be where it goes in the future at Ann Summers.
I was going to ask what role technology plays in your strategy, but if you’re looking for a more personal approach, does that take a backseat?
I think out in the field, so in retail particularly, our eLearning platform is the norm. It’s absolutely embedded in retail colleagues’ day-to-day working life. It hasn’t worked as well in head office and I think that’s because it’s probably not updated enough. We use it for inductions, but we don’t really share much more on it. I think tech is so fast-moving that it’d be a full-time role to keep content up-to-date. You can just google something and get the answer instantly, and I think colleagues expect to be able to do that. So, whilst you must train retail colleagues on specific processes to follow in stores, at head office it’s much easier for them just to look something up than go and log into an eLearning type platform.
What trends are you expecting to see in 2019 and beyond?
The things I’m reading are all around soft skills. You can go to YouTube and learn how to use Microsoft Excel but softer skills, like leadership, development, communication, and how managers can coach, all those kinds of things are making a bit of a resurgence. I think learning and development will continue to move away from the traditional training environment and move more towards pure self-development. I think coaching is on the agenda. There’s a lot around having internal coaches and making coaching accessible at all levels. Traditionally, it’s been an executive thing and only the board or top-level leaders have it, but it’s being made more accessible to everybody. I think leadership skills are coming back on the agenda. Also, the whole subject of wellbeing and mindfulness and health at work is going to play a massive role in the future.
The future looks bright for learning and development at Ann Summers. Gayle’s predictions show that a ‘human touch’, focusing on soft-skills and one-to-one people development could hold the key to a successful future for any business. With a new brand DNA in the works, Ann Summers is taking steps into an exciting future, with highly-motivated staff invested in keeping this iconic brand a firm fixture both online and on the high street.
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