Our guest this week is Carol Leaman.

Carol is the Chief Executive Officer at Axonify, an AI-powered learning platform that helps employers train and communicate with frontline employees.

Prior to her role at Axonify, Carol led several tech companies, including PostRank Inc, which was acquired by Google in 2011.

Join us as we explore the importance of agile training, how to better communicate with your frontline workers and the benefits of gamified learning.

Episode 72 of RETHINK Retail was recorded on April 9, 2020. 

 


Hosted by Julia Raymond
Researched, written and produced by Gabriella Bock
Edited by Trenton Waller

TRANSCRIPTION

Julia Raymond:
Hi and welcome to the show. Today I’m joined by my guest Carol Leaman. Carol is the chief executive officer at Axonify. Axonify is an AI-powered learning platform that helps employers train and communicate with their frontline employees. Prior to her role at Axonify, Carol led several technology companies including PostRank, Inc. which was acquired by Google in 2011. Carol, will you kick us off by telling us a bit about yourself and your professional journey?

Carol Leaman:
Absolutely I will and thanks for having me here today, Julia. I’m thrilled to be able to connect with you and your audience. And just a little bit of background about me, I’m a serial entrepreneur. I have built, grown, and sold a number of companies and I started this one about eight years ago and it was because I was intrigued by a particular retail use case for a different way to train people. And so I bought some really basic rudimentary technology eight years ago and used my intuition and just a bunch of really smart learning from that one customer to build and grow Axonify and all of the learnings that I had through previous tech companies. And actually, I am a CPA by formal education, so a finance person, and that foundation also was a really good one for growing and leading companies and doing in a way that was profitable and sustainable. So I’ve had a fantastic career, very interesting, lots of different organizations and I can say without question, Axonify is the one I have loved the most and hope it just continues to grow into a really, really huge company.

Julia Raymond:
Absolutely and you said eight years ago is when you founded Axonify, is that correct?

Carol Leaman:
That’s right.

Julia Raymond:
Eight years ago. You said a retail use case spurred the idea, can you dive into that a little bit more about the inspiration?

Carol Leaman:
Yeah. So I can’t mention the name, we’re not allowed to tell who it was, but it was an organization that, like many retailers, was experiencing loss in areas of the business related to inventor shrink and also OSHA reportable medical accidents and injuries. And they got a new executive who said, “Traditional ways of training our associates simply do not work to change their behavior in ways that impact the business.” We have very turnover, they often come to us with little to no experience and because they only stay for, in some cases, six months sometimes less, we don’t really have the opportunity to give them and invest in them a tremendous amount of training. So I need something that’s going to work for that short period of time that they pay attention to and that improves our business outcomes related to things like shrink and OSHA reportables.

Carol Leaman:
So we took that idea and conceived of a way to, in three minutes a shift, get some core, specific, targeted information to the associates anywhere, anytime they had three minutes and then measured what they knew or didn’t know in those topic areas and then automatically adjusted what they would see the next time so that we could close specific knowledge gaps in these areas. And we gamified the experience in a way that made it irresistible for the associate so they wanted to have it every time they have a shift. And when a customer wasn’t around or they were on a break or at the beginning of their shift, they could simply log on, spend those three minutes, learn some new things that were relevant and targeted to them and then go about their day.

Carol Leaman:
What happened was, in that first year, that organization quite literally improved the business outcome by tens of millions of dollars and it was through sheer behavior change because of knowledge acquisition. So that was our original use case, the idea that we had worked and we used that example to then start to approach others and have replicated the ROI and the benefit to many, many retailers at this point.

Julia Raymond:
That’s amazing. And the case study, the first case study saving tens of millions through gamifying the training in just three minutes really made that much of difference is just tremendous. And when I think about how much frontline employees are in the news right now because of the pandemic, it’s clear that there’s a lot of issues whether that’s training and a lot of hiring to meet the needs, especially in grocery, that are growing astronomically right now. So can you tell me a little bit about what you’re hearing from grocers that you work with right now?

Carol Leaman:
Absolutely. Grocery, as we know, is one of those segments that is being impacted by current events in a really positive way from a sales perspective, but the issues that they’re running into are that they do need to hire in volume and very rapidly. So they’re experiencing challenges finding people, getting people on board and getting them onboarded as quickly as possible so they can be productive as quickly as possible and doing it in ways that don’t involve pulling them into a classroom or conveying them a few bits of information at the end of a week in kind of a huddle. They need these people to get it, get trained immediately, do it in sort of a remote fashion and have that content that they’re being trained on, not be the kind of boil the ocean here’s all the things we need you to know.

Carol Leaman:
The training has to be highly targeted, not just to specific jobs and job duties like work a cash register, but also now all of this additional content and knowledge related to COVID, related to how to deal with people in the store and keep yourself and your customers safe. So the amount of content that they need people to understand quickly and effectively has also exploded with the need to get them trained faster than ever. So real challenge there with our customers that we’re hearing in the market right now.

Julia Raymond:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Just the speed of adoption and adaption right now and communicating to the employees because what is, lets say, a traditional grocer, how do they typically go about training employees or communicating with all of them at once?

Carol Leaman:
It is a case that, with grocery, with retail generally, most employees that get hired, especially front line folks, don’t have email addresses with their employers because there is such a high turnover environment. Many of them just aren’t assigned email addresses. So the only way to communicate with them around new information, around training, is to do it in person or to provide them, when they’re hired, links to online modules that they have to go on and, over a series of typically hours, watch those modules once and then they’re considered trained. In fact, my daughter was trained that way for a food service company, nine hours of videos.

Julia Raymond:
Fun.

Carol Leaman:
Exactly, done at home. And frankly, those employees certainly don’t retain most of it. Many of them don’t even watch the videos really, they play them. And then they get to the job and they’re in the deli, in the grocery store, and they’re not quite sure how to appropriately slice the meat and use that meat slicer so they’ll often just ask somebody else they work with how to do it and hopefully that person knows how to do. And so there’s an awful lot of ineffective, upfront training traditionally and it’s not really reinforced in the appropriate ways at work. And so once in a while you may see memos in break rooms or have a huddle in person where you’re told some new things. But, at the end of the day, it’s minimal, it is inconsistent across the board and frankly, it’s highly, highly ineffective to get people performing in the ways that are in fact going to keep your produce looking beautiful and as fresh as possible, bet people to not have accidents in the deli, get people to bake the cakes so that it looks the right way in the bakery, all of those sorts of things that are essential to having a great customer experience.

Julia Raymond:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Is there a feedback loop component with this platform that grocers can use to gage how employees are feeling and what they’re going through?

Carol Leaman:
Yeah. So there are ways for employees to communicate, so leaders, to communicate with their employees their direct reports and also for those direct reports then to make comments, suggestions around content, things like that. So it is a way to keep the lines of communication open and what we’ve seen many times is employees who have received communication and who understand that it may be different than what they’ve been told to do previously or they’ve seen others do that they work with, interestingly, when they get the correct information on the platform through just daily information reinforcement, we’ve seen many bring to the attention of their managers or other store employees that well, I learned this so why are you telling me that or why did somebody do it the other way?

Carol Leaman:
So there are so many proof points that they’re actually paying attention to what they’re seeing, they’re retaining it and then they’re operationalizing it either by doing the right things or by addressing things that are inconsistent with what they’re seeing and then making those corrections which is wonderful.

Julia Raymond:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). It sounds like they’re empowered. So they are able to communicate that they already knew that information or that it was different and it’s just interesting because a lot of grocers and even some retailers pre-pandemic did not have their capability for click and collect or delivery fully fleshed out. So I would imagine that’s something grocers are thinking about, how do we train our own employees in addition to having a third party help with delivery?

Carol Leaman:
So, so right. Right on. And there has been a movement towards click and collect that’s gone, I would say, fairly slowly over the last three years adoption wise from a customer standpoint. And you’re right, there is urgency now over click and collect. And so interestingly, we have a number of training modules around click and collect and those have been picked up by other of our grocery retailers who haven’t had click and collect capability. So we’re seeing a movement to jumping on that bandwagon as quickly as possible and the fact that we have standard content in that area and have seen uptick there tells us that that movement is happening.

Julia Raymond:
Wow. So for anyone who works in grocery who’s listening, it sounds like based on your case studies with previous or current customers, you already have preloaded content for training that they can then customize if needed.

Carol Leaman:
Absolutely right. We have a bunch of standard packages that are by industry, grocery being one, where it’s the quick start. You can come in, get very relevant content to the things that your associates need to know immediately and you don’t have to worry about creating it yourself. You can get going very, very quickly and cover the basics and then layer on those things that are very specific to your business.

Julia Raymond:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s wonderful. And I wanted to note, just because China is ahead of us in flattening the curve and things are starting to get back to somewhat normal, I was just speaking to some business leaders there and things are opening up a little bit, but consumers are still cautious, they’re still heavily relying on groceries and not dining out very often. So I think this will be something grocery will have to be adapting for for a long while and in China there was 20% growth in online grocery delivery in the hardest hit month around January. So if you think about that kind of growth, we’re probably seeing that here in North America if not higher and just two years ago US was at 2.2% of people doing online grocery delivery and I believe it was 2.8% last year so extremely low. And it’s crazy to imagine how much grocers are having to adapt quickly to meet from three percent to 20% or higher online demand.

Carol Leaman:
I completely agree with you. And so interestingly, the largest grocery chain in China is one of our customers.

Julia Raymond:
Oh, wow.

Carol Leaman:
Yeah. And so we have been on that journey of them over a number of months now and I can tell you that the urgency with which they are getting people, new employees, on to the platform and training them is absolutely there. And I agree with you that I think there’s going to be a very long tail of implication here for things like dining out and just cooking your own food at home. And I do think grocers are going to benefit from that for lot longer than just the period of time that we’re quarantined at home.

Julia Raymond:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I definitely think there’ll be a segment of consumers who realize how convenient it is to have groceries delivered and continue so that the adoption would’ve grown faster than the previous trajectory before the pandemic.

Carol Leaman:
I think also interestingly, and this is in conversation just sort of casually with people, I think when click and collect was first introduced, there was a general perception that the shoppers, for you, would be going into the store and selecting produce and meat and merchandise on the shelves in the grocery store and what grocers have figured out is that they just need focused warehouses where they have the best produce, the best selection of meat and other things and that their shoppers are actually able to then select the highest quality merchandise for delivery to home. And so I think that realization is also going to grow rapidly and people will be less reluctant to allow somebody else to shop for their apples or their broccoli when they realize the quality of produce is excellent.

Julia Raymond:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And that’s interesting because it improves the shopper experience in store not having so many pickers running around, having them be able to access a warehouse in the back with all of the food for online orders.

Carol Leaman:
Exactly.

Julia Raymond:
Wow. And is there anything else you’ve heard from your client over in China? Were they able to meet the demands?

Carol Leaman:
Yeah. So I did see a couple of videos from some of their stores about six weeks ago or eight weeks ago, kind of at the height of the issue there and it was fairly chaotic. It was prior to an orderly sort of approach to letting people in stores and fortunately, we in North America have managed to figure that out pretty quickly with lineups and things like that, but there was a lot of chaos there and store shelves were empty, like completely empty. And so they’ve come through that and now things are much more orderly and with people now being able to leave their homes and kind of reemerge, things seem to have gotten back to a normal cadence there, but it’s still never going to get back to completely the way it was, is my view.

Julia Raymond:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And even thinking about the training component with having people line up outside of the store, how do you deal with disgruntled customers who have been waiting 10 to 15 minutes? How do you make sure they keep six-foot distance or more, disinfect each cart? There are just so many small things to roll out.

Carol Leaman:
Absolutely. Stuff that, if you had asked me six months ago, would we be training our customer’s employees on these exact things you just mentioned, I would’ve said, “Really? Are you crazy?” But all of that stuff now is so important and no grocer wants to be the grocer that somebody then says they weren’t keeping people distanced and there happened to be an outbreak in that store. So there all higher cognizant of keeping their customers and their employees safe and doing that involves a tremendous amount of training.

Julia Raymond:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely. And if we switch gears, because I know Axonify, you work with global retailers as well as grocers specifically, do you think that there will be pent up demand? We’re seeing social selling and some other trends that some of these typical bricks are now doing more of, but what are you hearing?

Carol Leaman:
I really do. I think there is going to be pent up demand. In fact, I was on a call yesterday with a retail influencer who said that, in chatting with his clients, they were seeing not nearly as much online shopping as they anticipated. Many of them have turned all of their marketing efforts to social selling and through digital channels. I think people are just not spending money and so when life returns to normal, people are re-employed for those who are out of work and those that are not, just don’t know how this is going to end and when so they’re reserving their spending habits and I do believe that when things come back, there is going to be a desire to walk into stores and to experience that again.

Carol Leaman:
I think that there are going to be retailers who have a lot of inventory in warehouses that they had purchased and were already landed and sitting there waiting to go into stores. I think we’re going to see a lot of discounted merchandise which is going to cause shoppers to return to those stores. So I do think that we’re going to see a bit of a bubble and it will tapper off and kind of settle back to normal, but I do think people are going to shop again and do it fairly quickly as long as those retailers also respect that shopping habits are going to change. People are going to behave differently in stores. They are not going to want to be shoulder to shoulder in Costco as we have all gotten so used to. So there are going to be changes to buying habits even in brick and mortar and they’re going to have to make their associates sensitive to those sorts of changes. So I do think that there’s going to be some training in that also.

Julia Raymond:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Do you foresee disinfecting, will that be a component that continues on post-pandemic? People want to see the retailer staff cleaning and wiping down?

Carol Leaman:
100%. There are going to be policies and procedures around cleanliness that will stay forever. And I think this event has led all of us to realize things about simple hand washing, about the life of a virus on a surface and the need to be constantly cleaning things. I think we all appreciate like never before what a face mask does.

Julia Raymond:
And having toilet paper.

Carol Leaman:
And having toilet paper, exactly. So I think there are going to be long-standing changes to the way life is and retailers are going to have to adjust to that and train their people to continue with those things long after we all go back to normal.

Julia Raymond:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And for retailers who can, who have the capital, now might be a good time to start the training to-

Carol Leaman:
Absolutely. And in fact, I can tell you that we have a number of customers right now who are utilizing the time of their learning and development professionals to add to their content, to garden that content and curate it so that, when the associates come back to work, they can instantly press go and it’s ready for them to start to adsorb. And in fact, we also have others who are continuing to train their associates on some of this new stuff while the associated are at home and getting paid. So they’re really taking advantage of this downtime to retool and think about how they do things differently and how to convey that information so that there’s no lag in the operationalization of it when the associates come back to work.

Julia Raymond:
So, Carol, I saw at Axonify, you guys posted that there are some free resources and new content you’ve put together to help during this pandemic. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Carol Leaman:
Yeah, absolutely. Well, we, I know like many other companies, are trying to do what we can and so we’ve put together a free grocery onboarding offer to the market so that we can help those that aren’t even our customers if they want to get associates hired quickly, onboarded quickly, productive quickly. With all of these changing, urgent topics, they can do that and we will support them in their efforts to just get people on board, trained and keep them safe. We also have lots of other free learning content for our customers around mental health, things like sanitization, social distancing, all of that kind of stuff, hand washing, et cetera. And we’re here to support everybody who uses Axonify to an extraordinary degree, even more so now so help them be successful, help them continue that success when the world returns to normal.

Julia Raymond:
Absolutely. And where can our listeners find this content that you were referencing, especially for grocery?

Carol Leaman:
Well, so they should reach out to us through our website, www.axonify.com. They can reach out to me as the CEO, I’m Carol Leaman and it’s cLeaman@axonify.com and if you go on the website, there is a link and it’s info.axonify.com/grocery-101-course. And so if you google that, you’ll come right to the page and you can see all the details.

Julia Raymond:
Perfect. That was Carol Leaman with Axonify. Thank you so much for joining today and for the work you guys are doing to help out during this global crisis.

Carol Leaman:
Thanks, Julia. Really appreciate it.