Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Upskilling in a downturn – how staff training can be the key to protecting your business

by Richard Townsend, CEO and co-Founder of Circus Street

It’s no secret that the next twelve months are going to be hard.

The retail sector looks particularly vulnerable with rising inflation and a slowing global economy likely to severely hit consumer demand. Naturally, the attention of many business owners is now firmly on how they can cut costs and protect their bottom line. It’s a tricky balancing act – reduce expenditure in the wrong way and you risk damaging your offering and ultimately making a downturn worse. This is particularly true when cutting headcount. Many businesses end up losing key skills and expertise that are incredibly costly to replace. Not only does this impact the customer experience in the short term, it can
undermine long term growth potential. What if there was a way to increase the output and efficiency of your team while freezing headcount and costs? The answer could be found in upskilling and training.

Embarking on training in this environment may sound like a crazy suggestion. On paper it can
appear like a luxury for staff better suited to boom times. This couldn’t be more wrong. Upskilling
and diversifying the skillset of a company’s team can be an invaluable tool in increasing output
while reducing costs. There are many reasons why this works.

First, just because there is a downturn does not mean customer expectations and preferences
remain static. If anything, customers are likely to demand more for less. This means that the skills
within an ecommerce business will need to continue to adapt. For example, specialist expertise to
market products or engage with customers on a new platform or channel. Disruption brought about
by the software suppliers or logistics companies your company relies upon closing down during the
recession may also mean quickly adapting to new solutions. By far and away the most cost-
efficient and effective option to meet these challenges is to upskill existing staff. After all, they
already know your business and can apply what they learn straight off the bat.

Next, acquiring more skills isn’t just about adapting to new challenges, it’s also about maximising
the productivity of your business. You would be surprised how few companies actually use their
existing tech stack to anywhere near its full potential. This can come down to a lack of skills,
inappropriate processes, or simply the wrong mindset. Teaching your team members on the most
effective ways to complete tasks using their existing systems can have an immediate and outsized
impact on output and morale.

Diversifying the skillset of your team also builds in resilience. At the start of the pandemic many
retailers struggled to switch their offering to online only. One of the major problems was
bottlenecks in their development teams. Essentially, updating their website with new products,
customer service or marketing information took an inordinate amount of time because the business
relied on only a handful of appropriately skilled people to do the job. By making your teams
multidisciplinary and cross functional you can spread useful skills throughout your business.
Customer service teams can learn the fundamentals of marketing, marketers know how to do the
basic dev and data work to enable their day to day and your IT teams learn more commercial
acumen. If the worst does happen and you do need to make cuts to your team, having key skills
shared across your business means that the damage to core functions will be limited.

If you do decide to embark on an upskilling program, remember there is no one size fits all
approach, however, there are some universal lessons that can help you get started. The key
ingredients are planning, testing and measuring. This means really identifying what skills your team
currently has, what skills they need to have and what skills will set your business up for the future.
When you know this you can prioritise and budget accordingly. How you train them is very much up
to individual preferences – everyone learns in different ways. Speaking to your team and specialists
will help enable you to build a tailored teaching structure.

Next, test. In resource limited times piloting can remove a lot of the risk. Start small – one team or a handful of individuals from across your company – and continually assess the impact. Remember, the best way to embed new skills is to apply them. Ensure that your team has an opportunity to use their new found expertise on real initiatives. Keep a close eye on your business metrics – including team and customer feedback – to determine the impact.

Finally, remember you do not need to do all of this alone. The best upskilling projects are built on
collaboration and full engagement with your team. Technology can do a lot of the heavy lifting –
providing fully defined training courses and all the insights and material you need to run a complete
program in a cost and time efficient way.