B&Q in-house qualifications support career progression

How City & Guilds is helping B&Q give its employees a sense of career progression while improving customer service

06 April 2012

In an era of employee empowerment, corporate responsibility and lifelong learning, the retail sector doesn’t have the best of reputations when it comes to staff retention. There is a perceived lack of career progression and training, meaning that workers have little hesitancy in moving on. The cost of high employee turnover goes beyond the monetary impact of recruitment, potentially creating a workforce that lacks the proficiency to meet the demands of today’s customer. So, if a retailer could show it was investing in its workforce in a real way, wouldn’t that mean it could retain staff and improve the customer experience?

Sharon Bottomley started working for B&Q in Plymouth in 2001. Earlier this year she was among the company’s first employees to gain one of its three in-house qualifications, specially designed and accredited by City & Guilds. ‘The NVQ helped me learn new skills – and improve my old ones,’ says Sharon. ‘It’s definitely enabled me to talk confidently with customers. It helps them to trust you more, too.’ Sharon has now heard about the home improvement qualification and plans to enrol for that next.

B&Q’s staff qualifications include the NVQ in Retail Skills Level 2, the Level 2 Home Improvement Knowledge Qualification (HIKQ) and an apprenticeship programme. Regardless of academic background or age, every staff member is encouraged to get a qualification. ‘When I left school, I only had two CSEs. Now I’m 50 and I’ve got another qualification. It’s not just the young ones getting them, and that makes me feel proud,’ says Sharon.

By the end of January 2010, B&Q aims to have 10,000 staff with an NVQ in Retail Skills and 5000 with an HIKQ. There are also 140 on the year-long apprenticeship programme, with another intake due next year. While the three qualifications work together they are equally powerful separately, says Rachel Rawlinson of B&Q’s Retail Learning and Development.

The apprenticeship programme is for ‘bright stars’ and takes on a limited number, while the NVQ is for all. Retail Skills Level 2 focuses on the basics of retailing best practice and behaviour. ‘It’s designed to give our staff a solid grounding in essential retail skills, and it’s externally audited, so the quality of the qualification is protected,’ says Rawlinson. ‘The HIKQ, on the other hand, focuses solely on product knowledge and is already proving vital. We get asked all sorts of questions, so product knowledge is crucial.’

Staff learn in a variety of ways, from online training to being buddied or shadowed. ‘The HIKQ is an online test and the NVQ is signed off by an appraiser,’ explains Rawlinson. ‘Staff must demonstrate a consistency of performance in their role. It’s not just about gaining knowledge, it’s how that knowledge translates to their team, store and customers.’

While training is an integral part of B&Q’s philosophy, the DIY giant needed accreditation to give it quality-assured value. ‘We went with City & Guilds because it gives good support and is commercially oriented,’ says Rawlinson. ‘B&Q does things fast and on a large scale. City & Guilds was able to match our pace, and we see it as a partner for the long term.’

Rob May, Product Manager of City & Guilds for Business, was set the task of devising B&Q’s qualifications, a job made easier by the complex training programme the retailer already had in place. ‘We took the existing scheme and built it into a training and assessment programme, making B&Q the first retailer to build its own nationally recognised qualification.’

May’s first step was to take the company’s training and break it into different elements, so there were different ways to get the HIKQ, depending on which part of the business staff worked in. ‘We broke it up into sets of units and put it onto the new Qualifications and Credit Framework,’ says May.

‘The trickiest thing to get right is the assessment. So we worked with B&Q to design question papers that met the standards of a normal national qualification. B&Q didn’t want an easy qualification, it really wanted to test the product knowledge of its staff, so we provided the quality perspective to ensure it would stand up to scrutiny.’

Pilot Launch

The Level 2 Home Improvement Knowledge Qualification was piloted in October last year. Rolling it out across all B&Q’s sites was a challenge, but staff were enthusiastic. ‘We marketed the qualifications as though they were products,’ explains Rawlinson. ‘Each course was branded and given a logo, and these were all sent out to the stores before launch.’

The new qualifications brought unexpected advantages. ‘The additional rigour that City & Guilds brings to the qualifications ensures that staff get the reviews, appraisals and investment that they need,’ says Rawlinson. ‘Before we had qualifications, managers who were busy looking after operational stuff might forget to do one-to-ones with staff, but now they ensure that they do. That additional rigour has been good for us, reinforcing our people basics.’

While Rawlinson admits it’s still early days, the qualifications are proving a boost for business and for staff confidence levels. ‘In the stores with high numbers of achievers, we are seeing higher levels of customer satisfaction,’ she says, adding that early indications have been incredibly positive, with B&Q now looking at how the qualifications have positively engaged staff, as well as reducing labour turnover and absenteeism.

Clinton Oldham, unit manager at B&Q’s Yeovil, Somerset store, has already seen the benefits. ‘The qualifications have made an immediate difference,’ he says. ‘The business reasons for qualifications around profit, sales and customer service are obvious, but it is also about the individuals and what it means to them.’ Oldham hopes that at least 40% of his team will complete the NVQ by the end of 2009.

Oldham is hopeful that the company will start offering level 3 qualifications. ‘It’s the next step for everyone. Encouraging all our staff to do it is something that we need to be aiming for,’ he adds. ‘We plan to put new people on it straight away as part of our induction process.’

Rawlinson, meanwhile, is already thinking about a three- year strategy for the company. ‘We want to offer one or two new qualifications next year,’ she says. ‘For some, the qualifications will help take them to other levels of learning. I’m sure we can look at some career mapping in the next two years. B&Q is, after all, about choices and routes.’

Shape of Things to Come

The new qualifications are also receiving interest from overseas branches, with the Chinese arm of B&Q recently getting in touch. So could Chinese staff be the next to benefit from the City & Guilds treatment? Perhaps. May is already working on projects with big names in other business sectors, and he is sure that B&Q’s approach to training is the shape of things to come. ‘In many industries this is going to be the way forward,’ he says. ‘It’s created an advantage for B&Q – central to its offering is the ability to give advice. In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, this is a valuable commodity.’

Elaine Seaman certainly agrees. The 24-year-old B&Q showroom training manager from Plymouth has gained her HIKQ. ‘B&Q is a good company to work for because it looks after you,’ she says. ‘There are the pressures of retail, but with training you feel more confident and, having done the HIKQ, I know that my team will have that confidence, too.’


Our research reveals that three quarters of young people demand skills-based training to achieve their ambitions Read full research article