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Walmart elevates customer experience & employee confidence with VR

Customer experience
Case studies
Interviews & AMAs
Retail
12
min read
Smiling Walmart employee wearing a VR headset during a group training session

Preparing a workforce for today and tomorrow is an essential ingredient for success. Employees must be engaged, confident and consistent. This is enabled by the real-world experience Immersive Learning provides. Andy Trainor, VP of U.S. Learning for Walmart, talks to Michael Manuccia, Chief Operating Officer at Strivr, about how immersive learning has transformed training at Walmart’s 200 Academies around the U.S., and the range of benefits the world’s largest retailer has seen from providing VR-based training to its team of one million in-store associates.

Watch the interview below or continue reading for the full the transcript (edited for clarity).

Transcript: Strivr's Q&A with Andy Trainor

Michael Manuccia (Strivr)

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at Walmart.

Andy Trainor

My name is Andy Trainor. I’m Vice President, responsible for Walmart learning in the U.S. business. I’ve been with Walmart almost 20 years and am responsible for the learning and development of all of the stores, the home office and the supply chain.

Michael Manuccia

What was Walmart thinking about the future of work in relation to your overall business strategy?

Andy Trainor

I think it’s really about how do we start to prepare the associates for the future? Obviously, retail is changing, work is changing. We try to automate as many things as we can so associates can focus more on serving the customer. We’re gearing the learning experience toward preparing them for what that future looks like in the retail business.

Michael Manuccia

Walmart has perhaps the most demographically diverse and geographically dispersed workforce in the country. How do you think about approaching learning in a holistic way that’ll be actually relevant and useful for everyone?

Andy Trainor

That’s a really good question because we have 5,000 stores spread all across the US and distribution. What we’ve done for the store side — and we’re doing for the supply chain side now — is build dedicated training facilities attached to live stores. We have 200 locations attached to stores, and we’ll have 10 attached to distribution centers. We do very hands-on functional training in those facilities to teach associates the skills they need today and in the future.

About 80% of the associates are within driving distance of a learning facility, and that’s a big win for us, because single-parent families and single-car families now have the ability to go to a training that could be six weeks long and still go home every night.

We also know that the way people learn is changing, so we do a lot of different types of training for our associates. We want to be able to give them what they want, when they want it, how they want it, so we can better ensure they serve the customers the way we need them to.

Michael Manuccia

What are some of the biggest challenges that you see today that you’re trying to solve?

Andy Trainor

The biggest one is the change in the industry — productivity and price are our big drivers, and always have been — but even more in the world we’re in today. So how do you train the associates in an effective way that’s cost effective as well? We want to help them learn faster and better in an environment that makes him more comfortable.

Michael Manuccia

How does an associate’s training experience impact the service they provide to your customers?

Andy Trainor

We always knew training associates was the right thing to do. Teaching someone how to do their job makes them more effective and more productive. What we underestimated was the confidence that it gave them, not only in themselves but in the role they play in the store and even in their own personal life.

Once you know what your job is and you’re very clear on it, that confidence translates back into the store, so we have seen drastic improvements in customer associate interaction, to the point where some of our customers thought we had more associates in the store because the associates were more willing to engage the customers. They weren’t worried about being asked a question they couldn’t answer. They had the confidence to address customers face to face. So it’s good, really good.

Michael Manuccia

Take me on a journey through your mind when you started deploying immersive training. What were some of the business challenges you were looking to solve, and why did you turn to an immersive learning solution?

Andy Trainor

We do functional training. Our goal is to teach associates how to do exactly the job they’ve been hired to do or handle a new process we’re rolling out. But because our [training] facilities are attached to a live store, it’s difficult to recreate things that might be broken or situations that might happen — spills or accidents or how to deal with difficult conversations or the holiday rush. The time after Thanksgiving is our busiest time in the store. How do you prepare a leader for when there are thousands of people in the store and they all want that one Hatchimal you have? We don’t want to recreate those situations every day in the store. It’s an active store, and we don’t want to create problems for our customers. Immersive Learning allows us to create situations that we can’t or don’t want to recreate in the store and let associates go through it in a real, lifelike environment so they can learn from it and feel the experience of it.

Michael Manuccia

Would you pick those same kind of use cases again as a starting point?

Andy Trainor

For sure. We’ve moved on to more diversity inclusion and soft skills, but we started with very tactical functional skills. One that sounds really simple, but is probably one of the most impactful, is the produce “wet wall.” In the produce area there’s a wall where all the leafy green vegetables are. You have to sort through the produce and make sure it’s watered correctly and stored at the right temperature. It’s really hard to explain and feels complicated.

We created a module in VR in three-and-a-half minutes. You can go through and learn exactly what to do on this wet wall. You may not know what a wet wall is when you walk into the training, but once you’re done, anybody could go and manage that wet wall very effectively. That really helped us understand that the opportunities and soft skills are as easy to think about when you’re thinking about immersive learning as the tactical, day-to-day things.

Michael Manuccia

It sounds like you took a little bit of a step back and looked at where you could get significant impact on the business. It doesn’t have to be the most complicated thing to start with, but it mattered for what you guys were doing.

I also understand that you’ve been using [VR] to train associates on other new technologies. How have you found that to work in practice?

Andy Trainor

As we learned more about Oculus go specifically, what we quickly realized was people like VR. They think it’s neat, it’s a new thing. Everybody wants to experience it.

We had something we called pickup towers that we were rolling out across the entire country. During the test we would have to send four to five associates to a store to set up a tower and train all the associates in the store. It was taking four to six weeks, with four to five people, to set it up and get everybody trained. So we created four- or five-minute VR modules to teach how to set it up, how to maintain it, how to use it, and how to interact with customers.

Now, we send an Oculus, and everyone uses the VR module to learn how to use and set up the tower. It’s saved us four or five people per tower, and we’re going to roll out probably a thousand of them this year, so that’s significant savings in travel and people’s time. Everybody likes and wants to do the training, and they actually understand it and retain it because it feels so much like an experience. New technology is definitely a way we’re using VR.

Michael Manuccia

Nice. Walmart was able to move really quickly and deploy this cutting-edge technology over a short period of time across a huge organization. What stakeholders do you think need to be involved in the decision-making process to make this kind of initiative successful?

Andy Trainor

Anything related to training is difficult to prove ROI on, because everybody’s always working on trying to improve the same metrics. So we just made sure we engaged all the business partners that would have a stake in the game, whether it was the tech teams, the actual operators that run the stores, or the leaders of those groups, and showed them the potential. We actually let them go through it and understand what it was like and what it felt like to do it. That sold them.

It becomes experiential. Instead of it being a lesson that you were lectured on or a book that you read or a presentation that you watched, your brain believes it after about 30 seconds. It’s really happening. Now, you remember an experience differently — and more and then you would a lesson.

Michael Manuccia

Why did Walmart pick Strivr to work with?

Andy Trainor

I think we were very fortunate. Strivr was doing some work with the University of Arkansas, which is just down the road from our home office. We heard they were using it for the quarterbacks, to teach them different routes and defenses. Somebody on our team heard about it, so we went down to take a look, just to see if it was something that we would be interested in. We had no idea. We were just looking for different ways to enhance training. And as soon as we saw it, we realized that with the Academies, we had locations where we could put units, and people could come to us versus trying to figure out how to get units to people.

Because we had fixed locations, it was a great way to recreate repetitive things that we want to show people over and over. So we reached out to talk to Strivr, and you guys have been an unbelievable partner for us as we went through this journey.

Michael Manuccia

We’ve gotten to the point now that the devices and software in place and we have the associates that we want to help get better and get trained. How do you think about getting them all trained, uh, throughout the, throughout the organization?

Andy Trainor

In an organization as big as ours, it’s really tough. With 1.5 million associates, anything that can happen once in a million happens almost twice for us — every situation and everything you can imagine. It’s really hard to get all associates on the same page to understand the same thing, working on the same belt. As you get further down to the associates on the floor, the ones that really interact with customers every day, there’s so many of them. It’s impossible to get all of them to a location to train. We had to figure out a way, and that’s what the Oculus Go allowed us to do.

Now, we were able to reach associates with a consistent message, concise in a neat way that’s engaging and memorable, so we can get everybody to understand the direction, the message, the expectation, the goal, and that is really what’s going to allow us to change the momentum of what we’re doing.

Michael Manuccia

How would you say the associates are reacting to the actual trainings?

Andy Trainor

They love it. The overwhelming reaction has been very positive. They like it, and they want more of it. They continue to push us to put out more content so they can learn even more things.

Michael Manuccia

And you find it’s relevant across all the generations of the workforce?

Andy Trainor

Yeah, for sure. We don’t print any manuals; we don’t do any PowerPoints. Everything’s on the iPad. Everybody likes neat tech. We have seen no negative feedback from any generational differences. They all love it. In fact, probably the older generation is more inspired and interested in it than the younger, because the younger generation knows about it and have already experienced things like that. The older generation, this is something completely different — blows their mind.

Michael Manuccia

Speaking of inspiring those associates, do you feel like this is helping inspire the future leaders of Walmart?

Andy Trainor

Yes, for a lot of different reasons. When you spend the time and resources to train your associates on what’s expected and what the future looks like, it instills confidence in themselves, confidence in the company and a pride in the company. What the VR has allowed us to do is start to create confidence in ways that were really hard to do.

Whether you’re having conversations with customers or it’s diversity inclusion, you can create situations both positive and negative in the VR world that allow you to practice in a safe environment and learn from what you did.

Whereas historically, you did a lot of role playing, and that doesn’t feel the same as when you’re having to do it in real life.

Think about public speaking. Our store managers have to do morning meetings with their staff every day. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but if you’re not comfortable talking to a group of 50 to 100 people, it can be daunting and scary. With VR, we can have them practice morning meetings in a virtual world as many times as they want, say whatever they want and replay it. They watch themselves and learn what works and what doesn’t, and get better at it. It’s definitely changed the way our leaders look at tech and look at the future. It inspired them to do better.

Michael Manuccia

What unique data has the immersive training provided you, giving you insight into the way that you’re thinking about your associates learning and performing?

Andy Trainor

We’re just cracking the surface of that one. We definitely have a lot of data, based on the answers [associates] give, how long it takes to give the answers, how knowledgeable they are of what you tried to teach them — and also where they’re looking. If you’re walking down an aisle and there are several things wrong, and you miss them, we know it. Over time, we realize, hey, everybody misses that. Then, we can further engage it in future training.

I think the exciting thing about it is the more we do it, we can start to use that data to tailor training for individuals versus everybody. Like I said, we’re just scratching the surface of it, but we’re really excited about the potential.

Michael Manuccia

It seems like there’s a lot of ways that you could measure success, but what are the things that are really jumping out to you to define this as working?

Andy Trainor

I would say overall associate engagement is significantly higher when we use this type of training, and the knowledge retention is significantly higher. We know anecdotally that customers think we have more associates in the store because they’re more confident in helping them. We measure something called “clean, fast and friendly.” It’s our associate gauge for customer happiness. We’re seeing those numbers go up.

Then you start to look at specific modules. There are lots of different instances where we see improvement in metrics. The overall training work that we’re doing with the associates’ turnover continues to get better every year, and is at the lowest it’s been in, I don’t know, probably 10 years now.

Michael Manuccia

This is only the start of the journey, but I’m curious, what’s been the impact for you personally in implementing some of these immersive solutions?

Andy Trainor

I think, for me personally, it’s been about what the impact on individual associates has been. Teaching people how to do a job is important. But when you see the personal impact it has on somebody’s life, where they have more confidence, not only in their job, but how it translates to their families, their children, their aunts, their uncles, their brothers or sisters. That’s been really, really awesome to watch. It’s changed people’s lives, not just because they know how to do their job, but we’re giving opportunities to do things that they never thought they could do or would have had the opportunity to do before. That’s really incredible.

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