Podcast Episode 103: Brian Travilla | Secrets To Managing Retail Employees

Brian Travilla | Secrets To Managing Retail Employees

Brian Travilla, Regional & District Leader at PetCo shares how to have those uncomfortable conversations about attitude, what works to get retail employees to succeed and his trajectory from working at Montgomery Ward when he was in high school to being responsible for about 1000 people. He joined me from his office in Chicago. 


Tell me something good about retail

Brian Travilla: Secrets To Managing Retail Employees



Three Key Takeaways:

  • Practice doesn't make something perfect, it makes it permanent
  • Giving personal feedback, not just performance feedback is key to creating great teams
  • Brick and mortar retailers are judged if they provide a better experience than a phone.


Bob: Thanks for joining me, Bob Phibbs, the Retail Doc, for another edition of "Tell Me Something Good about Retail." Today I am joined by Brian Travilla. And Brian, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Brian: Hey, Bob, delighted to be with you. You're right, I'm Brian Travilla. I'm a retail leader. I've been one for, gosh, over 20 years, going on 27 right now. And currently I'm a district leader with Petco, and I work in Chicago. I have the downtown market, pretty adventuresome market with a retailer grinding its way through a very interesting time. As I said I've held a number of positions all the way from my first role with Montgomery Ward as a paint mixer.

Bob: Oh, my goodness.

Brian: Yeah, yeah. And now obviously leading, you know, about 1,000 people.

Bob: You couldn't be that old. You sound much younger than that.

Brian: Well, I'd say, you know, I started in high school. And I was really fortunate to grow with Montgomery Ward. I was with them almost 10 years. And they moved me to Chicago from Florida. And I've done a lot. It's been a really interesting ride. Retail is just a contact sport, to say the least.

Bob: Yeah. No, that's really interesting that Montgomery Ward for those of you who don't know, they were like the first ones in the catalog business. I was in Los Angeles and remember Montgomery Ward was pretty big out there. And they had a hell of a training program. Wasn't that kind of one of their hallmarks, Brian?

Brian: Absolutely. Yeah. You know, I would say training and even more mentoring. They had a phenomenal amount of mentors at that company, and they were long-term leaders that were venerable and they took you under their wing. And, you know, I had an honor to learn from some of just unbelievable retail leaders.

Bob: And so how has that played out as you've taken these other positions through some of these other bigger-box retailers?

Brian: Sure. Well, you know, I tell you what, the one thing personally I've made a commitment to myself, I've worked with some amazing leaders, and obviously we've worked with some leaders that will say weren't amazing, but I've always kept that in mind, the value that those people put in me, I've made a promise to do the same to others. So throughout all my careers, I think if I could say the degree of success that I'm most proud of is the folks that I've been able to mentor and promote and see them grow. That's what I do.

Bob: Good. So give me a specific. That's all general. Give me a specific time when you had an employee who...I'm gonna go to the other side, so who was basically unmentorable, right? So you've got sales goals or you've got things that have to be done and maybe it's not a perfect fit, right? We've all had that in retail. You're charged with someone that you didn't hire necessarily, right, but they are directly responsible for your success. You don't have to give us their name and position obviously, but can you think of a specific time and how you dealt with that? Because we're talking about things that go well, and if you could share with us some of those tips, I think that'd be really valuable.

Brian: You bet. Well, I had a store leader that...we all know around the holidays we work more. We generally go to six days a week. The hours at the store get longer, freight gets heavier. Just things really pick up. And I had a store leader that really was disconnected as we entered the holiday season. And you're right, I didn't hire this store leader, and just showed a lot of negativity, you know, and on a store visit just dejected. And I finally said to this leader, I said, "Before we go any further, what's going on?" And he gave me a lot of pushback, a lot of excuses, a lot of low-level stuff. And I said, "Listen, let's go out and talk here." And, you know, sit this person down, they wouldn't open up. I was unsuccessful on that visit. Did another visit, same thing.

So I had to go to a performance management. It's my only option if you're not gonna work with me, right? So issued structured performance management, and they got even worse. And I thought, "Listen, you're going down a path you don't wanna go down and I'm telling you as a human I'm here to help you. I'm not here to come after you." 

Long story short, the store leader finally admitted to me that they had some major problems with the holidays surrounding some family issues as they grew up and everything and they just really couldn't handle it. Well, guess what? We have an employee assistance program. I was able to relate and show a lot of empathy and say, "Hey, guess what? I grew up the same way." I still issued a performance management, store leader really clicked and said, "Man, I learned a lesson, I need to ask for help because I just was so upset. I was going down a bad path."

Long story short, I don't work with that store leader anymore, but I just was recognized on their Facebook page as a leader that really made an impression on them. And they're successful to this day. The store leader is still doing a great job. But boy, I tell you what, it was getting really close for a while. And, you know, as a leader I'm like, "What more can I do to help you?" And, you know, I think the key learning there is sometimes really showing that empathy and saying, "Hey, put business aside, what can I do for you?"

Bob: And to be vulnerable enough to hear it because he could have just as easily said, "I hate you and everything about you," or a million things. But being able to make him comfortable enough or her, being able to make that person comfortable enough to confide in you, that's a skill that I don't think we're seeing in many retailers these days. So, you know, it's kind of like, breathe on this mirror, if you can work in a schedule then that's fine. And that great opportunity, grow your business through your people sometimes is lacking. But you had that training, so you've ended up being able to make a difference not only in that person's life but I imagine also in the way that they look at the holidays.

Brian: You know, I believe so. And I think sometimes we get so focused on results, we get so focused on the heat of the moment. It's easy to just follow that linear performance management path, but that's just gonna create a problem down the road. You've gotta replace, train. You've gotta do a lot of stuff, and that can have impact on the store, the team, the customer. So hitting your brakes and saying, "Wait a minute, I know I'm in charge and I know I can do what I need to do, but let's go to that one last moment, what can I do for you?" And you personalize it. Because I remember getting back to Montgomery Ward time, I was a young junior manager that, you know, had a lot of...I made a lot of mistakes, let's face it, and there was some patience shown to me from my leaders. And, you know, I've just gotta pay that forward. I've gotta do that.

Bob: That's so funny you say that because I just flashed on when I was, like, a young manager, I don't know like 23 or something, and the owner of the company...well, there was this woman who was in charge of HR and she had wanted something and I thought it was ridiculous. And I probably pretty much...we didn't have email back in those days so I don't know how we communicated quite frankly, but maybe a phone call, I don't know. 

In any event, he called me up and he goes, "You know, when someone is in your court, you really don't wanna give them a reason not to be in your court." And I was like, "Oh, really?" And he kind of unpacked for me like, "Yeah, you probably need to apologize and you need to realize that you hurt her feelings. You weren't criticizing the performance, you know, it actually became personal." So that kind of leads me to you. What's been your biggest challenge in the last three years and how you overcame it?

Brian: I'll tell you, the challenge I see in retail that I've dealt with the most is really the workforce, hiring people that are really engaged, that want to earn their way to a better position. What I see oftentimes now is, you know, folks with great education, and I value that tremendously, but they wanna start at the top and they want a significant salary. And hey, we all do, but there's a path to get there. So I would say in the last three to five years, I've dealt with a lot of folks who, you know, they wanna bypass those learning years. And I think, you know, that time, you know, at the register, the time in the back room, the time in the store, you've gotta open, you've gotta close, you've gotta do all these things so you know and you can relate to people.

Bob: Well, and that's a good point. And work the hours and the holidays that you missed and the dates that you missed and all the other stuff. Otherwise, you're one of these people that flies in and thinks that you can just tell people to do things and they're gonna follow you, right? I mean, you're leading 1,000 people, how is that even possible that they wanna do anything for you?

Brian: You're right.

Bob: You know, you've gotta have some mad skills there, Brian.

Brian: You've got to. You know, and when I go into stores, the first people I see are my associates. I mean, I get to know everything I can, little, big, small about associates because you know what? I want them to see me as Brian, not the boss or the leader or the district leader if you will. If I'm in there and I can relate and I can help them in their job and I can ask them how things are going, the old adage is if you wanna know how things are, asked the associates, you know, because they'll tell you the truth.

Bob: They'll tell you the truth.

Brian: My managers tell me what I wanna hear.

Bob: Yeah, that's right. That new computer program doesn't work because this key doesn't work and no one is listening to me. And you're like, "Holy crap, how did I not know that? We did this for nine months," right?

Brian: Yep, you bet. 

Bob: Tell me, what's the best advice you think you've ever received? And that can be over anything.

Brian: Sure. Yeah, be an elephant, not a hippo.

Bob: Okay, you have to explain that because I haven't seen that on [inaudible 00:09:30] or motivational quotes. So what does that mean?

Brian: When you look at an elephant, elephants have big ears and small mouths, and a hippo has really tiny ears and huge mouths. And as a young manager, I was a hippo. I really felt that I was really awesome and I wanted people to know that. And very similar to your story, I've had to, you know, mend some fences in my time. And I've learned the more I listen, especially as I get further in my years in position and authority and responsibility, the more I listen, the more I learn. And I always find the people that do the majority of the talking, you know, they could be suspects, something going on there. So I've learned to be an elephant with big ears.

Bob: I love that. I love that. I know that really does...we kind of forget that sometimes. And like as a retail consultant, a lot of times I say, you know, "The best thing that I think I do is I have the ears to the customer but I also have...listen an awful lot and I just ask a lot of questions. Because I just want you to be thinking about it like, "Does that make sense? Is that in line with what you've just said or how does that do?" So I love that idea, the hippopotamus...hippopotamus or rhinoceros? Hippopotamus.

Brian: Hippopotamus.

Bob: And the elephant. So I want you to think. There you are, you're at a Starbucks or you're at your favorite coffee place and a buddy wants to meet with you, a guy or a girl, and they have decided that they're gonna get out of corporate life and they're gonna open a retail store. So what would you tell that friend about going into retail nowadays?

Brian: Well, I would challenge their, "How much detective work have you done on competition? Number one. Because the competitive landscape is so omnichannel now. I mean, it's coming from everywhere. So, you know, what are you selling and why do you feel like opening a retail store is the right answer versus an e-commerce site? You know, obviously, if you wanna open a retail store in this day and age, it's probably gonna be super-duper specialty.

Bob: Exactly.

Brian: And it better be. And then how much time do you wanna devote to this. Because if you think, you know, the time you worked at a corporate role was a lot of hours, just remember retails are open sunup to sundown seven days a week. So you've [crosstalk 00:11:52].

Bob: Well, but I don't have to really be open that much, Brian. I could close on Saturdays and Sundays and have time with my kids, right?

Brian: You sure can and not be in business for a long time. So they're gonna have to really think this out. So I would say, "Hey, I'm gonna be your best friend and you're gonna submit me your business plan and I'm gonna pick it apart for you because I care about you."

Bob: You know, that's a great point because I used to work in franchising and you'd have people who would basically take a business plan from somebody they found on the web, and then they would submit it for the SBA loan. And you're like, "No, really this isn't the idea. It's what happens if you open and eight months later you don't have money, how are you gonna get it?" And so staying on the positive side of this that, "You know what? When you do open and you do decide that and you wanna be this niche retailer and you know your numbers and you say, "[inaudible 00:12:39] for a year and if it doesn't make anything, my expenses are covered," that's great. 

But I think, you know, retailers like restaurants too, sure, you could open one, that's the easy part, the hard part is, you know, a few people quit on you and suddenly you have to go and open the store and not hate it, right? You've gotta have that right attitude. Which, you know, that leads me to another thing. I mean, what are you trained about attitude? Because I think attitude is everything, isn't it?

Brian: Oh, it is the single deciding factor in everything we do. You know, when I interview people, and I have interviewed people with PhDs, I've hired doctors in my career, and I've hired people that didn't graduate high school, and you know what? There's obviously an effort and all, everybody has their own story, but attitudes will get everywhere. And so I always take time to...you know, people who've have worked with me have...if we've had to have a take a knee conversation, you know, or a curbside coaching regarding attitude, I look them right in the eyes and I'm like, "Let me give you some personal feedback. And I care enough about you to tell you this." You know, and sometimes people are open-minded to listen, but boy, attitude from a father, and I teach my kids that, to a leader and I teach my team that attitude is single most important aspect of your job skill.

Bob: And so do you work on getting them to come to it or do you pretty much tell them that this is something they have to work on or do you give them an example? I mean, I could argue all of those, right? That, you know, if you hired the wrong attitude, there's nothing...you know, there are websites where people just talk trash about retail customers. I'm sure you've seen them. I've been flamed on different ones because I'm too positive. 

Brian: Sure.

Bob: But at the end of the day, you know, how do you know what's changeable with that person?

Brian: Certainly. Well, you know, I'm a person where, again, being the elephant, I like asking questions and I like getting people to think for themselves. And it obviously depends on severity. If it's a really bad attitude I don't have time for that. You know, I mean, you can't show up like with horns and spitting fire. But if it's just, you know, lackadaisical, bad attitude, passive-aggressive, whatever, you know, I'll ask them, "How do you think you're being perceived right now or what kind of vibes are you sending?

Bob: So let's roleplay this. So I say, "I think I'm fine. I think I [inaudible 00:15:02] well with everyone, Brian."

Brian: Well, you know what, Bob? I appreciate how you feel, you know, and I'm gonna not agree with you and I'm gonna give you an example. The way that I saw you talk to your co-worker over there, you asked him something, you know, and you didn't even say please and you had a sharp tone. Would you like to be talked to like that, Bob?

Bob: Well, I wouldn't, but she's been doing it wrong for three times. I'm just tired of her.

Brian: Yeah. Hey, I can appreciate that, but, you know, you've been here a long time, right?

Bob: Three years. Yeah.

Brian: Yeah. Well, it's a pretty long time in retail. What could you do to help her?

Bob: Well, I've explained it to her three or four times...

Brian: Yep, I get you.

Bob: ...but she's dumb as a brick, or he's dumb as a brick, whatever.

Brian: Well, you know what? That's not the right attitude. We're not even calling people that. You know, Bob, I'm gonna challenge you. In fact, I'm gonna give you a homework assignment. Your homework assignment is to connect with her and teach her how to do it right because something is missing. You know what? I know you've told her three times but something is missing. And you know what? The time I'm taking with you right now, maybe you could take with her.

Bob: Oh, there you go. Nice. Nicely done. And listeners, I want you to just notice how Brian is very focused. He knows exactly where he's gonna go and he's not gonna let the employee off. And I think that's also what's great about working in retail. Because you know that that attitude comes in everywhere, right? I mean, it comes in when they're dealing with their home life, when they're dealing with other people in another retail store.

You know, Zig Ziglar used to tell this whole story about kicking the cat and how you just have to remember somebody kicked their cat down the way, and we've gotta find a way to get them over that. Otherwise, they'll just keep doing it to everyone they meet. And your idea of realizing the time I'm spending with you is something for you to do with them, I think that's absolutely a great way to do it. 

How has the way that you've thought about retail changed in the past two years? You've been in it for, you know, a quarter of a century.

Brian: Oh, long time. Yeah. Well, I'd say gone are the days where it's all about that high level of service. Because I think people's attention has gone from the employee to their phone. And they're very smart people. Our shoppers are very intelligent. They already know what they want. They don't need that long explanation of the features and benefits. They're pretty much shopping now for convenience, lifestyle, and price. And it used to be price. When the internet kinda was really getting hot, you know, 5, 10 years ago, it was all about price. Now that prices have kinda normed, there's really no great deal if you will because Amazon kind of flattened that out. I think it's about connecting with people authentically.

You know, when I was at Wards I'd be like, "Well, good morning, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Welcome to the store. How may I help you?" Today it's like, "Hey, gang, what's going on?" It's a lot more casual. My employees have their phones, customers have their phones. They do things together with their phones, and it's just how things work. So in the last three years, holy smokes, the casualness of shopping has just changed dramatically. I mean, I wear jeans to work. I used to wear a two-piece suit. I wear penny loafers and jeans and I'm like, "Oh, my goodness, I wear jeans to work." But that's just how it is these days.

Bob: Right. Yeah. No, that's true. That's true. Well, I understand you're an author, a soon-to-be author, what are you writing about?

Brian: I am so excited to tell you this because, you know, boy, have I screwed up in my retail career, like enough to now say, "I could be a great teacher." And it's called "The Humor and Art of Retail Leadership." 

Bob: Nice.

Brian: It's pretty much a story of my journey and some pretty good learnings along the way in retail leadership. And for example, one of my chapters is, "Do I Really Have to Wear a Nametag?" Because let's face it, all of us in retail wear nametags, right? And none of us like wearing a nametag. We lose the damn thing half the time. And it's a chapter dedicated to just the follies and fumbles and stuff about wearing a nametag and how usually you go into a store, and I see this at least every week, where a nametag is upside down. And I don't say anything because you know what? Soon enough they'll figure it out, they'll feel like, you know, embarrassed and it's a funny chuckle. 

Yeah, so it's a book to really inspire retail leaders on really leadership. It takes a lot of in-depth analysis on what a manager does, but really what a leader can do. And, you know, there's some funny stuff along the way. So I'm really excited. I'm in the process of final edits. And I have my artwork done for the cover. I had a high school graphics art team do it for me.

Bob: Congratulations. 

Brian: Yeah. So I'm excited to release it. And I know I'm gonna sell at least six copies because I have six friends that are excited to read it. So we'll see how it does.

Bob: Well, that's good. You better start a blog because that's the key that drives everything. And I think you've given me a good segue way into the question that I ask all my guests, which is, tell me something good about retail.

Brian: It's an amazing business. It is absolutely the most evolving business I've ever seen. You know, I studied business in all kinds of weight, shapes, and sizes and retail is so exciting because what we're doing now five years from now will have evolved to a new level of convenience and serving and technology that will just be even cooler. So, you know, the great thing is our jobs have deep roots. We are going to be okay. You know, the internet will not destroy retail. It'll just get better.

Bob: Good. Yeah, I always think that, you know, to me retail is a great normalizer of people. I know it was at me. I mean, it kind of teaches you that there's other people more important than you. And if you just help enough other people to get what they want, you're gonna get what you want. That's kind of it. But it suddenly changes the ball from, it's all about you. So I have great hopes that retail will continue to be able to do that instead of us staying in our little vacuum of our smartphones all day long and thinking it's all about us. Which is I think deadly as a civilization when we can't really just take that moment and be in that place to be with another person and realize like, "Oh, what would it feel like to be this customer or this shopper at our store and to be treated either really well or really poorly?" 

And I think most shoppers these days, you know, the reason that it's easy to shop online is it's kind of a crapshoot when I go into a lot of stores. You know, I might be ignored, I might be treated rudely. And rather than have any of that, it's easier just to stay on my phone. But you know it's just the exact opposite too. I have met some amazing salespeople at wonderful...particularly at clothing stores and the specialty sporting goods who I will go out of my way to go back and see. And I don't think that changes because ultimately the thing is that people are able to open their heart to another human being, that resonates with us and we want more of it. Would you agree?

Brian: Totally agree. You know, the art of serving will always be here. And obviously right now as I said, our eyes are down, but they'll get back up to the customer service. I firmly believe that the human interaction and that exchange of knowledge and assistance will always have a place because we'll get tired of our phones. I mean, I just see it. Everywhere you go, everybody is looking at their phone. But when I get a chance, especially when I'm in stores, you know, I love selling stuff, so I have no problem going up to customers and saying, "Hey, folks, how are you?" They don't know I'm a district manager and they don't even need to know. I'm just Brian. I'll carry out your product, I'll put it in your car, whatever. But you know what? It's fun because I'll say, "Holy cow, you better not have parked far away because this is heavy." You know what I mean? You know, because I want them to realize they had a really good experience with someone versus a phone.

Bob: Yeah. And I think that's what I always teach. The party is in the aisles. If you're out behind the counter and you think that somehow people are coming up to you and asking where stuff is, that's the recipe for having a boring job and not having a good time. But if you really wanna get out there, there's amazing stories to be heard. Would you agree?

Brian: Absolutely. Oh, the people we've met. I mean, I sold furniture to one of the Allman Brothers. 

Bob: Awesome.

Brian: And I was 18 years old and I was like, "Holy cow, cool. Could I get your address?" And I'm not trying to be weird, but I got the [inaudible 00:23:14] delivered to him. You know, and you just meet all kinds of people. And, you know, I've helped lots of people. I've hired customers. So it's really cool.

Bob: Nice. Well, is there anything else that I forgot that you wanted to tell me about working in retail that comes across?

Brian: Yes. We did a role play. And I love role play. And I think I'm the only guy besides you Bob that I've met that loves to roleplay. So all the retail people out there I would say, my goodness, roleplay, roleplay, roleplay. Everybody is gonna tell you they hate it, but they really like it and it makes you better. Because what you do in a role play is exactly what you do with a customer.

Bob: Absolutely.

Brian: And I'm glad you did that.

Bob: That is a great point. You know, I use training the analogy of I go to learn how to play tennis. Okay, so the first day they show me backhand. I'm like, "Oh, great, I'm ready for Wimbledon." And like, "No, you're gonna practice that 10,000 times." You're like, "But I want learn how to serve." It's like, "There's no point until you get this down." And roleplaying. We call that practice, you know, if you're learning a musical instrument or a sport or something, but somehow when we get into...when it deals with restaurants or retail, we somehow have this aversion to it. And we'd rather do that with a real customer where, holy crap, that may not go well.

Brian: You're right. And I say to my team, "Remember, practice doesn't make perfect, it makes it permanent, okay? That's a big difference. So we're gonna roleplay, and I'm gonna probably make the first mistake. So that levels the playing field."

Bob: There you go.

Brian: You know, I always say, "Don't be nervous about being wrong with me. I hope you're wrong with me because then you're gonna be right with the customer."

Bob: Perfect. Well, that's a great way for us to leave it, Brian. I really appreciate you joining in today. If somebody wants to circle back and find you on LinkedIn, for example, to be able to pre-order your book or when it comes out, what should they know?

Brian: Well, my LinkedIn profile is certainly up and running. I'm very active. I'm a writer on LinkedIn. So if you're ever interested in anything I've said, I do write quite a few articles on there. So you could just find me under Brian Travilla on LinkedIn. And then when my book is ready, I am gonna use Amazon to help me with that. So more to come on that.

Bob: Excellent. Well, thanks so much for joining us.

Brian: Delighted, Bob. Thank you.

Find out more about Brian and his upcoming book, The Humor and Art of Retail Leadership here 


Find out more about Brian


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