In 1921, four Philadelphians pooled $200 apiece to establish an auto parts supply company that would eventually grow into the $2.2 billion full-service automotive aftermarket chain, Pep Boys – Manny, Moe & Jack, named for founders Emanuel “Manny” Rosenfeld, Maurice “Moe” Strauss, Moe Radavitz and Graham “Jack” Jackson. (Moe Radavitz left the company after only a few years in the business.) Throughout its growth, Pep Boys has kept the focus squarely on the customers, providing high-quality service and adapting to their changing needs. Now with 595 stores and more than 6,000 service bays in the United States and Puerto Rico, Pep Boys must keep its nearly 22,000 employees up to speed on products and parts, as well as the company’s business practices.
Before CEO Larry Stevenson took the wheel of the company in April 2003, learning at Pep Boys was more centralized, said Liviu Dedes, director of training and organizational development. “The entire HR function was driven from the corporate office,” he said. “Post-new-CEO, we are now a somewhat decentralized organization. From a learning perspective, we provide the content from here, and also we ensure that the organizational goals, intentions and message are laced throughout our training deliveries.”
However, Dedes pointed out that the central learning organization does not direct learning in the field without listening and responding to requests from the workforce. “The field is responsible for execution of the initiatives, but we also have strong lines of feedback coming in as well, so it’s not strictly a push situation,” Dedes said. “There’s a lot of pulling of information in from the field, as far as what the needs are at the front lines of the organization.”
One of the most important needs on the front lines for a retail organization is product knowledge to ensure employees on the sales floor know what they’re selling and can adapt quickly to changes. “We need to be able to make everybody more comfortable selling tires to our customers, or batteries, or brakes, for example,” said Jenny Berkley, Ed.D., e-learning manager for Pep Boys. “Otherwise, you have to wait for a trainer to get to your store—and we have 595 stores—or hope that somebody experienced has the time to fill you in.” Berkley added that online courses are a good mechanism to introduce associates to the wide range of products offered by Pep Boys.
Pep Boys associates must be oriented to the rules and regulations of the industry, Berkley said. Dedes added that the need to track compliance with these rules for legal purposes was a major driver toward implementing a learning management system. “We have to meet legal requirements—like those set by OSHA and the EPA. From a compliance standpoint, using the e-learning platform gave us a way to accurately measure whether associates have completed the required training,” he said. Associates use their secure employee ID numbers to log in, ensuring that the right person is sitting in front of the terminal going through the training. “That way, we can measure compliance and keep accurate records,” Dedes said.
In addition to the ability to measure, the LMS also allows Pep Boys to ensure the right message gets out to the right employees at the right time. “By removing the human element, we consistently deliver the same information to every person, so there’s no inconsistency. This eliminates situations such as, ‘Well, my manager never told me about that,’ or ‘Nobody ever told me I can’t pour antifreeze down the drain.’ That was huge for us from a reporting standpoint,” Dedes said.
The company’s culture and branding set the stage for most of the learning that takes place at Pep Boys, according to Dedes. “Number one, we expose the new associate to what the Pep Boys culture is,” he said. “We’ve been around for 84 years, so company culture is critical to us. We set the expectations for customer service standards and demonstrate a high level of customer service in all of the scenarios that we present to our associates. We have characters or guides that take you through it, and we really stress the brand, the culture and the customer service flavor throughout our entire e-learning offering.”
Many of the guides that take learners through the Pep Boys training are part of various simulations and scenarios associated with specific modules and courses. According to Berkley, the company started by providing smaller simulations or scenarios as a mechanism to quiz learners as they progressed through the course. It then delved deeper into simulations through two modules called Mutual Respect and Professional Conduct, intended to encourage inclusiveness in a diverse workplace and demonstrate how employees are expected to behave toward one another, Berkley said. “Those modules include actors from one of our actual stores,” she explained. “Each was involved in a number of scenarios, which came from real situations in our stores. The module gives you the structure up front and the information, then it plays the scenario and has you make a choice.”
Pep Boys does not only use simulation in its e-learning courses, Dedes said. Simulation-based learning is also included in many instructor-led courses, from classes on sexual harassment and diversity to instruction that leads managers through the performance review process. “Too many times in our industry, people think going to classes equals learning, and unfortunately, that’s not always the case,” Dedes said. “Often, there’s little change of behaviors after that class.” He added that through simulations, associates can learn by making decisions on how to handle specific situations. “We believe that really adds more traction to the learning experience, and they leave the training class already practicing what they’ve learned,” he said.
Most recently, Pep Boys introduced three simulation modules for its new point-of-sale application, called Shop Ex, which is launching throughout its stores. “This new point-of-sale system has three online modules that include close to 80 small simulations of actual tasks that associates perform, like opening the till or practicing a credit transaction, for example,” Berkley said. These simulations were developed using IBM’s proprietary Simulation Producer and Content Producer tools.
The tools help Pep Boys set the stage for transactions, allowing associates to go through the “button-pushing experience of the software,” Dedes said. In addition, it is one more way to help the company reinforce its business rules and its customer service practices. “Overall, associates have to get to a certain level of proficiency with the simulations, as well as pass a quiz that emphasizes the business rules and best practices around the transaction,” he said, helping drive the learning back to the company’s strategy and goals.
About 10 percent of the chain has experienced the training so far, and Pep Boys will roll out the software to 55 stores a week until early May. Word-of-mouth from the trainers is positive, Berkley said. “When associates complete their online simulations in advance, and beyond that, if they’re able to visit an already-live Shop Ex store, training goes very smoothly indeed.”
Pep Boys measures its associates’ proficiency at various stages in the learning process—through quizzes at the end of each module and through certification at the end of each category to measure longer-term retention, Dedes said. “Beyond that, we have company-wide software that looks at sales with a pretty fine microscope,” Berkley added. However, she said they are careful not to attribute final sales numbers to training alone, because of the many concurrent initiatives undertaken to boost sales in specific areas.
“We hire for attitude,” Dedes said. “We don’t necessarily look for car people all the time. A main focus of our e-learning initiative is to create the core knowledge that an associate needs to be successful at Pep Boys. Though that last finite line of ROI is important, our first point of concern is that we give our associates the core knowledge they need to be able to serve our customers properly. That, in turn, will drive sales.”
Moving toward technology-delivered training has saved money for Pep Boys, though. The annual expense of printing materials has fallen dramatically. “Paper disappears or associates use it as scrap paper and so on,” Dedes said. “The payroll costs alone were huge, about $2.5 million a year.”
In addition, Dedes said that the efficiency of the LMS has made a big difference from a reporting and compliance standpoint. “By using e-learning as a tool, we have improved our internal compliance,” he explained. “When we need to communicate a message out to our entire population, rather than relying on 600 videotapes to be disseminated and crossing our fingers and hoping people watch, this way we have a metric, and the message goes directly to the individual. We can tell who has and who has not sat through it, and measure comprehension through a quiz at the end.”
Pep Boys is going to continue to take its blended approach to e-learning to the next level by incorporating the human element even further into the process. Associates will use the e-learning to prepare for “huddle” meetings with their manager and co-workers, which will help further reinforce the lessons learned.
Emily Hollis is managing editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.