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Earlier this week, I spoke with Chris Salles the Director of eLearning at Guitar Center University at Guitar Center. Chris formally served as Director of Store Labor at Guitar Center and implemented their workforce management solution winning a Best in Class WFM award from Constellation Research and a President’s Award from Guitar Center in the process. Chris recently implemented the Saba Cloud product at Guitar Center, which already has employees engaged and connecting like never before. Chris accepted Saba’s 2014 Excellence in Talent Management award as a result.

Tell us about Guitar Center
First and foremost, many employees at Guitar Center simply want to rock. They’re into music, guitars, gear and the rock & roll lifestyle. While it’s those interests and traits that often makes them passionate about the products Guitar Center sells, it can be a challenge to engage them in career development and learning -- not to mention adopting new strategies and approaches aimed at boosting sales.

With 12,000 employees in 260 stores, Guitar Center leaders know a key element of engaging employees is to leverage a talent management solution that’s easy to use and provides the social, mobile and collaboration capabilities that many people have grown accustomed to through using personal technology.

What was the driving force to move to Saba’s cloud-based solution?
We really were looking to connect with employees in ways in which they want to learn, receive information and communicate. Outside of the things we were forcing people to take as a requirement, we weren’t getting a lot of action on our learning site. We have over 1,500 unique things built in our system for you to learn, and that’s just products that we built learning around. Yet, from an aerial view, we were spending 90 percent of our learning dollars on 10 percent of how people actually learn. Formal learning makes up that 10 percent. The other 90 percent of how people learn is a lot more informal. That learning occurs on the job, talking to co-workers, listening to customers, doing the tasks that are part of the job. We needed a platform to facilitate and leverage that.

How was Saba Cloud a good fit for Guitar Center?
Ours is a very passionate and connected business. We employ a lot of musicians that work in our stores and have a direct connection with the business, and with the products we sell. I think by having a tool like Saba Cloud that is social and collaborative, we can keep our employees engaged. They feel like they’re in the loop and are less likely to get blindsided by new information and changes. Speed for the employee has greatly improved, and certainly since we updated to Saba Cloud last January it makes it a lot easier for folks to get information they need quickly.

So how is the platform helping your employees collaborate?
From a technology standpoint, the platform gives employees a place to talk amongst themselves and share information about guitars, gear and situations they face on the job. We have 260 Guitar Centers and more than 100 Music & Arts stores. If all those folks get together and share information, it can be really amazing. Say there’s a store in South Dakota with six people working in it. Their level of knowledge-share is going to be a lot smaller than at a Manhattan store with 100 employees. Now we can pull those people together – we can set up a meeting and video chat and share information about guitars from store to store. So if a customer in South Dakota wants a high-end guitar we can show him the $37,000 guitar in the Manhattan vintage room and provide expertise and insights that can seal the deal like never before. We can also record and capture that interaction and it is stored in the learning system.

How have mobile capabilities helped with engagement?
The reality is information is so readily available in so many ways these days that people are going to take the avenue that is simplest for them. The water is going to get around the tree the fastest way possible. For example, in our stores our point-of-sale terminals are multi-use terminals. In the past, if a transaction needed to be processed at a terminal and you were in the middle of learning something, you got booted off. Now with mobile capabilities, it will be no problem. Pretty soon you’ll be able to grab your phone, go to the break room and just continue learning. That is a real game changer. That is how people want to learn – on their own terms when it makes sense for them. They don’t want to sit down at a computer terminal, put headphones on and feel like they are forced to do it.

Are there unique challenges at Guitar Center that you think Saba Cloud addresses particularly well?
We all know adult learning it has to be relevant -- it has to be contextual. Learning can present a unique challenge for us because at Guitar Center we hire a lot of people that don’t necessarily want to go to school. They can be aspiring musicians -- they want to be rock stars and recording artists. Frankly, most people who come to us don’t even want to be retailers initially. They want a good deal on gear, they love music and they want a job. That’s not the best recipe for formal learning, but if I can get them on discussion boards talking about their gear, what guitar they use on stage, or information about a particular artist, then I can start engaging them. Now I have a place to facilitate that conversation. Then maybe while that conversation is going on, they will see they have to take a workplace harassment module – and they will do it because they are already there and engaged in the system. 

How have you leveraged the Collaboration@Work product?
We went from two licenses of Collaboration@Work, formerly Saba Meeting, that we shared around the whole company to the new cloud-based system in which all 12,000 employees have the ability to host and create their own meetings. There are so many examples of how that is wonderful. We have district managers hold conference calls where instead of just an audio call they can use Collaboration@Work and share visual information and images. Other users are sharing their computer screen so they can walk others through how to use our workforce management tool or sharing details about a new product. They can record that and choose to post and share with the greater group, or just save for access later. There is really endless opportunity with what we can do both from a strategic corporate objective and by end-users being engaged in hosting their own meetings.  

From a customer-facing perspective, what has been the biggest benefit of Saba Cloud?
In terms of informal learning, I think the biggest benefit so far is we are presenting our employees with more stories to tell. That is really how customers want to interact with you. They don’t want to be pitched and they don’t want the hard sell – they want information that helps educate them and inform their decision. One of the best ways to achieve that is through stories. Now that we have a nice foundation for informal discussions and interactions, all those stories are starting to come out. You hear, ‘Hey the rep from Fender Guitars was here and just told me a certain artist is using this guitar on next tour.’ That now gives us a story to share with a customer in another store. That is a great icebreaker, and gets the conversation rolling. That is the type of thing we would never able to put into a formal learning process, but with this platform it is where we are seeing the biggest improvement in terms of connecting with customers. 

Do you find the Saba Cloud platform to be flexible?
Yes, it’s a nice cloud-based solution that I’m sure offers everything for a wide range of Saba customers, but there’s also opportunity to tweak it just how we want it. Just a simple example – On the Saba welcome page you can change the visual background. So today we have a picture of the Rolling Stones and their logo because on this same day back in the Sixties they launched their first U.S. tour. So we are constantly putting things up there that reflect our culture and music. It helps people feel connected and engaged. That level of flexibility is so simple, yet so important. It is a really great part of what Saba created. It seems like every update that comes through there is something fun to play with. It’s a great system for users. It feels authentic and comfortable. It’s just a great fit for us.”