When Apprentice star Lord Alan Sugar describes his trusty sidekicks Karren Brady and Nick Hewer as his 'eyes and ears', it might sound a little melodramatic. But he has a point. No matter how good a retailer you are, you can't be in more than one place at once, so you have to trust staff to manage certain areas of the store and take heed when they provide feedback.

Simon Biddle of Biddles Convenience Store in Redditch, Worcestershire, says he does just that. "I'm always open to suggestions from my staff," he says. "Some of them have worked with me for more than 10 years so I trust and value their opinions as they have a lot of experience."

Skillsmart head of employer engagement Neil Moss agrees that effective listening is an integral part of running a successful business. "Team members who are responsible for serving customers and carrying out day-to-day tasks can be both a valuable source of customer feedback and the touchstone of ideas to improve service, as well as an authority on the best way to manage tasks and opportunities to grow sales," he says.

Setting up meetings either one-on-one or group sessions is one of the most efficient ways of making time to listen to staff. Londis Southwater owner Ramesh Shingadia holds regular staff meetings at his West Sussex store. "We have one-on-one appraisals, as well as open forums on key store issues. It's nice to get everyone together so that they feel involved and that they are being listened to," he claims. "The challenge is getting everyone in at the same time some are working mums, so we have to be flexible."

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Moss concedes that organising meetings isn't always straight forward. "It can be difficult in small stores with long opening hours and many part-time team members, but it's important to create a system that ensures that all team members, regardless of their shift patterns, are kept informed and that the information is communicated to them in a consistent way."

Of course, formal meetings aren't for everyone. "My staff know that they can approach me any time with an idea for the store, and that I'll always listen to them," says Simon. "It doesn't have to be in a meeting; if they have an idea over the course of the day they can tell me and we work from there."

Tyne & Wear retailer Saqib Ghafoor, who runs Nisa Gateshead, also prefers to interact with employees without scheduling in meetings. "If something needs to be addressed immediately then I'll speak to a member of staff directly, otherwise we have a suggestion box where staff can say what they want anonymously."

Saqib claims that listening to his staff and taking on board their ideas has resulted in improvements. "We introduced shopping trolleys and baskets with wheels, for example, because a member of staff noticed that older people were struggling to carry their baskets."

Viresh Popat, who co-owns a Nisa Local in Leicester with his cousin Neil Thakkar, states that encouraging staff to voice their thoughts is crucial to moving their business forward. "About half of our customer base is students, and many of our staff are students, too, so it's really important that we listen to them, because they have first-hand knowledge of this demographic. They often come up with good ideas for which products to stock," he says.

"In fact, our manager Kirsty was so inspired by customer feedback that she has suggested we introduce customer questionnaires so that we can get more insight into how to improve the store."

Mark Johnson of Celebrations Off-Licence in Stockport, Cheshire, has recently changed his tack when it comes to interacting with staff and has found that a more open approach results in a much better response. "Before, I didn't really put my cards on the table, but now I encourage staff ideas much more. If you can show them you're listening and that what they say makes an impact on the business, it can make a big difference.

"For example, I don't watch a lot of telly, but the staff will come in and tell me: 'Jacobs Creek has been advertised, so we should work on the display to maximise visibility'. By praising their forward-thinking, I've got a better store and happier staff."

As well as coming up with fresh ideas, staff can make constructive criticisms. "It's a two-way street," says Ramesh. "We talk to staff, but they also talk to us about whether we're doing everything right. My staff told me they wanted more management presence to answer customer queries, so I started spending more time front of house. I picked up on a lot of issues as a result."

It is vital that retailers communicate with all members of their team, not only to take the business forward in terms of increased sales, but also for the sake of team morale, claims Moss. "Team members whose concerns and ideas are listened to feel more informed, involved and valued and, as a result, their level of commitment to the team and the business should be high."

Mark certainly found this to be the case. "My staff really care about the business. How many members of Tesco would ring up on their day off just to check that everything is okay? Mine are regularly in contact, even when not on duty. They are an invaluable asset."

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