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Hiring & Keeping Salespeople - Part 1 - Employee Retention

Furniture World Magazine


It's hard to find good, new salespeople. It's time to focus on employee retention strategies.

If you're in retail, you probably don't need to be reminded that we are in the midst of an unprecedented personnel shortage. Business is great. Many furniture stores are enjoying record years for sales, and quite a few are expanding. As a result, it's nearly impossible to find all the salespeople, managers and operational workers to take full advantage of that.

We've been telling our clients for years that they need more sales help. And quite often, the response was less than enthusiastic. Until we convinced them otherwise, these retailers did not see it as an immediate issue because they didn't comprehend how much business was slipping through their fingers. Well, in the 15 months since we created Shepherd Retail Recruiting, the situation has grown so severe at all levels of retail that I am receiving panicked phone calls every week from furniture-store owners whose recruiting efforts are coming up dry.

Extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary responses, and I will detail some aggressive recruiting strategies in my next column. This month, however, I want to talk about keeping the people you've got. In my opinion, the first priority most retailers need to work on is employee retention, for the obvious reason that you'll do a lot less recruiting if you do a better job retaining.

You have to do things differently today. Otherwise, it's too easy for people to leave you for a couple of dollars more down the street. Retail is tough work, and many owners are entrepreneurial sorts who have little patience. Even if they aren't the types to jump down an employee's throat, retailers tend to play their cards close to the vest. After all, the reasoning goes, what's the point of sharing a lot of information with loose-lipped employees. Those attitudes have got to change. Now.

Communication is the first step toward creating the kind of environment that people care about, and if they care, they just may stay. I'm not talking about a lot of New Age stroking designed to bring out the inner person or false praise that creates a misplaced sense of security. Instead, keep your people in the loop about what's happening with the company. At any time, all of your employees should have a pretty good idea of how business has been, and they should be aware of what issues the company is attempting to address.

That means that you regularly keep your people up to date with important events affecting the company. If November was good, let them know, and while you're at it, tell them what you expect to happen in December. Share good news, as well as points of concern. If you've got "issues," talk about them before they start making you crazy. And if they don't get resolved, figure out whether the problem stems from a couple of individuals or from your system.

The point here is that you want to treat these people as your partners, which they are. They may not have to worry about covering the payroll this week, but they do have worries of their own. Treat them with at least as much respect as they give you. As the store's owner or manager, you set the tone for the entire organization. If your salespeople, for instance, enjoy their encounters with you, they are much more likely to greet customers with a positive attitude. They are also much more likely to enjoy their work when they don't have a fire-breathing dragon looking to singe their butts.

Listen to your employees when they have ideas for improvement. Again, the benefits extend beyond just making people feel appreciated for their contributions. These are, after all, the people who do the work every day. They may have some ideas to improve productivity, and when they do come up with one, let everybody know where it came from. Post a "brag board" in your break room, or circulate an internal newsletter that touts these contributions. The pay-off is a contagious feeling of pride and, perhaps, some new efficiency that saves the company money.

What sort of training do you provide? I believe retailers need to imbue their organizations with a culture of training. It should start the moment an employee walks through the door and continue forever. First document your systems and then train your systems, policies and procedures. Assign mentors to your new people, and reward the mentor for the success of the new person.

Yes, this is a lot of work, but it's worth it. Nothing is as discouraging as chaos and confusion. The question, "Who's job is it?" should never have to be used because everybody should know who does what in their department and throughout the store. That's why cross-training is so important. Some stores spend about a week each year swapping jobs, with the salespeople riding the delivery trucks and the warehouse workers visiting the sales floor. This can create valuable empathy between departments while also helping everybody understand some of the challenges their colleagues face.

I also recommend tuition support for employees pursuing adult education, even when the classes seem to have little to do with retailing or business. If it's important enough to one of your employees that he or she wants to attend classes after hours, then it should be important enough to you, too. You are much more likely to keep a more highly qualified person on staff, and you will be making a statement to the entire company about how you are willing to invest in them as people. And of course, you should also encourage them to attend professional meetings and seminars that do relate to the work at hand.

Many surveys have shown that recognition, pride and caring management are more important to employees than money. Nonetheless, compensation is still not an insignificant issue, and you must provide a competitive package of benefits and pay. Just as important, you need to conduct performance reviews regularly. People are hungry to know where they stand with you, and while "review" means "raise" to many people, you can make it clear, through your training program, that you reward superior job performance. As the judge and jury in this process, you and your managers must be fair and consistent. If somebody needs to improve their job performance, make it clear what they have to do and how well.

Some retailers do all these things quite well already. Chances are they are growing and prospering faster than the local market as a whole because if you've created a store that is a better place to work, guess what? It's going to be a better place to shop, too.

Take a fresh look at everything your employees do and the tools and facilities they use. Are the restrooms comfortable and clean? Is the break room a pleasant place for lunch? Do you have policies and procedures that seem petty and annoying, such as keeping office supplies locked up?
If it's not a nice place to work, people won't stay there very long, and you'll spend more time recruiting than you really need to.

Sam Leder, wrote this article while President of Shepherd Retail Recruiting. Sam has 34 years of retail management, consulting and recruiting experience in the home furnishings industry. He has been in management positions for top 100 furniture retailers including Breuners, Haynes and Rhodes and has provided consulting services to more than 300 retailers. For more information about the topics in this article contact Sam care of FURNITURE WORLD Magazine at sleder@furninfo.com.


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