To Build 'Bench Strength,' Invest In and Motivate Staff

How the market place has changed! We are now fighting to keep all our positions filled with the best employees. Sometimes we win and maintain low turnover for a period of time, and other times all we seem to do is conduct interviews and train new employees.

Although there is no magic bullet to completely solve the war over retaining and motivating employees, there are some easy steps that can help us all reduce costly turnover. My experience in leadership roles at Aramark Corp., as a recruiter to the vending industry, and current chief operating officer of SuperPro Vending Group has taught me to take an aggressive role in keeping and developing our employees.

There are so many things to do. Where do we start? The most important consideration is our attitude toward our employees. We all know that vending is a people business. Just as we need to have people who like to serve the customer, we need our people to like working for us.

The first question we need to ask ourselves is, do our employees like working for us? Think about this carefully. If you can't answer "yes," you need to consider what changes to make. This might even require hiring some professional consulting. It will be an investment well worthwhile.

We can say, "If they don't like my management style, they can find another company to work for. This is who I am." This is outdated thinking.

Unfortunately for many businesses (and many employees), it remains the attitude of many employers. This was the mentality of many companies that were managed by people who entered the work force following military service.

It was also an era when the job market was more of a "buyer's market": there were more people looking for work than jobs available. The reverse of today's situation.

What would your employees say about you?

My guess is your battle with turnover is a constant war. Legendary Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz has spoken on this topic for years regarding managing and coaching people. If someone asked your employees if their employer cared about them, what would they say?

In the book, Contented Cows Give Better Milk, workplace experts and authors Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden state, "It's no accident that organizations consistently identified as winners also happen to be some of the best places on earth to work. This occurs not as an afterthought, but as a vital, premeditated element of business strategy."

Let's face it, the cost of turnover can kill us. Consider the cost and time you spend on recruiting, interviewing, hiring, training, retraining, and of course the lack of production while the positions remain open. This cost can vary, but it can easily be over $5,000 to 10,000 or more, depending on the time spent with employees.

What do they really want from us?

In personal research with employees who have resigned, I found that money was often not the first reason for quitting. Listed below are the three qualities employees seek in a position:

  • Meaningful work -- feeling proud of their work
  • High standards -- being on a winning company team
  • Feeling needed -- feeling that you care about them

Hiring practices is a subject unto itself. An excellent article appeared in the April 2006 issue of Automatic Merchandiser by hiring consultant James Bassett.

Hiring is a big part of creating a successful work environment. When you have the right employees in place, it is much easier to motivate them. But it is not the end of the task.

We need to create a workplace that rewards and encourages. Each employee has something that motivates him or her. Our job is to find out what that is for each employee, or what I like to call a team member. One way to do this is to spend time with our employees, one on one. Get to know them, their history, family and goals.

So much of our time is spent at work and running our businesses. Imagine if we could create an environment that fosters fun while achieving results. What an enhancement!

One of the best things I have done in my management career is getting my employees involved with all levels of the business. A successful practice is to have monthly meetings after normal business hours and provide dinner while running down the whole P&L statement.

Sharing information about the company can be very beneficial, but it is important to do this correctly. The main benefit is that it strengthens the employees' identity with and commitment to the company. By sharing performance information with them, they feel that the company considers them important.

What information do you share?

But be selective about the information you share. First and foremost, the information should be of some importance to them. Information that does not affect them might make them wonder what you are trying to accomplish.

It is possible to share company performance information without revealing information you consider proprietary. If your sales are growing by X percent for the last quarter, it is possible to convey this without revealing the total
sales numbers.

To create an interactive atmosphere, don't use handouts. Handouts draw people inward, not outward. During these meetings, I suggest enlarging the key parts of the statement for everyone to see and show it on a wall. What I found is that if employees know the cause and effect of actions, they will understand how it affects the company's success.

In some cases, I would call these meetings "Vision Nights" to generate excitement. These meetings were intended to discuss, in an open format, where we were and where we were going. If employees are part of the dream, they can help us get there.

While getting employees involved is important, it is also important to invest in their future. Employees are the most important investment we have, so we need to invest in them. Investing is helping them to be the best they can be with advanced schooling, business seminars, team building or leadership training. This holds true for employees at every level.

An entry level employee you invest in with training and maybe even some schooling can grow into your next manager. If you have employees willing to learn and develop, feed them with knowledge. Again, they are your future and voice in the marketplace. An investment in training can bring big rewards.

I'm sure you're asking the questions:

  • Who do I send, now and in the future?
  • Where do I send them for training, and what kind of training do I give them?
  • How much is this training and schooling going to cost me?

How to select who gets special consideration

The selection of the right person to send is as important as what training you send them to. We are all concerned about ROI (return on investment), so consider this when selecting the employee. This process of who and why to send them should be based on these considerations:

  1. Is he or she a good employee? (On-time, respectful of customers and management, and willing to go the extra mile to get the job done and you trust them.)
  2. Does the employee have potential to learn and grow? (Always seeking to learn more, asking questions of you on how to do it better and asking for more responsibilities.)
  3. Does he or she know the company's vision and goals and buy into them? (Ask how the company is doing, get involved in helping weaker or new employees improve -- without being asked.)

There are many training resources available.

One of the best places to start looking is our national association, NAMA. At its website,, you will find a tab called education. Here NAMA has listed classes, topics and dates of classes available. Some of the classes and seminars include: customer service, leadership development, sales and quality coffee certification. It also offers handbooks on many other topics for you to work with one-on-one with your employees, at your pace.

Training opportunities abound

The purpose of this article is not to promote NAMA, but in all fairness, the training it offers has received outstanding reviews from those who have participated. The management training that NAMA has made available through its association with Michigan State University is especially powerful. Even the largest companies in the industry -- including big name manufacturers -- have taken advantage of it, and these companies don't spend their money foolishly.

Industry specific training is less expensive than enrolling an employee in a class at a school, and it can be just as productive. These industry specific classes allow management and employee to learn about each other.

There are other avenues for training at local colleges and community adult education. Find out what classes are available and take a class yourself or send an employee. Adult education classes offered by many schools and community college classes are not very expensive.

Paying for entire college degree is costly, but don't rule it out. Helping pay for someone to finish their degree can be extremely rewarding. The best advice I can offer is to talk with employees, tell them why you want to help them, and find out if they feel the same about investing their time in the company.

Let's face it, if we have employees who feel like we care about them, they will walk through fire for us.

An easy and inexpensive way to build employee satisfaction is letters or notes of thanks or recognition.

I remember the first time I wrote thank you notes to employees. I had cards printed with the company logo on the front with my name and title printed on it. Inside I wrote a note of thanks, recognition or a compliment of some kind. To my amazement, my former employees still remember those cards. I made it my goal to send out five per week to people who needed encouragement or thanks.

There are many ways to boost morale. The important thing is that you do something. The present market is a candidate-driven market, meaning employees have a choice of many companies to work for. This trend is only continuing as our population ages.

Our employees, like our customers, have choices. There are times when we need to get tough with our staff and we always need to hold them accountable. But always use the golden rule. It is always possible to communicate your disapproval about something without offending someone.

Use Employee evaluations to motivate

Employee evaluations are an important tool in developing your staff. If you ask employees how they feel about employee evaluations, there is a good chance they will say they don't like them because all it amounts to is having someone criticize them. But if done right, an employee evaluation can be a great tool for boosting morale in your staff and recognizing their hard work.

It is important to provide employees feedback on their performance on a regular basis. Evaluation forms are available from a variety of sources. Evaluations provide a measurement by which to base compensation.

Periodic evaluations also provide management an opportunity to interact with employees. These one-on-one sessions should be educational for both parties involved.

If you're not sure how to use employee evaluations, seek out a human resources consultant on a part-time basis to help you through the process. They are listed in the telephone directory and on the Internet. NAMA has a human resource expert available for free consultation to all NAMA members as part of its "Knowledge Source" program.

One of the most valuable feedback tools I use is what I call "Continue, Stop, Start." I have my team do this twice a year.

You want to create an environment for your staff to feel like they can be open and honest with you. Tell them you can't change everything, but if you know what bothers them, you will try to be responsive.

Encourage them to tell you what they want you to continue to do, what they would like you to stop doing, and what they would like you to start doing.

I've been amazed how my staff has taught me over the years: from some very basic stuff like don't use your speaker phone while we are having a conversation, to more deep rooted management style issues. I've included a form for you to use or re-create, shown at the top of this page.

If you need to say sorry to one of your employees, don't wait; do it today because someone else will be happy to steal that employee from you.

Low-cost morale boosters

  • A day off with pay.
  • An award or plaque to hang in the office or at home.
  • A subscription to a magazine tailored to their interest.
  • Dinner out with you and your spouse.
  • A three-day weekend.
  • Lunch with you at a good restaurant.
  • A trip to a trade show.

About the Author

Tom Siciliano is the vice president and chief operating officer at SuperPro Vending Group based in Huntley, Ill. and a longtime supporter and teacher to members of the National Automatic Merchandising Association.