As my dad, Irving, was approaching his mid-60s, he started a curious habit. He would stand by the parking lot door early in the morning so he could greet the staff one by one as each arrived at work. It’s as if someone had hijacked my dad and replaced him with the Wal-Mart Greeter.
Dad had an infectious smile that no one could resist. It would warm up the coldest of NY days.
I would eavesdrop a little on the conversations he was having as I was busy scurrying around the office trying to attend to the work at hand. Typically, he would be asking them questions about how they were feeling or how their family was doing and what they were up to. He patiently listened as they would glow while bragging about one of their children’s latest accomplishments. He’d offer heartfelt empathy when they or their loved ones were struggling or had endured a loss of a loved one.
And then around mid-morning he’d begin to walk around the office and the shop area, engaging people in a one-to-one brief conversation if he had missed them earlier.
It wasn’t shocking that he was engaging people in conversation since my dad had always liked people and had a warm spot in his heart for his staff, but he was so wrapped up in growing the business most days I remember him looking like a blur in the morning as he was trying to attend to the business at hand.
Don’t get me wrong; it was a lovely change, but it was a change nonetheless so I (being the curious type) asked him late one morning after he completed his rounds, “What’s with the greeter routine?”
He rocked back in his chair for a moment, then leaned forward and just lit up one of his radiant grins as he locked his eyes with mine and he said, “Since I no longer run the day-to-day activities around here with you and your brothers taking that over, I asked myself what role I should be playing. And what immediately occurred to me is that this would be the perfect time to do what I knew I should have always been spending more time doing. That’s making everyone who comes to work here each day feel like they made the right choice.”
I said, “Choice? It’s their job. It’s how they pay the bills. What choice?”
Dad patiently waved off my blustering, “The way I see it, everyday they wake up, they vote with their feet.
“If they don’t feel like they’re part of a family at work and that they’re cared for as people and not like they’re some cog in a big wheel, why work here? They should use their feet and go work for some big utility company or government agency where they’d be just a number and not a name.
“I don’t want that to happen! So, I’m investing in them with the most precious thing I’ve got to give - myself, my time and my enthusiasm for them as people.
“Frankly Al, that’s why I think people tend to stay here with us so long and they work so hard to do a good job for us and our customers. Take a look at our competitors. Many of them have a nice shop like us, they have nice trucks like us and they probably pay as well and maybe even better than us.”
Early And OftenI was beginning to see the light of his wisdom, but at this point it was barely the light of a flashlight off in the distance. I asked him, “OK. But they must know that we do a lot of special training here that no one else does in the industry. We work hard to promote from within so they have a career and not just a dead-end job. We keep them working even when things are slowing down and we are generous with profit-sharing. So, why would they ever use their feet and go somewhere else?”
Now dad rolled his chair closer to mine and I could feel the space between us shrink. He was about to turn that flashlight in the distance into a lighthouse beacon, “If we don’t make them feel wanted, the rest of these things mean nothing! Besides, it’s in our human nature to always think the grass has got to be greener on the other side of the fence. You know our customers do that, don’t they? And that’s why you write the newsletters to shed the light on this mistaken notion of theirs. It’s what good marketing is all about. You communicate with our customers early and often whenever they might have a concern about something and you let them know all the terrific things you do for them and why you’re not like every other company out there.
“Why wouldn’t you do the same with our staff? You need to spend as much time and energy communicating with the people here because it’s their human nature to think the grass has got to be greener on the other side of the fence. And if you were them, you’d be thinking the same way. Al, I fervently believe one of the big reasons they chose to work here is because they feel appreciated and that they’re part of a family.
“Let me ask you something. What’s more expensive: keeping a good employee happy or recruiting, hiring, training and retaining a new employee? You already know the answer.
“So help me invest in making everyone who comes to work here each day feel like they made the right decision. It’s good for them, good for our customers and good for us.”
My dad’s words of advice are true anytime. But with this downturn in the economy and the challenges ahead, it’s even more important. Your staff is bound to think it’s got to be better someplace else - especially if your call count is dropping and they’re taking home less salary and bonus money. They’re going to think that one of your competitors must be getting all the calls and keeping his staff busy. And if you were them, you’d be thinking the same thing unless you learn to communicate early and often.
Let’s face it. There are probably going to be sacrifices made by owners and staff alike. And since you might have to make some tough choices about cutbacks or ask for givebacks, you need to have earned your employees’ trust. They must feel like they’re part of the family and although it’s going to be a whole lot harder to do the things you need to do to first survive, ultimately the company will thrive.
Now is the time to make early and effective communication a daily habit and to let your employees know you care about them as people first. That although the economy is slowing, you’re going to do your best to care for them in these tough times, that together as a team you will succeed.
So make it a habit to welcome everyone warmly tomorrow morning and every morning. Mingle with people as they work to let them know you care and see how much return on investment you get with each step your employees take.
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