Bakers Journal

Staffing shortages? Maybe you’re the problem

August 26, 2011
By Jeff Mowatt

August 26, 2011 – When I speak at conferences about customer service strategies, I often hear managers discuss how hard it is to recruit and retain good frontline employees. Too many managers mistakenly assume the only way to keep people is to bite the bullet and pay more in salaries, benefits and perks. Unfortunately, those managers are often “fixing” the wrong problem.

Marcus Buckingham of the Gallop organization reported that the number one reason employees quit was their personal feelings about their immediate supervisor. Ask yourself if it's time your company took measures to fix the real problem when it comes to staff turnover – managers and supervisors not equipped with the necessary skills to make their team members feel valued.

Before you roll your eyes and figure, "Yah, Yah, we do all that touchy-feely pat-on-the-back stuff," let me ask you: When was the last time you or your management team received current professional training on staff recognition? The old days of “you're doing a good job” comments and employee-of-the-month programs don't work anymore. Frankly, they make matters worse. Next time you are celebrating the successes of your employees, keep in mind these three keys that make employee recognition easier, more consistent, and more powerful.

Be specific

Telling an employee, "You're doing a good job," doesn't accomplish much. In fact, it may even result in the employee feeling they're doing so well that they can coast – exactly the opposite effect the manager intended when making the comment. To truly motivate others, a compliment needs to be specific; the more precise the better.

For example, rather than saying, "You're doing a good job," the savvy manager says, "You did a great job in handling that upset customer. You listened without interrupting, you expressed empathy, apologized on behalf of the company, and you not only replaced the item but compensated them for their inconvenience. Well done!" The employee knows exactly which behaviours get rewarded. And more importantly, they're more likely to repeat them. Make your compliments specific and you not only generate good feelings, you also create a behaviour shift.

Catch them in the act

Years ago I did a series of management and frontline training seminars for retail store employees in Halifax. While in town I worked-out at a local gym and in its childcare area there was a sign reminding daycare supervisors to "Catch them doing something good!" That's good advice for managers as well.

The impact of giving employees praise once a year during a formal job review is minimal. If we don't express our appreciation until a formal performance review, that means for several months high performers may be doing extra work and getting the feeling that no one has noticed or cared. By the time we get around to recognizing them, it may be too late – they've already become demoralized or started looking at opportunities elsewhere. As the sign said, we need to catch them doing something good. Recognition needs to be immediate.

Tailor it to the person

Of course, it's easy to think of ways to reward your star performers: promotions, greater responsibility, perks, etc. The challenge is that when we recognize only the stars we can actually serve to demoralize others who aren't endowed with the same talents.

By definition, star performers love challenge. It makes perfect sense to reward them with more responsibility. On the other hand, consider marginal performers who barely manage to show-up. For instance, if we notice that our underperformer, Biff finally starts improving, it does not necessarily mean we should give him the same recognition that we give our star. If you offer Biff more responsibly his first reaction might be, "How much more are you going to pay me?" On the other hand when we notice that his performance has been improving we might say, "Biff I notice that since we had that conversation three weeks ago about the importance of being on time, you are consistently five minutes early for everything. Normally, your shift ends at 4:30, but why don't you take the rest of the afternoon off right now? Good job!" Now Biff's delighted.

The lesson is that we can't always hold employees to the same standard when it comes to recognizing performance. No two employees are exactly alike. If we want to motivate the folks who are struggling we need to help them create some wins that are achievable for them. That's one of several reasons employee-of-the-month programs, which measure everyone by the same standard, often backfire. Recognition needs to be tailored to the individual.

Bottom line benefit

The demographers are predicting that staffing shortages are only going to worsen in the coming years. With that dismal outlook, perhaps it's time companies did some upgrading on their leaderships team's supervisory skills. One thing is certain: to reduce staff turnover it's less costly to pay a well-thought, well-timed compliment, than to simply pay higher wages.

This article is based on the critically acclaimed book Becoming a Service Icon in 90 Minutes a Month, by customer service strategist and professional speaker Jeff Mowatt. To obtain your own copy of his book or to inquire about engaging Jeff for your team, visit or call 1.800.JMowatt (566.9288).

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