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When “Experience” Counts

We didn’t have a hierarchical structure at Toy House. While my dad was still there I did have the mantle of Vice President, but that was mostly to satisfy corporate rules. We didn’t have a manager or assistant managers or department heads. The closest thing we had to any kind of structure were the “key” employees—informally named because they had the keys to the building. They had the final say when I wasn’t in the building.

In my last group of key employees, none of them were hired because of their retail experience. They came from a wide variety of backgrounds and brought interesting skills to the table, but only one of them had worked in a similar environment (and she was hired because of skills she had shown in other non-retail jobs).

Yet there they were as my confidants, the inner circle of people I trusted the most with the safety and security of my retail business. They all shared a few traits such as the ability to stay calm in stressful situations, the ability to look at problems from the vantage point of what would be best for the customer and for the store’s reputation long term, and the ability to take charge of a situation if needed.

None of those traits are taught in typical retail training programs.

You are about to hire your seasonal team to help you get through the holidays. You already feel the crunch of the busy season. You worry if you will have the time to properly train your new seasonal staff well enough to serve your customers at the level they expect. Because of your fears and worries you make the single biggest mistake most retailers make in their hiring process.

You put too much emphasis on having “retail experience.”

Your thought process is that the more retail experience they have, the less training you need to do. I found out the hard way just how wrong that thought process really is.

First, understand that most other retailers don’t have a training program in place for their front line staff. They teach you how to clock in. They teach you how to read the schedule. They teach you how to run the register (if that’s part of your job). But the rest you pretty much have to pick up on your own. Therefore someone can have years of retail experience and still be lousy at it.

Second, recognize that your customers have a higher expectation from you and your staff than they do from most other retailers. So even if a new employee did get some modicum of training, it might not be anywhere close to the level you want them to have. Therefore all that “experience” ends up being a detriment, and you spend more time breaking bad habits than you do installing good habits.

The only “experience” that counts is their experience that shows they have the character traits you need. 

  • Do you want someone to be helpful? Find someone with experience being helpful and see whether they thrived in that position, regardless of where they worked.
  • Do you want someone to be a quick learner? Find someone with experience having to learn things quickly and see how well they did. (Did they grow in position and get promoted or stay stuck in one spot?)
  • Do you want someone who can solve problems? Find someone with experience doing a job that had problems needing to be solved and see how they did.
  • Do you want someone to be able to motivate others? Find someone with experience motivating others and see how well they did.

When I finally learned the lesson to stop hiring just because they had “retail experience” and started focusing on hiring for character traits, I found that my new hires without retail experience were often my best employees. They brought fresh, new perspective to the role while having the personality to meet my customers’ needs. Plus, I spent less time breaking them of their bad habits.

I know it is counter-intuitive. Heck, I read several books on hiring that echoed the sentiment of Harvard Business Essential’s book Hiring and Keeping the Best People that said, “The number one factor is experience on the job.” 

I beg to differ.

Experience counts. But it is the quality of experience, not the location of the experience that makes the difference. In retail, in management, in jobs where people skills trump specialized training, personality traits are far more important than having done a similar job somewhere else. 

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS If you’re hiring high school and college-aged kids, they often won’t have any retail experience. Their academic and extra-curricular careers, however, tell you a lot about their personality and whether they have the traits to be successful on the job.

PPS Since I couldn’t find any books teaching what I found worked best for hiring and training, I wrote my own book—Hiring and the Potter’s Wheel: Turning Your Staff Into a Work of Art. When you want your team to be considered “beautiful, useful, strong, and long-lasting” you’ll pick up this book.

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