The managers of an Atlanta department store chain had no doubt what they were looking for when hiring sales clerks: applicants who were outgoing, enthusiastic and smiled a lot.
In short, exactly the wrong qualities for the job.
"They should have been looking for shrinking violet types who are good listeners and enjoy helping people solve problems," said Terri Kabachnick, a consultant who was hired by Rich's department stores to pinpoint the real personality traits of the chain's top-performing sales people. "Outgoing people are less likely to listen to the customer and the first to quit. During slow times, they get bored and leave their department to find friends to talk with."
With profits slumping, many national retailers are rethinking old habits. Near the top of the list: engrained assumptions about what to look for in employees. "Retailers must be sure the DNA of their store brand is reflected in every person they hire," said Ken Banks, Kabachnick's co-founder in Totalbrand Integration Inc., a Largo consulting company.
Both partners have lengthy resumes in retail. Banks was vice president of marketing for Eckerd Drug, Circuit City and PetSmart. Kabachnick was chief executive of a family-owned department store in Connecticut and an executive in the Gimbels chain. As a consultant who taught retailers how to deliver good customer service, it struck her in 1993 that many skills cannot be taught. "All the training in the world will not change a zebra's stripes," she said. "You have to hire the right people from the start."
It's fertile ground. A few chains, such as Wal-Mart, are firmly entrenched as the low price store. The rest need other ways to bond with customers, such as consistent customer service. Based on job assessments Totalbrand compiled on 4,000 retail workers so far, millions of retail workers simply aren't a good fit.
Totalbrand found that 64 percent of retail workers don't share the values, behavior or personality traits of the top achievers, so it's no wonder annual industry turnover exceeds 100 percent.
Among other findings: 92 percent of retail workers say their employers do not identify or deal with poor performers, and 81 percent of retail managers and executives say leadership jobs are based more on politics than competence.
"The results are not at all shocking," said Ellen Goldsberry, director of the Southwest Retail Center at the University of Arizona. "There are a lot of people in retailing who were not drawn there by any career aspiration. It's a situation that just cannot continue. If retailers don't offer a clear career path, employees will not stay."
Totalbrand uses 24-question tests, which it says have been empirically validated, to establish benchmark traits of everyone holding the same job. Traits unique to the top performers form a "job template" that defines applicants who best fit the model.
A typical question asks you to select the group of words that describes you the most and the least: 1) cautious, wary, careful; 2) determined, decided, unwavering, stand firm; 3) convincing, assuring; 4) good natured, pleasant.
The result is a self-assessment.
"We're looking for mismatches," said Bill Bonnstetter, president of Target Training International Inc., the Scottsdale, Ariz., company that designs the assessments for a number of industries. "A jewelry sales person who doesn't have a good aesthetic sense is not going to have much passion to sell jewelry."
Hiring managers are not required to pick people the test identifies. But they are pointedly reminded that people with those traits are more likely to succeed.
Such tests come with controversy. Tests designed for small groups increase the likelihood of bad results. Employers expose themselves to legal challenges if tests result in discrimination in hiring or promotion, even unintentionally, against women or racial minorities. Employers also run the risk of creating a clone army.
"You want variety on your payroll," said Erik Gordon, director of research at the University of Florida retailing program. "When I was in retailing, we tried to isolate the qualities of our best managers. We found some worked like Vince Lombardi, others like Mother Teresa." Sears, for example, long had a rich corporate culture, and it carried the company for a century. "In the last 10 years, they ran the company into a ditch," Gordon said.
Some retailers swear by testing, others avoid it completely. But basic skill tests are part of a computerized application process at stores such as Target and JCPenney. At Penneys almost a third of applicants never get past it to a job interview. Many retailers use so-called honesty tests to screen out job prospects identified as most likely to steal or drug tests to weed out substance abusers.
"It is sad that retailers today spend more money finding out if their employees take drugs than how well they are equipped to handle the job," said Bonnstetter of the testing company.
Still, experts say many companies that are picky about hiring have prospered in tough times. These are companies that nurture a corporate culture that matches customers' expectations.
Wal-Mart's culture and typical employee is consistent from store to store. "Even the broom-pusher can speak eloquently about what Wal-Mart is all about," Goldsberry said.
During the worst of the prerecession job squeeze, many retailers such as Gap, Home Depot and Target had no shortage of applicants. Southwest Airlines interviewed 216,000 people to fill 5,134 open jobs in 2001. "We don't test applicants, but we are very careful about hiring people who fit in our culture," said Christine Turneade, a spokeswoman for the Dallas airline. "We do use personality tests after people are hired as a tool to help employees understand exactly how the people they work with are different."
The traditional definition of customer service is not always the goal. At self-service discount stores such as Kohl's, a fast-growing chain in Menomonee Falls, Wis., Kabachnick learned customer service meant clean stores, fast checkout and fully stocked shelves.
Stock options and good pay are one incentive, but employees who enjoy what they are doing can be as important. "If putting down a floor doesn't give you a kick, you probably should not be working in the flooring department at Home Depot," Banks said.
Sometimes company culture has to change for the good of the business. Circuit City, for instance, found that clinging to the old way can bring disastrous results.
"The research showed that 95 percent of Circuit City's home appliance customers were women, yet 95 percent of the salespeople were men," Banks said. "Instead of trying to increase the number of female salespeople or make the appliance displays more appealing to women, they just lined the appliances up like boxes in a warehouse. In the end, Circuit City gave up on a $1-billion business."
Kabachnick is working on a book linking customer service to hiring the right people. That put her at the Container Store, a Dallas chain consistently ranked among the nation's best retail employers. The company offers competitive pay and flexible hours for working moms, but Kabachnick was most impressed to find employees who don't associate their jobs with work.
"I remember one vividly," Kabachnick recalled. "I asked what she did and she replied: "I organize people's homes. No, I organize people's lives. I talk about the Container Store so much that I am the Container Store.' "
_ Mark Albright can be reached at albrightsptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.
Employee attitudes by the numbers
If you're wondering why customer service leaves a lot to be desired these days, consider the attitudes among those who are supposed to provide it.
Among retail workers:
_ 92 percent say their employers do not identify or deal with poor performers.
_ 76 percent would leave their job to work for a company that develops people.
_ 42 percent would quit to follow a good boss to another job rather than stick around to build a relationship with the replacement.
Among store managers:
_ 71 percent think management expects them to be followers, not leaders.
Among retail managers and executives
_ 81 percent say leadership jobs are based more on politics than competence.
_ 72 percent have no clue as to their future with their employer.
_ 58 percent think an outsider has a better chance of landing a leadership position at their company.
SOURCE: TKG Research, based on surveys of 4,000 retail workers.