You’d think it was easy to hire smart, capable, smiling, coffee-loving people.
The year was 1998. JP’s, our coffee bar, had been growing like crazy. Problem was, so was the economy. Why, might you ask, is that a bad thing? Discretionary income is good for our business category, right? (a luxury that also happens to be an addiction) My problem was not lack of customers, but rather my ability to serve them. I couldn’t find an employee to save my life. I almost implemented the mirror test for hiring. You know, put a mirror in front of their mouth. If it fogs hire ‘em.
When the economy grows like crazy and angel investors are throwing millions of dollars at startups that haven’t made a dime in sales, much less any profit, it puts pressure on the employment scene. People were getting offers to work for companies that included big salaries, hiring bonuses, a full suite of benefits and a profit sharing plan that would make anyone drool. How could I compete with that?? Even my local McDonald’s had publicly advertised a starting wage a few dollars higher than mine. Obviously they had the same issue. The good thing about this situation? It forced me to evaluate my hiring practices, improve them and then make a system out of it.
How to compete
JP’s was my first business. Fortunately, I had some foundation to becoming an employer (father was an entrepreneur, good previous employer, friends in business), but there were a lot of things I had to learn from scratch. Of course smiling and helpful people had populated my vision of being in business from the start, but how to get there hadn’t. I’ve pretty much always been a customer-service-minded person who enjoys serving people and solving problems, but I had never really thought through the process of going from me serving customers to my employees serving customers and how to get them all to do the job the same I would.
Coffee quality is important in the coffee business. Customer service is important in all businesses. To compete with other coffee businesses, as well as any business fighting for the discretionary income of my customer, I needed to have smiling, happy people serving them. It would be a critical part of my business success and I was at a road block. Prior to this I had one or two key employees and a bunch of part timers, but quality employees of any sort were hard to find. So, how could I compete in the business world and find and retain those great employees?
Steps to finding and hiring great people
Step 1 – Be a great place to work. It is difficult the first couple of years being in business because you have no track record as an employer. So, unfortunately Step 1 comes with time. You must do the kind of things that grandma taught you, but applied to business: treat others as you would like to be treated, don’t be rude, serve people, be honest, think of others first – you know, the basics of life that are often neglected in our often me-first world.
Step 2 – Use a custom business employment application. You can go to the office supply store and purchase pads of job applications, but those are boring, inadequate and typical. Use this first connection with a potential employee to show them you are different than other businesses. Of course you need most of the information they put on a standard application, but asking other unique questions will better help you evaluate who a person is, what their personality is like and what their availability is. Our application has an availability matrix built into it with desired number of hours and full/part time selection that a person must answer. This helps us narrow down the applications to those who will be a fit for us, as well as satisfy their needs (don’t miss that key – satisfy an employee’s needs and your business benefits – more on that in another post). Our application also has a questionnaire to determine a person’s coffee interest, as well as a few thought provoking and fun questions meant to draw out a person’s personality. I don’t know about you, but we love hiring unique, fun and lively people, who also happen to be coffee loving, hard working, smiling and capable. Here is a link to the generic version of our application free for you to download and use.
Step 3 – Conduct more than one interview and make them lengthy. I know, if you are an owner operator and don’t have a manager in place, you probably feel foolish asking someone to come in a second or third time to ask them questions (I have a “5 minutes with Jack” interview that all potentials who make it through my manager’s process must still face). But, it is all about the process. Also, sitting across a cafe table for a 5 minute chat tells you nothing about them. Anyone can smile and answer, “Yes, I love working in a fast paced environment” to simple and surface questions. You need to probe. To find out what is really inside this person. Once you hire them, it’s done – they are yours for better or worse. Employing someone is easy. Getting rid of a bad hire can be a lengthy and possibly difficult process and in the mean time this person may be destroying your business. I often ask future business owners the simple question, “How do you find out what’s inside a lemon?” And how do you find out what is inside a person, which by the way you WILL find out after you hire them. You need to put them in a squeezing position. Bring them in again and then again. Ask hard questions. Test them. If they really want the job you’ll see it. Things you do that may frustrate or intimidate or frazzle them are not really meant to frustrate, intimidate or frazzle them, but to find out if they can be. Once they work for you, some customers will frustrate, intimidate and frazzle them and you don’t want employees who can’t handle it.
Step 4 – Check all references and job history. You may have been told that in today’s litigious environment many companies won’t answer even the simplest of questions on a former employee’s job performance, but only confirm employment dates. The truth is many small businesses, while avoiding saying anything negative, may affirm a former employee who had a good work record. It’s not so much if they don’t say anything, but rather can I find someone to say something positive. One of our interview questions is. “When I contact your former employer what will they say about your work?” I know job applicants may give a flowery answer, but most will feel the pressure to tell the truth knowing I will call and their former employer may talk. Additionally, we call and talk to all personal references. I know there are exceptions to this, but people that list long relationships, especially with other business owners, leaders, pastors or those who are known in the community, make the best employees.
Step 5 – Hire on a 90-day probationary period. Some states are what is called an “at-will” employment state. Basically this means the employer is free to discharge individuals “for good cause, or bad cause, or no cause at all,” and the employee is equally “free to quit, strike, or otherwise cease work.” You will need to check state or local laws for your location, but when we hire people we state that we are an at will employment business and we hire with a 90-day probationary period. After the first couple of weeks of employment a person’s true personality and work ethic start to show. You can watch them and talk to your management/other staff members and get feedback on how well they fit in with existing staff, are learning and doing the job and whether or not you want them to stay. If they are a good fit, you win. If not, there may be some repercussions to letting them go, but better to have a few short-term consequences then to keep a wrong employee. Getting rid of the wrong employee is uncomfortable. Keeping them is deadly.
- Look to your existing customer base and their children.
- Go on coffee forums and websites where coffee people hang and make it known you are always accepting applications.
- Advertise in your store that you are looking for “smiling and passionate coffee lovers”
- Advertise on your social networks – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social networks that connect you with people that follow your business.
- Talk to people who are coffee lovers about working for you, even if they haven’t expressed a job need. Someday they might.
- Use our custom coffeeshop employment application to ask the obvious questions up front. Questions like, “Do your favorite coffee drinks taste like coffee?” and “Are you passionate about great quality coffee?“