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Staffing shortages?

Maybe you’re the problem

By Jeff Mowatt

59351492-main 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 the number one reason employees quit is 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. Are managers and supervisors 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 your employees’ successes, 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 they can coast, exactly the opposite effect the manager had 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!” This way, the employee knows exactly what behaviours get rewarded. And more importantly, they’re more likely to repeat them. Make your compliments specific—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. 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 review time, that means for several months, high performers may be doing extra work and getting the feeling 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 work. For instance, if we notice our underperformer, Biff, finally starts improving, it does not necessarily mean we should give him the same recognition we give our star. If you offer Biff more responsibility, his first reaction might be, “How much more are you going to pay me?” On the other hand, when we notice his performance has been improving, we might say, “Biff, I’ve noticed since our 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 to learn is 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 predict 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 leadership team’s supervisory skills. One thing is certain: if your goal is 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 book, Influence with Ease by customer service strategist and certified professional speaker, Jeff Mowatt. To obtain your own copy of his book or to inquire about engaging Jeff for your team, visit or call toll free (800) JMowatt (566-9288).


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