Forget the Fixtures. Upgrade Your People

Delta+Flight+Attendants+3+smA regional convenience store chain with a not-so-stellar reputation recently renovated the store located a couple miles from my house. It’s actually quite beautiful as c-stores go — bright and open with new fixtures, colorful signage, and a classy stone façade.

But what happened in front of the refurbished building is what really caught my attention during my visit there last week.

While I was pumping gasoline, I heard women shouting and swearing behind me. I turned around expecting to see two patrons mixing it up, but instead saw two employees engaged in this raucous discussion.

I couldn’t hear everything they were saying, but somebody was upset about something and wasn’t going to take it anymore. Meanwhile, patrons were walking into the store, glancing at the confrontation as they opened the door.

My gas pump didn’t print a receipt (I guess that upgrade is coming later), so I needed to enter the store as well. I have to be honest — I was a little hesitant to do that. Who knows what a person’s going to do when they’re in an agitated state? I mean, I wouldn’t have been the first innocent person ever assaulted at a convenience store.

Upon entering, I saw one long line for the only open cash register and customers waiting at the sandwich counter. About a minute later, the two angry employees who had been out front came back to their posts. They took their time — first discussing the work schedule for the upcoming days before one walked to the back office while the other opened register two.

So the store was clean and new, but the customer experience was dreadful because of the people operating the facility. This convenience store chain would have been better off had it invested in hiring and management processes rather than a neon “Eat More Ding Dongs!” sign. The company would have been improved if it sought to hire employees who genuinely cared about serving the customers in line.

I have a good news story for you as well. I recently flew Delta from Cleveland to Atlanta and noticed the plane interior had been completely refurbished. The seats and overhead compartments were clean and unscratched. My past travel experiences with Delta have ranged from uneventful to unsatisfactory, so I was expecting the same this time … until an upbeat flight attendant named “Debbie” spoke into the microphone.

Instead of scolding the passengers for not sitting down or mindlessly repeating a how-to-fasten-your-seatbelt script, Debbie welcomed everyone with a big smile and started telling jokes. “What do you do if you break your arm in two places?” she asked. “You don’t go back to those places!”

After laughs (and a couple groans) from the passengers, Debbie spoke from the heart. I don’t recall everything she said, but her punch line was this: “I love my job. More importantly I want you to love flying Delta.” This time, almost every passenger responded with applause.

Throughout the flight, Debbie was engaged with the passengers and was always smiling. As the plane began to descend, she stopped by every first-class passenger to thank them and ask them if they needed anything else. (At least that’s what appeared to happen; I was six rows back in coach but I’m a pretty decent lip reader.)

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When we touched down, Debbie provided the usual specifics passengers need to hear upon arrival, but added these words: “Stay safe. Be grateful. And never stop giving.”

What lessons can hiring managers like us glean from these stories?

During your interview process, ask “Why?” A lot. Why do you want this job? Why do you want this line of work? Why are you leaving your current job/line of work? Why would you leave this job? Why did you apply for this job — what aspect of the job caught your attention? What aspects of this job are least attractive to you and why?

Hire only employees who prove to you they will genuinely enjoy the job you’re hiring for. Some people just want a job. Others have a calling. I’d rather hire someone with zero sales experience who loves people than someone with lots of experience who bristles when someone asks them for a favor. When I hire operations-side employees, I don’t look so much for experience as I do someone who will pretty much break out in hives if they don’t stay organized, work efficiently, meet deadlines, and produce quality work.

Beef up your employee training. If you are going to hire less-experienced people, you need a thorough training system to get them up to speed quickly. Without this, your emotions can take over during the interview process and cause you to hire only experienced candidates who can self-train and save you the headache of onboarding a newbie.

Make your new hiring target clear to everyone connected to your interview process. The event I was flying to via Delta was a partner conference for a multi-billion dollar technology distributor. The president of their largest division said this to the hundreds in attendance, which included customers and his own staff: “We don’t necessarily look for people who understand and know technology. When we hire salespeople, we’re looking for people who share that same kind of sense of urgency, that commitment to customer service, that desire to do what they need to do to make our customers happy. We can teach them the rest. We can teach them how to sell. We can teach them the technology — we have a great tech support team that can do that. We want to hire the right internal characteristics so they can provide you with the best customer service.”

Invest in your hiring process. If you have a choice between buying a painting for your office or spending that same money on a service that will help you hire better … print this article and cover up the spot where the artwork would have gone.

Jim Roddy is the president of Jameson Publishing and author of the book “Hire Like You Just Beat Cancer,” which features hiring lessons, interview best practices, and recruiting strategies for managers through the perspective of a cancer-surviving executive. For more information on the book, go to


6 Comments on “Forget the Fixtures. Upgrade Your People

  1. For those who don’t fly Delta often or perhaps haven’t for years, there’s been a noticeable improvement over the past couple of years in how they treat their clients. I used to feel that I was just a number at best and an annoyance to their gate agents and flight attendants at worst. Now I feel welcome and respected.

    The gate agents and flight attendants that I’ve talked with all say that it isn’t about different hiring practices as they’ve been with Delta for 10+ years. The difference is in the corporate culture from top down. They’re treated better by the company and their managers and that is trickling down to their customers.

    1. Funny, I’ve always flown Delta and never had a problem. Mostly polite people and decent equipment, and more importantly to me, assigned seats so I can buy two, do the ghetto first class thing, and not be bothered about it.

  2. Good points all around, but I think there’s also a sense of reality that needs to temper just how passionate someone is going to be about any particular job. There are only so many people who want to work at a convenience store, realistically speaking. So, those people who truly want to dish out sandwiches and gas receipts all day are likely to be a small population. So, the hiring manager for such a position should temper their expectations to finding people who know how to behave in public and are likely to keep the job for a reasonable amount of time. That is a much wider pool of people whose salaries are also likely more in line with what the HM is willing to pay. People who are truly passionate about that job will eventually supervise the place, and perhaps move up from there. Not giving a damn and hiring whoever comes your way is one extreme, expecting everyone to live to work for even most menial jobs is the other extreme, neither one is suitable to getting consistent results.

  3. The bottom line is having congenial, service oriented people on the front-end. The client-interface should be populated with personnel who generally care about taking care of others. Since they are human, they will from time to time not care, but on any average day, they will provide good service.

    Medieval Recruiter is right IMHO on every point. To maximize profits, companies underpay employees, and they get what they pay for. In turn, customers get snubbed and upset and stand in line all day. So I personally lay the blame at managers who pursue money over a positive customer experience. They get away with bad service when there are no competitors nearby. They have a captive audience, so to speak.

    1. There’s that. I think money rules all, in the end, and I’m not against that. Everyone wants to get paid, we don’t pay bills or acquire material security with sunshine and unicorns. But every business in the US, and indeed the world, has been operating in an extremely over managed market with always a mild to massive labor surplus to work with. As a result, they have never truly had to compete for labor, which has lead to the perpetual devaluation of labor over time, to the point where most employers think they’re entitled to employees. They may as well call them indentured servants. When you reach that level of disregard, bad service is a given.

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