December 8, 2014

Working with others


I was at a landscapers’ barbecue in Wascana Park, close to where I live. Just for clarification, we were not barbecuing landscapers, but they were in attendance. There was an assortment of people, as there is at any social function. Some, I really admired and respected and others, made me wonder how they managed to survive, what with their social skills being absent in all forms.

When you are in this trade of ours, there are occasions that make you scratch your head in wonderment. Wonderment such as the time we were having supper at a Chinese restaurant and one of the landscapers complained that in a Chinese restaurant, “they never bring you crackers, even when you ask for them.” I stared and said nothing. I didn’t know where to begin.

Back to the barbecue in the park: There were perhaps 40 or 50 of us, ranging from the newcomer to the grizzled veteran — two nice words to describe the long-serving.

One of the attendees starts in on that boring, old topic of ‘how stupid my employees are.’ He explained how one such individual gave his brother-in-law some Roundup, which he had pilfered from work, and advised the relative to spray it on his lawn, as an all-purpose weed killer. After all, he had seen the boss use it to kill a patch of quack grass. Did it work? Very well, thank you for asking.

Then another landscaper jumps in with his story, followed by another and yet another. It turned into quite a competition, with each person attempting to top the previous story. Each story pertained to employee problems.

I was quiet. The man sitting beside me, John Wigglesworth, owned a sod farm, close to Saskatoon. I liked John. He was quiet, thoughtful and when he spoke, he had something to say. He was not the sort of chap who filled up space and time with empty words. John leans into me and asks, “Do you agree with what is being said?” I shook my head in a ‘no’ fashion. John had picked up on my silence as a sign that he should comment. John said the following which, while he has since departed this earth, remains with me ‘til this day, “I don’t have any labour problems. My employees make money for me and if they don’t, they are not my employees for long.”

I agreed with John. I told him, “This is similar to when husbands talk about their wives in a disrespectful manner. I am always tempted and sometimes I have even done so, to ask the speaker if his wife knows that he is speaking in such a manner?” I have had grown men laugh and say, “No, she doesn’t,” and think that they are being funny. Call me old fashioned and call me sad.

Hire right and fire right
I continued, “The same thing applies to my employees. My employees are an asset. I would never speak in a disparaging manner of them. They assist me in running my business. They make money for me and every now and again, someone does not work out and I deal with that. But that is not an everyday occurrence. It is the exception. If you hire lots so you can fire lots, you are a poor manager and a poor judge of character.” John agreed with everything I said, even though by this time, I was standing on a soapbox. I bring out that soapbox when so moved.

I am always amazed at how stupid employers can be when they openly embarrass themselves over the misdeeds of their employees. Do they not realize that this reflects upon them, not others? Who would want to hire a firm that does not have capable staff? I buy from suppliers who have top-rate employees, the people who get my order right, and the first time. I avoid firms that employ mediocre and incompetent staff.

The same thing happens in all businesses. I was in the office of a big shot for McDonald’s, the hamburger giant, and the Poobah turns to me and asks, “How do you find someone competent enough to order a five-gallon bucket of mustard?” It was not a question that he expected me to answer, but I did. I told him that he had to screen his potential employees carefully, pay them well and treat them with respect. He didn’t appreciate my insight.

To find the best employees, take the time to hire the right person. Too often, I have seen ‘The first warm body through the door’ methodology of hiring to be the standard practice. That is not the way it should be done. You should always hire before you need the employee. If it is a low-level job, then one interview might be enough. If it is a more important position to fill, then three interviews with three different managers could be the order of the day. Three sets of eyes often see different things.

Silence speaks volumes
Screening is always important, and it is always a source of amazement how some candidates pad their resumes. The only way you are going to find out if your candidate is the right person, for you and your company, is to pick up the phone and ask the previous one, two or three employers. If a potential employee states on his resume that he, “virtually ran the place,” and the owner doesn’t even remember that person being an employee, chances are the candidate is exaggerating what he did, and his level of importance. Just saying.

Many years ago, my wife had a job checking references. She told me, after spending the summer on the phone with past employers, that most people do not outright lie, but many do exaggerate. After that bit of information, I became much more vigilant in checking references. Another tip to keep in mind when you are checking a reference or a previous employer is that you can ascertain as much from the pauses in the conversation, as you can from the answers. When I would ask a previous employer, “Would you hire this person again if you had an opening?” and they would hesitate and pause, I knew that they were thinking of the nicest way to phrase what they were about to say. Pauses and hesitations are rarely a good thing. By the way, I never, ever bother to check personal references. After having done so several times, I soon grew weary of those glowing testimonies from the candidate’s friends. Friends used as references do not help in your decision.

Every position matters
The number-one priority for employees is not pay. It is a mistake to think that salary is number one. The number one thing that employees’ value is the importance of their work, and their importance to that work. “Does what I do matter?” If the answer is yes, chances are you have content employees. If the answer is no, then chances are, you have a problem. I detested, as a student employee many years ago, being treated as nothing more than a strong back. No one would ever tell me that what I was doing was important. It is of utmost importance to always explain to each employee, the importance of what they do and how it affects the entire company.

For example, my high school kids were a fine asset to my company. They were often the first employees that a customer had contact with when they arrived, and the kids were often the last ones the customer had contact with when they left. They were out there finding parking spots and they were loading purchases into the customer’s car and helping the driver to back out. I would tell them how important their job was to our operation. They were our goodwill ambassadors. Some would get it, some would not. I loved when a customer took the time to phone and tell me how much he or she appreciated the high school students. I got several of those calls, every spring. The students are important, very important and they need to know that they are.

When ascertaining how an employee is doing, it is important to pay attention to not only their customer skills, but how much they are producing. I hate to be so callous, but I had a greenhouse sales person who everyone she served spoke highly of her. The problem was, from my perspective, she didn’t serve too many people. If there were twenty people milling around wanting advice, three would have stood by her as having given great service. The other seventeen would have told me that they had no opinion because she never got to them. Ouch. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to see 85 per cent of my customers not being served, or at the very least, acknowledged. There it is again, that fine line that we wonder and wander about.

Simple recipe for success
I had a tree and shrub salesman who was always bringing up cart loads of plants for customers. I asked him for his secret, because from the outside, he didn’t strike most people as a top-notch salesman. He was not smooth. His secret was actually quite simple. After pitching the customer on two or three items, he would ask one simple question: “Should I get a cart?” If the customer said “yes”, then the sale was in progress. If the customer said, “No, I’m just looking” then Jim would say, “Very good. If you need me, I will be over here, helping these people.” He made his outstanding sales by asking one simple question, “Should I get a cart?”

My top Christmas tree sales person would ask two questions, “What did you have last year, and were you pleased with it?” Those two simple questions told him everything he needed to know and he sold lots of Christmas trees. He didn’t waste the customer’s time or his, showing them something they had no interest in buying. Simplicity is truly the key to good selling.

Always treat your employees as your most important asset because they truly are an asset. If you think your employees are a commodity, then we have a problem.

The tips above are only the tip of the iceberg to forming a cohesive team of employees for your business. As you no doubt realize, there are many more. Keep a good set of employees and stay on the road to success.

Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.