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Talent Optimization in the Service Industry

There was a study a few years ago where a large fast food company was trying to figure out whether certain behavioral drives related to faster turnover in their workforce. The kicker was that most employees left within 90 days. Almost none made it past 180 days. What the study showed was that this had nothing to do with behavioral drives of the employees. Patient people, dominant people, extraverts, formal people—it didn’t matter. Most people were out the door within a matter of months. I had seen similar patterns in an in-depth study of my own personal romantic life, and I believe it is known as the “it’s not them, it’s you” effect. 

A little gentle probing showed that this company was not using any Inspire methods in their talent strategies. For example, every employee had essentially the same job, which was also every job. Each employee rotated stations—answering phones, cooking, cleaning, stocking inventory, working the register, interacting with customers, etc. If we accept that people perform better and are more highly engaged when their behavioral drives and job roles are aligned, then it is easy to see why so many people would want to leave. Regardless of their natural behavioral styles, every person probably had to spend a substantial part of their workweek doing something they didn’t like. Hate talking to people? Tough, you’re on counter today. Hate following detailed directions? Too bad, go prep the recipes. Couple that with a low paying job and tough hours, and it’s easy to see why anyone would be keeping an eye out for other opportunities.

A counterargument might be that this is a fast food job. It’s a low-skill job that no one would want to stay at for long. There is nothing we can do to stop this. Having worked many service jobs, I can see why we might assume that, but I just so happen to live in Rochester, NY, headquarters of Wegmans grocery stores*. Many grocery store positions are also low skill, and the job requirements match many of the tasks one might find in fast food service (Wegmans even runs some fast food options out of its stores). But unlike that first company, Wegmans is consistently listed as a great place to work, and nearly two thirds of its employees have been there for more than two years (although that includes corporate and warehousing roles).

Wegmans works a lot of talent optimization methods into its talent strategies, and they have become well-known for this. They have built a service-oriented “cultivating” culture that emphasizes teamwork, social responsibility, and employee development. They provide opportunities for employees to specialize and develop career skills. For example, I met Wegmans employees who were sent to learn more about cheese making, beer brewing, oyster farming, and pastry making, specifically so that they could become experts and apply those skills onsite. These employees were coached by their supervisors who also worked with them to learn what their aspirations might be within the scope of Wegmans’ enterprise.

These employees had clear, tangible evidence of a career path. There was a reason for them to stay. And it pays off for Wegmans. Besides having relatively high retention for their industry, they have expanded their footprint to new markets, and their employees frequently put in discretionary effort as a result of high engagement.

So what was the difference between that first company and Wegmans? I would argue that the first company saw people as a cog in a machine—something that needed to be standardized and consistent across the entire company. Wegmans, however, seems to think of employees as investments—something that can be acquired at a low cost and then developed into a highly valuable asset, if managed purposefully.

What do other people think about these examples? Is talent optimization as useful in the service industry as it is in the information industry? Do you have other examples of service and retail companies doing a good (or bad) job at optimizing talent?

*I have no affiliation with Wegmans other than being a customer. I am simply using them here as an example of how talent optimization can be applied to service jobs.


  • Austin,

    Ironically, having lived in Western New York most of my life I have great respect for how Wegman's has continued to develop their culture. They certainly stand out among grocers.

    However, I have also worked with healthcare organizations and find that industry challenged to retain certain segments of the workforce. Much process energy is focused on adherence to federal, state, and local regulations along with greater emphasis on documentation as necessary to substantiate quality and financial incentives (check the box syndrome) which seems to often take precedence over recognition that talent optimization (Hire and Inspire) can catalyst true integration of a healthcare delivery system and achieve better results in the same way Wegmans does in their primary industry. Now, still too much trying to do the same as others.

    However, I believe there is much opportunity within this industry and would be interested in the views of others. Maybe we can have develop further enlightenment.

  • @[email protected] That's a great point—certain industries are heavily focused on rules and regulations. I wonder if it's possible for someone with intimate knowledge of the industry present on how talent optimization works within the confines of the existing system.

  • Wegman's emphasis on a "cultivating" culture no doubt influences their employees' perception of the workplace, but it also plays a major role in the customer perception. I frequently go to Wegman's for lunch and do my grocery shopping there, and there is a palpable difference between the attitudes of Wegman's employees and those of employees at other supermarkets. This definitely goes to show how talent optimization practices such as Inspire are crucial, even in a lower-skilled industry.

    John, I also come from healthcare and find that something like Inspire is desperately needed there!

  • @[email protected] I wonder if the talent optimization hurdle for these companies is highly-regulated, standardized jobs. I am no expert, but I could envision the healthcare industry being a lot like the problem at that fast food chain I mentioned: very standardized roles, no deviations allow in how tasks are done, and every employee is expected to handle a wide variety of tasks, no exceptions. I suspect the airline industry might be the same. For example, I see the same people at the front ticket counter, then they are at my gate checking people in and helping with seat assignments, then they are hauling gate-checked luggage into the jet way, then they are helping get snacks on the plane and talking with the crew about stuff. They have to do so many things, and they have to do it in a highly-standardized and process-driven system where there is no allowance for deviation.

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