LAS VEGAS-As employees filtered out of the office at day's end, the business owner announced there would be a brief meeting in the parking lot the next morning for the 20 persons on the sales staff. The parking lot? They looked at each other quizzically, shrugged, then went home.
Bright and early, the meeting began. The boss read off the names of the top 10 salespeople, congratulated them and said they could go inside. As for the others-he thanked them for their time then told them to hit the road. They were no longer needed.
The harsh reality of finding-and keeping-quality employees was never more brutal as illustrated by that reportedly true story as related by Wes Stephenson, who along with his brother and father own eight Big O Tires Inc. stores in Las Vegas.
Currently, he is also president of the Big O Dealers of America Association, and belongs to the franchiser's dealer planning board. (He was not the owner in the story.)
During last fall's Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week trade show extravaganza in Las Vegas, Mr. Stephenson shared an abundance of pointers with tire dealers and others about the never-ending search for good employees. Information he readily admitted was gleaned from years of trial and error.
Gambling, the Las Vegas native noted, is a big part of any business.
``You do your best to screen and find the best employees-close your eyes, swallow hard and say, `You're hired.' Then you take your chances and hope it works out.''
While that's often the case, there are a number of things owners and managers can do, he said, to significantly increase the odds of hiring the best auto service technicians, sales people, front office help or tire busters possible.
Calling newspaper ``Help Wanted'' ads a ``good windsock'' to gauge interest in the market for a business, Mr. Stephenson said research indicates 75 percent of a publication's readers scrutinize these ads, whether or not they're job hunting. So the ads must create a positive image for the employer while generating qualified inquiries.
A tire or service shop advertisement for an entry-level position, he said, is in direct competition with jobs at places like McDonald's or a convenience store.
To attract good employees, the shop should display its name prominently in an ad that states ``Career Opportunity''-not ``Help Wanted.''
Those recruitment ads also should have a positive effect on the company's current employees, who are among the most interested readers. ``Don't give the impression, `We can't keep enough good, qualified employees around here,' '' he advised. That smacks of desperation. Instead, beckon for persons to join an ``expanding, aggressive company.''
As for those ``Help Wanted'' signs permanently on display at some dealerships-get rid of them, he urged. They give customers the wrong impression that the business can't keep good employees, or is understaffed and may not be able to adequately service customers' needs.
Why not display a ``Career Opportunities'' sign that calls for techs, sales staff, full- or part-time positions, and touts advancement opportunities, paid training and health benefits-with ``applications available here.''
Employment agencies are another source for potential employees, but Mr. Stephenson warned that some play a ``numbers game,'' often sending as many candidates as they can, no matter their qualifications, hoping someone will work out.
Develop a good relationship with a reliable agency, he said, and provide it with a list of what you expect from an employee as well as your company's goals and what it offers in pay, benefits and training. Find out from the agency why applicants may be turning down interviews with your business, then change your approach.
``After all, our purpose is not to steal employees from our competitors,'' he said, ``but to get them from the `outside world.' ''
Mr. Stephenson suggested owners and managers distribute their business cards wherever they go. If you get good service somewhere-at a car wash, or from a waitress in a restaurant, for instance-compliment the person, give him or her your card and introduce yourself. Then say, ``If you're ever looking for a job, give me a call.''
``You already know that they've done a good job,'' he said. One or two callbacks, after giving out 40 business cards, is ``a whole lot better than a `help wanted' ad or a sign on the wall.''
``Develop your own advanceable employ-ees,'' he said, but remember, ``you get the service and performance from your employ-ees that you're willing to accept.''
Take advantage of the many training opportunities available from manufacturers and suppliers. But don't just relegate a tire service worker's training, for example, to only that job. Mr. Stephenson admitted he lost an ambitious tire buster to an auto parts store when a sales slot opened there.
Employees become excited about their work, he added, when they can ``look beyond what their job is now, to what it could be.''
Some of his best service techs were not hired from the outside but, as he put it, were ``raised as puppies'' right on his staff.
``If you develop quality employees, can keep them and provide a quality place to work, your recruitment will take care of itself,'' according to Mr. Stephenson. ``You won't lose that many, and if you have an opening your techs will spread the word.''
Owners need to look at the ``team'' they want to assemble-not just individuals. A successful business, he said, is a blend of personalities. Teams don't consist of all ``rah-rah'' types, but some quieter, down-to-earth persons to anchor the team, as well.
During an employment interview, a technician should be ``immediately likeable,'' Mr. Stephenson noted, because ``the same impression I get is the one my customers will get'' when they trot out to the service bay to talk with the tech about their car.
Also, develop people ``willing to see the whole picture,'' and who realize that ``everything is everybody's job,'' whether it be refilling towels in the bathroom or picking up litter in the parking lot.
Employees must have their eyes ``on the end zone'' by knowing what the company's goals are, he said, and what it takes to accomplish them.
But those goals-and the employees' job objectives-must be clear. ``Sometimes we tell employees, `Just do it and trust me,' '' he said. Explaining goals gives employees confidence in the company.
Every Tuesday, for example, the Stephensons meet with each of their stores' managers to review the previous week's data as well as focus on goals in order to continue motivating all the employees.
Unfortunately, the automotive industry has traditionally been a ``default'' career for those unable to make it to or through college, according to Mr. Stephenson.
However, with the training opportunities available-and the growing reliance on computers and electronics in vehicles-technicians are no longer considered the lowest common denominator.
He urged owners to cultivate potential employees through vocational schools and community colleges. ``You can't wait for quality employees to come out,'' he said. ``You have to go out into the community and develop them.''
During the courting ritual, potential employees need to be put at ease in order to get a true assessment of their intelligence and friendliness, he said, because ``they're more than likely scared to death of you.''
Don't ask closed-end questions such as, ``Where did you work last?'' he said, but rather: ``How did you enjoy your last job?'' or ``What would you like to have changed on your last job?'' and ``What are your goals and ambitions?''
And, he warned, ``your employees will not forget the things you say and promise in the interview. Sometimes, in your desire to hire, you promise a lot of things that could come back to haunt you.''
He suggested the person conducting the interview work from a script, then put it in the employee's file ``so you can look back and know what was discussed.''
Many factors influence an employee's job satisfaction, beyond just the money involved, Mr. Stephenson said.
They include: recognition of achievement; quality of supervision; interpersonal relations; security of the business; company policy and administration; working conditions; training and advancement opportunities; and, of course, the work itself.
``Is it enjoyable? Even the most mundane of work can be fulfilling,'' he said, ``if everyone gets recognition and understands where he or she fits into the company's plans.''
Keep the avenues of communication open, he recommended. Sit down regularly to find out if the employees have problems, and how they rate their job performance.
Because the daily, necessary jobs around a dealership can quickly become overwhelming, Mr. Stephenson suggested a clear-cut task schedule be organized, spelling out duties and assignments over a daily and weekly basis. It is critical to employees' attitudes and success, he said, for them to have a clear definition of ``what a good job is and how they've accomplished their tasks.''
He also noted ``the spirit of lack of appreciation for what employees have accomplished will pervade a shop if they can't share the rewards for what the store has done.''
And those rewards aren't always monetary, Mr. Stephenson added. ``I have a lot of people bustin' their butts trying to get their name on top of our `Sales Person of the Month' plaque!''