How to Churn Employees

By Peter L DeHaan

My  friend, Dan, recently completed his first year of college. After spending last summer relegated to working a smattering of part-time odd jobs, he desired a different outcome for this year’s educational respite. He learned that it was important to start his search early to beat out the competition. By working contacts and networking through family and friends, he developed a list of prime prospects. Four realistic opportunities emerged, each complete with an inside contact to guide the process, offer advice, and provide feedback. Dan’s summer employment forecast seemed indeed bright.

During his spring break, he met with each company, submitting resumes, completing applications, and going through interviews. Each opportunity looked promising. Soon he begin to analyze their respective merits and desirability as his ideal summer job, ranking them in order of preference and suitability. With all these encouraging opportunities, it was understandably hard for him to pursue new leads and less desirable options.

Dutifully, he maintained contact with them throughout the remainder of the school year and made plans to meet as soon as school was out. It was during those follow-up meetings that things began to unravel. Due to unforeseen events, two prospects backed away during that first week. Two weeks later, a third bowed out and eventually the fourth fell through. Now he was almost a month out of school and had to restart his job search. Fortunately, the area high schools were still in session, so at least he could get a jump on their impending onslaught of the job market.

It was a discouraging time for him and in the midst of desperation, or perhaps inspiration, he one day resorted to doing an Internet job search. The job site allowed him to conduct his search for businesses within a specified radius of our home. He put in five miles and, although we live in a relatively rural area, he got a match.

What follows is a sad saga of how not to recruit, manage, and treat employees. Within it are lessons to be learned. Here, then, is how to churn employees.

Hide Key Information: The help wanted ad was decidedly lacking in tangible detail. The specific type of work was not given and only vague generalities were provided. The verbiage was along the lines of exciting and rewarding position, working with other professionals at an established and successful company.

In reading this finely crafted prose, it was hard not to get excited and draw the conclusion that one had stumbled onto the most wonderful career opportunity available. For a moment I, too, was taken in by their impressively worded and enticing marketing copy. However, I soon realized it was only grandiose largess. In contemplating what they weren’t saying, I quietly concluded that they were either looking for home-based telemarketers or door-to-door sales staff. As it would turn out, neither was far from reality.

Misrepresent the Facts: Dan responded to the ad and a preliminary phone interview was conducted. An in-person meeting was the next step. Dan was dismayed to learn that it was to be conducted in another city, over thirty miles away. Given the high price of gas and his limited funds, this was a discouraging development for a job represented to be within five miles of home.

Believing that only this initial meeting would be at a distant location, he expectantly proceeded. After three hours of a preliminary group interview and subsequent one-on-one conversation, he was offered a job. He would be selling knives!  Then he received more disconcerting news. Three days of training would be held – at that distant location.

At the conclusion of the training, he was then informed that twice-a-week sales meetings were mandatory. Not surprisingly, they were also to be held in the faraway city. Twice-a-day long distance phone calls to his manager, BJ, were also required. It was adding up to be quite expensive for this “local” job. On top of that, he had to buy his demo set of knives at a cost of over $100.

Have Purposeless Meetings: Not to be deterred, Dan gamely proceeded. He made his first sale as soon as his training was complete and headed off to the sales meeting. So as not to interfere with selling, it was scheduled at nine in the evening, which was too late to make appointments. The meeting was not what Dan expected. BJ seemingly did not have a definite plan for the meeting and meandered through it. There was no apparent objective or purpose – other than to see how many staff would comply with his attendance mandate.

Generally the meetings would start late. Often they had little substance. Other times BJ would not be able to locate all his materials or handouts would not be ready. More than once Dan and his cohorts waited while BJ made copies, talked on the phone, or left the room. Once he got mad at the people not present – and chewed out those who were.

Waste Time: During these meetings, individual queries were postponed for afterwards. If Dan waited around to have his questions answered, he might not get home until after midnight. More often that not, he was frustrated with the lack of response to his inquiries, either being deferred yet again or receiving a cocky, condescending retort.

The twice-a-day phone calls were also an exercise in frustration and futility. Dan would alter his schedule to make these calls during the prescribed time frame. Although these calls were required, BJ sometimes wasn’t available or he might respond with irritation at the interruption. During these calls, sometimes Dan was encouraged; other times he could get chastised for not doing more or his communication would be summarily dismissed.

Undervalue Staff: Another problem was that BJ was focused on hiring more sales staff. He gave priority to recruitment and had little left to give his existing charges. From Dan’s original group, the attrition rate was at 90 percent after two weeks. It seemed that BJ viewed staffing as a numbers game. It was quantity over quality; people were expendable and you needed to hire many in order for a few to stick around.

Make Unreasonable Demands: The twice-a-week sales meetings and twice-a-day phone calls struck Dan as unreasonable and demanding, especially since he could see little reason for them and experienced even less benefit from them. Perhaps most telling, however, was BJ’s insistence that they work seven days a week – for a job that was advertised as part-time. All the more infuriating was that BJ often bragged that when he was in the field, he would only sell a few days a week.

Give Bad and Inappropriate Advice: When the sales staff would complain about the cost of driving to the sales meetings and the long distance calls, BJ would dismissingly respond that it was all tax deductible. He claimed to be aggressive in filling out his tax forms and boasted that he generally paid no taxes!  He implied that his staff should follow his example.

Don’t Pay What You Promise:  Dan was told he would earn a minimum guaranteed amount on every appointment, even if no sales were made. Never once did this happen. The reasoning was not revealed. It could be that there were many loopholes and exceptions in that policy, allowing ample wiggle room to avoid paying the minimum reimbursement; possibly BJ exercised discretion over this facet and abused that power; or perhaps it was merely a false promise.

Arbitrarily Refuse Training: Dan’s initial training covered product knowledge and how to do a demonstration. He was instructed to ask for referrals after every presentation, regardless if a sale was made. Dan was accumulating leads, but had not been trained on how to follow through on them.

He ask BJ what to do. BJ’s response was that it would be covered at the sales meetings. Except that it wasn’t. Dan had pretty much given up on the sales meetings and asked BJ directly for assistance. BJ’s unexpected rejoinder was, “Since you’re not coming to the meetings anymore, I’m not going to tell you!”

Despite all of this, Dan did well selling knives. He enjoyed making presentations and doing demos. This resulted in a high closing ratio, and he quickly earned a boost in his commission rate. Soon after Dan embarked on his knife-selling adventure, another job opportunity availed itself. It was part-time – mowing lawns and doing landscaping – and only expected to last for three weeks. Wanting to keep his options open, Dan balanced both jobs. He soon witnessed that not all bosses were like BJ. His landscaping boss was easygoing and flexible. He and Dan quickly established a rapport and worked well together. Although the job was never more than part-time, it happily continued for the rest of the summer.

Dan is still a knife salesman, though it has now become so part-time as to be negligible. Still, he is keeping it open as an option for the future. If only he had received the additional training he needed and been treated with a bit of respect and dignity, the outcome would have been quite different.

[Epilogue: Dan was just notified by BJ that the office will be “temporarily shut down” and the sales reps reassigned to other offices; BJ will go back to being a field rep.]

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