Your staff represents your business and your brand. This is true of any business but is particularly true for service businesses where clients return for services on a consistent basis — monthly, weekly, or even multiple times per week. A poor first experience with a staff member can mean your business loses the opportunity to win a client. Or you might even lose existing clients if they decide to look at similar services elsewhere.
Not only must your staff be skilled and competent and provide quality service to your clients, they must carry themselves professionally both on the floor and off. Service businesses are based on relationships, and the more you can cultivate your business’s relationship with your clients, the greater the likelihood you’ll see the same faces returning through your doors year after year. Of course, in a service business much of the client-business relationship is actually the relationship between the client and the service provider. Therefore, it goes without saying that who you hire to represent your business is critical to achieving longevity with clients.
I’ve spoken with two different business owners in the past couple of weeks about challenges with staff members. Both of these owners are extremely talented — one a martial artist and the other a yoga teacher. Their students gravitate toward them, love the instruction they receive and feel very connected to their businesses. But like most business owners who pursue a passion and pour their heart and soul into mastering their craft, they haven’t had to do much in the way of hiring and firing — an unavoidable component of running a business when it grows beyond just you as the sole service provider.
Staff issue #1: disengaged
The first owner is struggling with what we’ll call a disengaged or lackluster staff member. To make matters more challenging, the owner has known this individual for many years and considers him almost family. When on the floor instructing, he turns it on and delivers. But at all other times he’s completely disengaged. When he arrives, he doesn’t greet anyone, and as soon as class is over he walks directly into the back room — passing existing clients, new students and walk-ins — to fiddle on his phone. He has been coached that this behavior isn’t acceptable, but to no avail. The writing is on the wall for this staff member, but the pre-existing relationship with the owner has her dragging her feet.
Staff issue #2: lack of professionalism
The second owner had an existing student express interest in becoming a yoga teacher. She proceeded to go through a yoga teacher training program and, upon completion, came back ready to teach. Over the next couple of weeks the owner began to have some reservations. The way this instructor began to carry herself was making the owner seriously question her decision to hire her. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when the instructor walked into class, obviously agitated, and loudly exclaimed, “Life is hard!”
Clients seek out activities like yoga to find a quiet space for movement and balance — a place to escape the difficulties they may be experiencing. A frazzled teacher doesn’t create the space and experience that these clients are looking for. It became obvious to the owner that this particular instructor was not a fit for her team, and she ended the relationship.
Four things to do when hiring and firing:
1. Listen to your gut
It sounds cliché, but it can’t be overstated. If you have any reservations about a potential hire, be cautious. There’s a saying, “Be slow to hire, quick to fire.” Take your time making hiring decisions, and as soon as you realize that someone isn’t working out, cut them loose and move forward.
Yes, the conversation may be uncomfortable, but it will be far more uncomfortable hearing negative feedback from your clients (or worse), witnessing attrition that comes from not addressing the issue, and having a staff member represent your business poorly.
2. Have a probationary period
Regardless of whom you hire, it’s a good idea to define a period of time when you’re evaluating whether or not the hire is a good fit. This could be anywhere from 30 to 90 days or even longer. During that time, if you see any “red flags” or have any reservations whatsoever, it’s best to sever the relationship and look for someone else.
3. Create an employee handbook
For many service business owners, creating an employee handbook is one of the last things that is tackled, often after several years in business. While a tedious task, it’s an important one. An employee handbook removes the grey area surrounding hiring and firing by providing a framework for how you expect your employees to conduct themselves, includes any policies and procedures, and ultimately makes your job much easier. If the task seems overly onerous, look to see if there’s an online tool for creating one for your state, like this one for California (requirements for what needs to be included differ by state).
4. Be cautious when hiring friends and family
Often the first people hired in smaller service businesses, particularly in the fitness industry, are friends and family members who share your passion for the service you’re providing. While hiring people you already know and have a relationship with can seem easier in some respects (you know their personality, their skill set, their communication style), there’s always the chance that the dynamics of your relationship, given the new roles of employer/employee, don’t work as anticipated. Be upfront about this possibility — make sure you both enter the agreement with eyes wide open, are comfortable severing the working relationship if necessary and can still maintain the pre-existing friendship.
While it can take some trial and error, finding and building a solid team is foundational to building a sustainable business. When you find the right people, go out of your way to take care of them and, where appropriate, incentivize them so that they see a future with your business and are invested in growing with you for the long haul.
Nicki Violetti is a co-founder of Front Desk. She also started the fourth CrossFit Affiliate. Men’s Health named it one of the Top 30 gyms in America. Nicki is a sought-after fitness business consultant and popular blogger.