The Downside of Full Employment: How Having Too Many Options Can Kill Your Brand Promise
Rich was in the mood for french fries and a chicken sandwich. He liked Wendy’s version as it was baked rather than fried, so he sought out the local franchise to take care of his cravings.
It was Sunday, late afternoon in Lakewood, Colorado. The line was long. After he got the chicken sandwich, he realized it was cold.
Cold, for what was supposed to be fresh, hot food.
He took it back to the counter and got into a verbal fisticuffs with the server. He had to get in front of a very long line to solve his problem and wasn’t willing to waste another twenty minutes to talk about a cold sandwich that was supposed to be hot.
It didn’t go well. They got into an argument, then Rich asked for the manager, which also took a long time. By this time, the fries were also cold. The manager insisted that they make him another. By this time Rich just wanted a refund and to go home. The manager refused, and it almost got ugly.
Rich is six feet and 200 lbs of solid bodybuilding muscle. He’s usually very polite, until people are rude or recalcitrant. He was getting both. He didn’t budge. He got his money back. Along with it, no interest in returning to Wendy’s.
Wendy’s brand promise is “Deliciously Different.”
I Can’t Count
On another day, Rich stopped by a gas station to fill up. When he handed the young man a twenty plus change (which would have meant that the young man at the counter simply needed to hand him a five spot) the young man was utterly, completely flustered.
He couldn’t do simple math.
The line stretched out. The young man struggled to sort out the problem.
For a $15.55 purchase, Rich had given him a twenty and fifty five cents. The young cashier was beyond comprehension. Frozen in place and unable to process this simple computation, Rich had to walk him through the math. What should have taken a matter of seconds took quite a few minutes. Rich shook his head and walked out.
They Can’t Draw Blood
At a local hospital, my endocrinologist sent me to the lab to get my blood drawn. The sharp young woman who did a superb job of same and I chatted about how she had not been able to get to the toilet between 9 am and nearly 1 pm.
She told me that they were grossly understaffed. The hospital promised them another person.
“I hope it’s better than the last, she said, rolling her eyes. “The last guy took forty-five minutes to do a draw.”
She can’t relieve herself for nearly five hours because the hospital can’t relieve her.
The Fourth Lowest Unemployment in America
Hovering just under 3%, Colorado has one of the highest rates of employment in the country. It’s one reason people are rushing here, although the bad news is that our housing costs have shot skyward as well, with more than $400k being the median price for a home and rents jumping almost monthly.
The other bad news is that good people are nearly impossible to find. According to a Colorado Public Radio story by business writer Ben Markus, “the State Department of Labor and Employment reports average hourly earnings increased 4 percent over the year to $28.09.” While that may sound great to someone in rural Iowa, it isn’t once you get here and add up all the costs-especially when your commute is hours long, because you can’t afford an apartment close in.
Lots of new businesses are opening doors, a record, according to a report from the Colorado Secretary of State: In 2017, 117,648 new business filings were recorded in Colorado, and the number of businesses in good standing reached 674,979. To succeed, all these ventures need talented people.
How Immigrant Labor Affects the Market
The problems are legion if you’re a restaurant seeking good staff and a great chef. Coloradans love to eat out, and the competition for top staff is downright fierce.
In other areas, businesses that count on immigrants are in trouble https://www.denverpost.com/2018/03/09/colorado-seasonal-worker-shortage-visas/. I can speak to how that affects the quality of labor. One outfit that hires many of these workers provides a gutter cleaning service that I’ve used for the last twelve years. The last time a man came out, he didn’t bother to put a drop cloth on my deck. When I got home, I had great clods and splatters and masses of filthy leaves, pine needles and mud all over my brand new porch chairs, tables, all around my house and all over my deck.
When I called the company to discuss this, I commiserated with the manager. They can’t get help, and the help they do get that is willing to do such backbreaking work is extremely substandard. They will clean the gutters all right, right on top of your furniture, your deck, your lawn, your porch, your front steps.
As for landscapers, there are outfits in some Colorado suburbs where the sixty-plus owner is back trimming hedges and mowing lawns like he did forty years ago. He has run untold ads to get people for jobs but they don’t want a seven-month job. They have choices.
And that is precisely the problem.
I Can Leave Anytime
In a world of nearly full employment, too many people end up hiring warm bodies just to have a spot filled. During lean times, people cut back severely on training programs (which is uniquely short-sighted) and then, there is no learning system in place when you shove some kid to the front counter to handle a sometimes-demanding, often grumpy public.
At the end of his first hour, he quits.
Because he can.
Whether you’re running a Wendy’s whose brand promise is “Deliciously Different” (as long as you don’t mind cold food, and rude counter help to boot) or a home maintenance service which requires agility and a certain respect for other people’s property, you are headed for the brick wall of deeply disappointed customers, complaints, high turnover and frankly, employees who just don’t give a shit.
Because someone else will always hire them the next day.
We’re Hiring..Please Just Register a Pulse
Just to illustrate this point, during the last hour I drove down a busy street to Lowe’s which had a huge “NOW HIRING” banner across a huge part of the storefront. Just in front of Lowe’s, Del Taco had the same thing. So did every other business up and down this main drag.
Don’t like your boss?
Walk across the street.
Yesterday I was in a Home Depot waiting for someone to attend to me in the plumbing area. I intentionally yelled out “IS ANYONE WORKING HERE TODAY?” to no avail. I finally had to nearly physically drag someone from another department who, of course, knew nothing about plumbing.
Home Depot is hiring. Yep. They need help. So does everyone, but not just help. Good help, which is at a premium these days. Help that is rude, absent, out back copping a smoke, taking an overly generous lunch break costs customers. We lose trust in what those corporations promise because the available employee base no longer cares enough if someone says “you’re fired.” In fact most can’t afford to say that. That means that poor behavior is rewarded with continued employment. Not a good message for the company or the customer.
The Value of a Depression
For those of us old enough to have parents who weathered the Great Depression (my hand is up) most of this generation was raised to value a job if we could get one, and hold onto it for dear life. Economic changes have shifted those values, but when anyone goes through lean times, a job is a job is a job, even if it’s not what you want. Those times are often transitory. The value of such times is that it’s a reminder that flush times aren’t guaranteed. Learning basic skills like customer service, fundamental math and respect for other peoples’ property are part of being, and staying, gainfully employed. People trained in a highly desirable skill, such as a particularly exotic code, might mean that at least for now you can write your own ticket. Those of us who become entrepreneurs learn quickly that lousy people skills mean we’d better have a fresh resume handy for a mail room job.
For a while, there was a massive need for highly trained computer people. India responded by the millions. We hired some and are now sending some back. Unfortunately India’s economy can’t absorb them so now- like everyone else- I field something like twenty to thirty calls a day from “The Criminal Investigation Department of the IRS” telling me I am about to be jailed. I block hundreds of numbers a week, and it makes no difference. Desperate people will do anything.
That’s what happens when a balloon bursts.
And It Will
Over the course of my 65 years I have enjoyed boom and survived bust times. When I came back to Denver in the 80s and there were no jobs to be had, I waited tables. I can’t wait tables for shit, and regularly got stiffed. Two things came out of that: I’m a generous tipper (unless you are one rude POS) and I value when I have work. Boy do I. Kids who grow up during boom times are in for a very nasty shock when we experience what is euphemistically called a “correction.” That’s when the lack of key human skills: courtesy, enthusiasm, energy, a willingness to do what needs to be done, and motivation cost dearly. People put a much higher premium on whether you can deliver the company’s brand promise. You’re the face of the franchise, whether it’s Stanley Steemer or the local Starbucks.
At that point, you can’t just walk across the street.