August 1, 2003   view past issues

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Feature: Know Thy Customer

There’s been a lot of attention focused recently on 16 words. In government and politics, apparently, even a modest-sized sentence can evoke powerful forces and endless debate. Thankfully, we in the business world generally have clearer and more succinct direction. Why, then, do we seem to forget those words so often and ignore the lessons that they hold?

What am I talking about? As we all know, our employers (whether they know it or not) are engaged in a War for the Best Talent. To win this conflict, they must have a clear and effective recruitment strategy. Devising such a plan, however, requires knowledge of and adherence to the central truisms of business. One of these keys to success has its roots in the field of marketing, and it’s expressed in just 3 words: Know thy customer. To put it another way, you can’t sell to anyone-let alone, the best talent-unless you know their preferences and needs, goals and dreams.

It’s a wise principle, and many of us are ignoring it. At least that’s the only conclusion one can draw from a recent Job Satisfaction Survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management. The poll produced the following results:

    Employee’s Top Five Aspects of Job Satisfaction (in order)

  • Job security
  • Benefits
  • Communication between employees and management
  • Employee flexibility to balance life and work issues
  • Compensation/pay
  • HR Professionals View of Employee’s Top Five Aspects of Job Satisfaction (in order)

  • Communication between employees and management
  • Recognition by management
  • Relationship with immediate supervisor
  • Job security
  • Compensation/pay

In other words, we in the HR field got 40% of employees’ top 5 issues wrong and 80% of the issues in the wrong priority order. In effect, the poll respondents, at least, didn’t have a clue who their customer was.

How does such “cluelessness” affect our ability to recruit top talent? In many obvious and not so obvious ways. For example, if we emphasize the wrong employee issues in the Career area on our Web-site, we are apt both to attract the wrong candidates and turn off the right ones. That mistake, in turn, increases our cost and time to hire and reduces our return on the considerable investment most of us have made (and continue to make) in our Web-site asset. Worse, once we get the misinformed new hires into our companies, they will quickly learn the truth-they’ve bought into a culture that values aspects of employment dissimilar to those they value-and the resulting dissonance is likely to diminish their performance and, ultimately, their retention.

If a virtuous circle begins with an accurate insight that, in turn, leads inevitably to a positive outcome, this situation is exactly the opposite. It is a “vicious circle,” where an initial misjudgment leads inexorably to negative results. And not just from your corporate Web-site. It occurs with miscast job postings, misguided “selling” during the interview process and misconceived employment brands.

Now, in our defense, it’s not always easy to figure out what employees (and new hires) want. They are fickle about what matters to them and, no less important, what matters most. And because they are human, their needs and preferences change as they do, making the search for an answer a continuous and often frustrating exercise. So, what we do? How can we determine what we should emphasize in our job postings and on our Web-site, in our brand marketing and our interviews?

As with our colleagues in marketing, I propose that we conduct regular focus groups among our customers-our employees-to determine the answers to two key questions:

  • Why did you accept the company’s offer of employment, and
  • Why do you stay employed with the company?

These meetings can occur in person, online or in some combination of those venues. The most important point is that they be held on a regular basis-optimally, each quarter-and promote both individual comments and group interaction leading to collective or consensus feedback. Why? Because those insights will tell us what’s important to our other customer set-the candidates we want to turn into employees-now and in the future.

Unlike the typical approach in marketing, however, I think we should bias the focus groups toward two key cohorts of our workforce:

  • Rare Performers, the so-called “A” level workers celebrated in the McKinsey & Company report, “The War for Talent;” and
  • Rare Skill Holders, the workers who have skills that are both critical to the mission of your organization and in critically short supply.

In other words, to win the War for the Best Talent, we don’t need to know what’s important to the “average” customer, but we do need to know the hot buttons of the best and most desperately needed. Their needs and priorities should shape our job postings, our Web-site content, our interview process and our employment brand. Or as another truism of business puts it, Recruit rare candidates, and you’ll hire exceptional employees.

Section Two: Site News announced that it has launched a new area or channel on its Web-site devoted to diversity recruiting. It joins the following other channels on the site: college, executive, contract/freelance, retail, accounting, admin & clerical, customer service, engineering, healthcare, human resources, information technology, manufacturing, sales & marketing, and science & biotech.

Mercer Human Resources Consulting released the findings of a study of corporate performance management programs. According to its poll of employees, 61% felt that they understood their employer’s performance management system, but less than half said their last review provided the information they needed to improve. Worse, less than a third had even had a performance review in the previous twelve months. Not surprisingly, the study concluded that such situations can cause employee apathy and lack of commitment. announced the introduction of a Diversity and Inclusion community on its site. Established in partnership with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), it is located among the following other channels on the site: resume tips, networking, interviewing, relocating and salary information.

The Society for Human Resource Management profiled a recent court decision regarding telecommuters. In the case, an employee, who had worked from home in Florida rather than in her employer’s workplace in New York, sued for unemployment insurance benefits from New York when she was terminated. She argued that, because she was linked electronically to her employer, her work actually took place on its mainframe computer in that state and, therefore, she was eligible for benefits from it. The court, however, ruled otherwise, declaring that physical presence determines whether or not a person is working within a state and thus eligible for its unemployment insurance benefit., formerly the American Compensation Association, released the results of its 30th annual Salary Budget Survey. According to its findings, company projections for 2004 salary increases (at 3.7%) are slightly ahead of increases this year (which are running at 3.5%, down from projections of 4.1%). However, respondents also said that slightly fewer employees would actually qualify for raises (83% in 2004, down from 85% in 2003). Although one could look at such findings and call the salary glass half empty, the fact that inflation increased just 2.2% in the 12-months ending April 2003 suggests that it may actually be half full.

Section Three: Site Profiles

Site Insite … how well do you know the Web’s 40,000+ job boards?

If you were heading out onto the Web to look for aviation candidates, which of the following sites would delay your departure?


Which location would you visit if you would looking for an executive who knew had to turnaround a company after a painful business downturn?


When searching for a transportation professional, which of the following sites would be a dead end?


(answers below)

Site Spotlite … from the pages of WEDDLE’s 2003 Guides and Directories

EcoEmploy: Environmental Jobs and Careers

    Post full time jobs: Yes

    Post part time/consulting jobs: Yes

    Distribution of jobs: International-USA & Canada

    Fee to post a job: $100 or less/posting

    Posting period: 30 days

    Can posting be linked to your site: Yes

    Resume database: No

    Number of resumes: N/A

    Source of resumes: N/A

    Top occupations among resumes: All occupations working in the environmental field in government, companies, law firms and non-profits

    Other services for employers: Banner advertising

    Answers to Site Insite:

    1., a site for freelancers and contractors

    2. All of them

    3., a site for those in the investment banking, sales and trading professions