Aggressive staff retention could be best investment in tough times

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The talent crunch in the direct marketing world is unfortunately afflicting companies of all shapes and sizes. While the effects of operating with an incomplete staff lineup are widespread, they can have a particularly detrimental effect on how the company is perceived from the outside. And with cus­tomer service as the first frontier of a company's reputation, getting it wrong can be fatal.

This is a challenge in particular for the breed of e-commerce retailers whose operations are efficient to the point of leanness— it's no secret that hiring staff to work in large service centers is tough, and job turnover tends to be rapid. As such, compa­nies are typically unwilling to invest too much time and money into staff training.

One company, however, is turning that logic on its head. Zappos, I learned from a post on Harvard Business Publishing's Game Changer blog, takes would-be employees through a four-week (fully paid) training period, in which it instills the cus­tomer service ethos into trainees. After the first week, trainees are offered $1,000 on top of what they've earned so far to quit — which weeds out those who are only in it for the money.

Everyone I have shared this with so far has the same initial reaction: They're crazy. But Zappos is investing in staff reten­tion before a hire has even been made, which transforms what might otherwise be a faceless, high turnover call center into the heartbeat of an organization that receives consistently high praise for its customer service.

Zappos' commitment to customer service goes as far as to mandate that all corporate employees are trained in customer loyalty in the call center. Sure, $1,000 is a lot of money in a tight economy, but few companies can afford to lose a customer forever by dishing out a sub-par experience.

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