Web talent: recruit or retrain?

Good help is hard to find in any industry, and the new world of electronic commerce is no exception. Depending on a cataloger’s online needs, finding qualified employees can be challenging. For the most part, catalogers combine existing resources and traditional recruiting methods to develop the right online teams.

“When it comes to the direction of the site, we look internally,” says Steve Little, president of Queensboro Shirt Co., a Wilmington, NC-based cataloger of personalized corporate apparel. “But when it comes to technical expertise, we outsource.” Queensboro, for example, outsources its HTML coding but handles all marketing functions internally.

Indeed, some new media employment agencies recommend that companies hire outsiders with technological expertise and then look internally for marketing skills. “Many companies have been swept into the online arena and therefore may be paying lots of money for expertise,” says Bonnie Halper, director of new media recruiting firm Sendresume.com. “My advice to them is to spend the money on the technology side so that you’re aware of what can and can’t be done online, and then use internal resources for the direction of the Web business.”

Why not simply recruit all Web talent from the outside? For one, it’s expensive. Salaries for recruits with Internet skills have increased 10% since 1997, and programmers’ salaries rose nearly 20% in 1998, says Jeff Taylor, founder of online recruiting firm Monster Board.

But many catalogers prefer hiring online staff from within because they believe nobody knows their business better than their own employees. “Trying to bring in outside people who have technical knowledge but don’t have knowledge of the company is probably a mistake,” Little says. “It’s much easier to train internal staff about the Internet” than to teach techies the nuances of your business.

Crutchfield, a Charlottesville, VA-based consumer electronics catalog, has 10 full-time employees-culled from the inside-dedicated to its three-year-old Website. “We’re looking for people who have direct marketing experience who can take those skills to the Internet. We take our seasoned salespeople and move them over to the Web,” says Lawrence Becker, new media content and creative director.

But Crutchfield also has separate “Web groups” within departments responsible for developing programs for the Internet. Often, online responsibilities are in conjunction with existing job functions, and many employees contribute additional hours to online efforts. “In a sense we have about 400 employees [the entire company] working on our Website,” Becker says. “We don’t play the game that one comes first and one comes second regarding our print and online catalogs. They’re all part of the same business.”

Insight Direct, a Tempe, AZ-based computer cataloger, started its Website department with two employees-one from the marketing department and the other from the MIS department-who were interested in the Internet. The company also moved three salespeople who knew Insight’s business model to the Internet department. After recruiting two Web graphic artists, Insight had its Internet team in place. Now the company has six Internet development/ marketing people and three technical programmers dedicated to its site. “We took our strongest people and converted them over to the Internet,” says F.C. Brigham, director of inbound marketing.

In the meantime, several Insight employees took it upon themselves to learn technical Internet skills. Once the company discovered that these staffers were taking HTML classes outside of work, Insight offered them a chance to work on the company’s Website. “It’s good for morale to invest in employees and encourage them to learn new skills,” Brigham says.

Training for online For many catalogers, formal Internet training starts in the customer service department, instructing reps how to respond to e-mail requests and queries, because “someone who might be good on the phone might not be effective with the written word,” Queensboro’s Little says.

Queensboro trained 12 of its customer service reps to handle Website inquiries. For its part, Crutchfield puts all its call center employees through an intensive eight-week training program, which includes e-mail instruction, although the cataloger has a separate Web sales staff that handles daily e-mail correspondence, Becker says.

The importance of typing and written communication skills in the online world cannot be underestimated, says Ken Hawk, president of 1-800-Batteries, a Reno, NV-based cataloger of batteries for mobile professionals. “Too often, e-mail messages are written with no emotion, and customers don’t get the same inflection as when this message is communicated on the phone. So it really comes down to having someone with good writing skills to bring the message across.” The $14 million 1-800-Batteries has an undisclosed number of employees dedicated to the company’s Website.

In addition to writing skills, “reading goes a long way,” Insight’s Brigham says. Since the medium is constantly changing, it’s important to keep up with trends and issues related to the Web. “We tell our employees to constantly read about competitor’s online initiatives as well as what’s happening in e-commerce. This is the only way we can bring in new ideas,” Brigham says.

Likewise, 1-800-Batteries urges its employees to read the “bibles of e-commerce,” such as the weekly magazine Industry Standard, and participate in e-mail newsgroups. “The Internet is a lifelong learning process,and our employees need to take control of those lessons themselves,” Hawk says.

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