Motivating the troops

This month’s question

How do you keep your staff motivated, especially during the off-season?

Good help is always hard to find, and it can be even harder to keep – especially with today’s record low unemployment levels. Small catalogers in particular may be challenged to keep employees happy and motivated in the off-season. From cross-training to sales contests and off-seasonal upsell promotions, to incentives such as free tickets to events, the catalogers we surveyed have a variety of strategies for keeping workers up in down times.

Husband and wife team Jim and Joan Breakell own the Newport, RI-based J.H. Breakell catalog of original design jewelry. Annual sales, $1.3 million; annual circulation, 400,000.

Our off-season runs roughly from June to October, and our staff knows the business needs and understands how to pace themselves. Because we make our inventory, our fulfillment is a reactionary force, so we try to work toward having our inventory levels maximized before the holiday season.

Every employee is an integral part of the business, so we provide them with the progress of how the team is doing as a unit.

On a daily basis, we keep our staff of seven to 10 people involved by updating them on how our sales are progressing against plan, as well as last year’s figures.

We also include everyone in meetings to review the previous holiday season so we can identify and fix problems. This strategy enhances the employee morale and gives the staff a chance to create their own positive work environment.

Beth Marcus is the owner of Glowdog, a Bedford, MA-based cataloger/retailer that sells reflective apparel and accessories for dogs and humans. Annual catalog sales, $500,000; annual circulation, 200,000.

We don’t have a defined off-season, but when things do slow down occasionally, we keep busy by running promotional programs. We do special incentives for Web customers, such as our recent offering of free Glowdog bandanas with each online purchase. Our staff is in better spirits when they can be proactive by extending offers to customers and generating sales.

The company also sponsors events, donates to charities, and participates in trade shows, and our employees are actively involved in planning these events. I find that when our staff members become involved in planning special projects, they can interact more with the community and feel good about representing a company that has concerns beyond sales. We are also fortunate to have a retail location, which enables us to really speak with customers and carefully address their concerns and suggestions right away in all of our marketing channels.

Peter Sacks owns aquatic supplies cataloger/retailer World Wide Pet in Naugatuck, CT. Annual catalog sales, $1.5 million; annual circulation, 25,000.

Because one of our largest merchandise categories is fish, technically summer is our off-season, though we do cater to many advanced hobbyists who buy consistently.

One strategy that keeps the staff from boredom during slow periods is cross-training all employees. With workers able to switch into different capacities, it’s possible to get the work done efficiently; everyone also feels as though they are contributing.

We always have plans to keep the business growing and keep ourselves busy. We are preparing to expand by moving into a bigger facility this summer. This larger space will allow us to add new pages and products to the catalog (we hope to triple both), and that will increase our customer base and keep us productive and happy.

Tammy Maroni is the call center manager for San Diego, CA-based As We Change, a catalog of products for the healthy-minded maturing and menopausal woman. Annual sales, less than $10 million; annual circulation, 6 million.

To motivate our staff during our slow season, we do two basic things. First, we have shorter shifts during the off-season. Second, we set up employee sales contests with incentive awards and prizes. These both work to help keep the energy level up among our staff. We have almost no turnover and our staff understands the concept of producing, therefore they know that assigned hours are flexible depending on the season.

Also, we know that workers like to be challenged so we afford them that opportunity through our sales contests. We select a stock item that is not in the current catalog and have our customer service representatives offer it at a 25%-30% discount to telephone customers placing an order. This enables us to serve the customer by offering a discounted item; it also builds the confidence of the employee.

Our staff is extremely informed about our products. To prepare for each catalog we have the associates study the catalog and we have a product meeting two weeks prior to the catalog shipment. We have buyers demonstrate products and the staff is interactive with the merchandise. This way, they are fully prepared and informed for the jolt in sales that accompanies a new catalog mailing. We find that a constant learning process keeps everyone motivated.

Kim Sneed is the owner of Graham Kracker, a Midland, TX-based catalog that sells custom baby bedding and related items. Annual sales, $300,000; annual circulation, 20,000.

We are a custom-order company, so the customers actually motivate our employees. Everyone multi-tasks so we all have a varied routine.And everyone has input into the catalogs. By incorporating all the different ideas we keep our catalog unique, and we also prevent our staff from feeling like mere workers or just cogs in a machine. We also reward our employees for their hard work by giving them tickets to local events.

Perhaps the most motivating factor in our workplace is the camaraderie. We are all working mothers who have to be flexible. Therefore, we all understand the responsibility of family and we allow everyone to work out work schedules among themselves. We are all sensitive to the need for maintaining coverage at work, but we also allow one another to attend to our responsibilities beyond the office.

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