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Excavating for golden opportunities

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Excavating for golden opportunities

Hoping to grab a pre-flight bite one night, I scanned the slim choices at an airport concession stand — chili-cheese dogs, chocolate muffins, ice cream sandwiches. Nothing remotely qualified as healthy. I suggested to the kid behind the counter that he urge the owner to add veggie burgers to the menu.

His blank look morphed into a laugh. “Are you kidding?” he asked. “The boss would never listen to anything I said.”

That’s a portrait of a boss taking a pass on success. Employees in constant contact with customers are like the wait staff at a small-town diner. They know the inside scoop on just about everything.

Open channels of communication

Fresh ideas are the lifeblood of any organization, and it’s often the non-managerial players on the front lines that come up with the biggest corkers.

But woe to the employee who tells an unenlightened manager how to do things better. Firms run by these guys are filled with “The Transfer to Siberia” threats, so problem-talk is just passed among peers rather than handed up to management.

The cure? Keep the ideas flowing and the heart of your operations pumping with clear, convenient channels of employee communication. It reminds me of a line from poet Mark Van Doren: “Bring ideas in and entertain them royally, for one of them may be the king.”

I can’t count how many times I mined employees for ideas. During a long road trip, Scott McPhee, a key exec, suggested that we create a new executive position — head of automotive services. I knew he was right the second the words left his mouth. Our company, Tires Plus, was known more for selling tires than for selling the “plus” — shocks, brakes, batteries.

The time was ripe to expand our service area expertise and brand. Sure enough, Scott’s idea enhanced this lucrative profit center.

Excavate golden ideas

To excavate the gold of employee intelligence:

1. Forecast brainstorms for staff meetings. At meetings, I’d say, “Give me your RBIs” (Really Big Ideas). One by one, around the table we’d go. One person might propose a new policy or procedure. Another passed along an idea from a customer or vendor. Somebody else described a team member’s innovation. The brainstorms were torrential, and livened up the place.

If you try it, vary the format and occasionally provide incentives to keep the creative juices flowing. For the best RBI of the day, we often awarded a dinner certificate or small cash bonus.

2. Poll the people. Our annual culture/climate survey asked employees what they liked about our operation, what they thought we could do better, and what they would do if they ran the place. HR sorted the feedback by topic and presented summaries to the executive team. Some suggestions were good and others comically bad. Some were real Eureka! moments.

The follow-up e-mail we sent to employees broke it all down: “Based on your recommendations, here are some things we’ll be changing…” and “We won’t be able to implement the following suggestions because….” We also surveyed the troops during our annual strategic planning process.

3. Query new recruits. New hires have the fresh eyes of a consultant, minus the enormous price tag some charge. But get them before they slide too deeply into the status quo.

Tapping newbies for advice also makes them feel valued, which engages and motivates them. Even if their suggestion is a stinker, react positively so the feedback channel stays open.

One morning a new salesman in one of our suburban Minneapolis stores mentioned that he sensed a rift between the service techs and sales staff. “The tire mounters come across as pretty resentful,” he said innocently, “like they think we’ve got a cushy job.”

Ten minutes later, when I met with the store manager, I asked how things were between the technicians and the sales team. Reluctantly, he acknowledged some brewing tension. “Oh, really,” I said. “How do you think we can fix that?” He and I brainstormed a few minutes and decided to call a huddle to find out what people were thinking. It was like a group therapy session. Grievances were aired and addressed and, what do you know, cooperation improved.

4. Quiz departing employees. Here’s an overlooked resource. Denial and rationalization tells us we haven’t lost much so we don’t need to listen to deserters.

These people have the dirt you want. Simply ask, “What do you think we need to change around here?” Take notes. A person packing up his office has little to lose, and typically is only too happy to tell you what he thinks. For best results, have the soon-to-be-ex-employee talk to his boss and, separately, to his boss’ boss.

Be prepared to hear things you don’t want to hear, but need to. Employees who had given their notice occasionally said their manager had paid little attention to them, that they hadn’t been given enough responsibility.

I’d immediately remind my executive team that staying connected to our people was priority one. “Tom often said a little bit of attention, a little bit of love, goes a long way,” said Wayne Shimer, a key vice president.

“But Tom was realistic. When you have 1,600 employees scattered throughout 10 states, all with different personalities and supervisors, some are going to slip through the cracks.”

Wayne may be right, but that didn’t stop me from trying to caulk every last crack. Good employees are hard to find and costly to train.

Keep intelligence pipeline open

When you reel in suggestions, criticisms and company secrets, be sure to:

• Show appreciation no matter how surprised or upset you may be.

• Ask how the person would resolve the situation. People are more likely to back a solution they helped create.

• Keep it confidential. If it’s impossible to conceal your source, make it clear to everyone that you sought out — and will continue to seek out — information to improve the organization and everyone in it.

Break these rules even once — by going ballistic, imposing unilateral solutions, or identifying your source of information — and your intel pipeline will run dry. Worse, resentful employees may retaliate against the whistle-blower.    ■

This article is one of a series from “The Big Book of Small Business” by Tom Gegax with Phil Bolsta. Copyright 2005, 2006 by Tom Gegax. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.

Best-selling author Tom Gegax, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Tires Plus stores, served as that company’s chairman and CEO for 24 years. By the time he sold the company in July 2000, it had mushroomed from a concept sketched on a restaurant napkin to a market leader with 150 upscale stores in 10 states and $200 million in revenue.

Gegax was named Modern Tire Dealer’s Tire Dealer of the Year in 1998 and a Midwest Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. magazine.

In 2000, Gegax founded Gegax Management Systems ( to help growing companies raise profits and reduce stress through fast and affordable business management guidance.

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