Are you struggling to concentrate?

A guest post from Zena Everett, Speaker and Author of Crazy Busy

Why is your brain constantly frazzled?

Can you remember the last time you were able to knuckle down to some deep, productive work? Or does your brain feel permanently frazzled as you toggle from one task to another, struggling to concentrate?

Find your Flow state

Remember when you last worked in flow? That’s when you were completely absorbed in your work, losing track of time, forgetting about the outside world. Flow is when we are at our most productive and creative. People who regularly work in flow (two hours a day ideally) report greater levels of happiness, work less hours and get paid more.

For most of us, this is a rare treat.  We get into flow once a week if we are lucky. We usually have to hide somewhere to do it.  Office life is a sticky molasses pool of digital distractions, routine administration, needless conference calls, unproductive meetings, powerpoint decks that no one reads and lengthy email chains.  We can’t actually WORK at work anymore.  Real work has to fit around the sides of the fake work.  It doesn’t matter if you are a genius or a goldfish, it’s impossible to concentrate on anything meaningful. It’s ridiculous!


 

Read these fixes to find your focus

Do one thing at once.  Don’t kid yourself you can multi-task. No one can: we can only do one significant task at once. You can’t listen in a meeting while doing your emails, or take a call during dinner, or interrupt writing a report to handle a query. It is an inefficient and ultimately chaotic way to live/work. Do one thing at once and learn to manage interruptions. Be fully present in whatever you are doing, so you can be 100% concentrating, 100% listening, 100% engaging, as the occasion demands.

Switch off.  Our brain is constantly bombarded with information and choices.   Give it a break. Switch off as many digital channels as you can so you can focus on what’s most important. Don’t check your emails constantly; build a routine of checking them several times a day and switching off notifications in between you aren’t distracted. People can call/text/find you if there’s a genuine drama. You don’t need to have your phone in front of you, pinging away, using up your attention. Wean yourself off it. Set an alarm to check it in 45 + minutes, and put it away. Let me know how good it feels when you try this.

Chunk your time.  Match your tasks to your time. Your diary should contain time to do actual work, as well as time for meetings. If your time is boundaried like this you don’t have to make a choice about what to do next and procrastinate or slide into doing the easy quick hit stuff that’s screaming out in front of you (your inbox). You just follow your plan. Batch up your tasks in 90 minute chunks so you aren’t switching from one to another, but doing all your emails at once, or writing reports, handling client queries, supporting colleagues and so on.

First things first.  Your first chunk of time must be for your priority tasks.  Your brain would prefer the dopamine hits it gets from the quick pay-off of easy, routine tasks like clearing your inbox. It is too easy to get bogged down with emails and queries that add little value whilst create more work for you and everyone else. They don’t move us forwards, but we hope they get us back to square one so that we can do our ‘real’ work. The problem is that we run out of time.  Reverse the pattern, get your energy up with a few quick wins, then move on to the big stuff asap. Just one priority task a day might be a realistic intention – don’t over-estimate what you can do. And perfectionists like me have to learn to live with some unfinished small stuff.

Ready for your telephone interview?

Although we all spent a lot of time on our phones, we actually spent a very small proportion of that time speaking on the phone compared to 10 or 20 years ago. As interview processes often involve some sort of telephone interview, you’re well advised to give a phone interview a bit of thought and preparation. Particularly if you bear in mind that in a face-to-face conversation, 75% of effective communication is non-verbal.

So here are some tips that will help you prepare for a successful call.

1. DO SOME RESEARCH
Try to find out who will be interviewing you. Will there be multiple people on the call? If possible get their names and titles. Become familiar with these beforehand and you will have one less thing to worry about during the call. Try and get some background on the interviewer. Any insight you can gain about them will allow you to tailor your responses to make the best possible impression.

2. ORGANISE YOUR THOUGHTS
Make a list of your accomplishments, goals and strengths. On another list write out your weaknesses (or better still: your development needs) and what you are doing to overcome them. On a third sheet write down why you are interested in the company. Think carefully about all of these items as they often come up in interviews.

3. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
Never forget that a telephone interview is still an interview. Take time to practice interview questions with friends or family. Ask them to provide honest feedback so you can improve your responses. Mock interview questions can easily be found on the internet. If you get stuck on a question, sample answers to these questions are often provided as well.

4. DO A SOUND CHECK
During the mock interview, have your friend ask you questions both over the phone and in person. Make sure that they listen not only for content, but also tone, rate and clarity of your speech. If possible, record yourself speaking. Are you speaking slowly and clearly? Can you easily be heard? Is your voice portraying you as a confident and enthusiastic candidate? If not continue to practice until you are comfortable.

5. FIND YOUR LOCATION
Find a quiet space to occupy during your interview. Ideally, there should be a comfortable place to sit as well as a table to lay out your papers. Try and find a low-traffic spot where members of the household are unlikely to disturb you.

6. ORGANISE YOUR PAPERS
Have a copy of your resume and cover letter close at hand. Take out those lists you made while organising your thoughts. In addition keep any notes related to the company that you feel may be helpful during the call. Spread these items out across your table so they are easy to access. Only keep what is truly necessary. Too much paper can be a distraction.

7. GATHER YOUR WRITING TOOLS
Have paper and pens handy for writing down notes, questions and most importantly, your interviewer’s names.

8. ELIMINATE DISTRACTIONS
As the appointed hour draws near, make sure that the television and the radio are turned off. Exit your email and turn off your computer screen. If possible, disable your call-waiting. Let your family know about the timing of the interview so they do not accidentally disturb you.

The main rules are:

  • Think about how you normally answer the phone at home. When you answer the phone, do so by announcing your name, in an enthusiastic style: ‘John Pickles, Good Morning!’ If this is not your natural style, change it!
  • Sound interesting/interested, energetic and enthusiastic
  • Be succinct (don’t waffle)
  • Ask open-ended questions (beginning with who, what, when, why, where, how: these all ask for information, and keep the ball in the other person’s court). Be prepared that they will do exactly the same!
  • Don’t use jargon
  • Don’t swear or use colloquialisms (local phrases: ‘I covered the whole of London on Shanks’ pony’)
  • Be polite: Don’t use their first name unless invited to. Use their title if you know they are for example, a doctor.
  • Use the other person’s name regularly throughout the conversation (but not all the time). Also, use the company name a few times.
  • During the telephone interview, talk calmly, and with warmth. Standing can make you sound more confident and helps project a positive and professional image and smiling creates a friendly and enthusiastic impression. Do not forget to use gestures and facial expressions as you would normally do. They are translated and transmitted down the phone line. Smiling, and taking deep breaths help improve blood flow and improve your articulation.
  • To help you in establishing rapport on the phone, try to match your speaking rate and pitch to that of the interviewer.
  • Be a good listener. Your listening skills will be put to the test here, as your answers will reflect if you have been listening well or not. If you do not hear or understand what was said, do not hesitate to ask that it be repeated. Do not confabulate or make up questions.
  • Answer questions straight to the point, using short sentences. Do not say more than is expected of you. Use facts and figures, and show achievements. Let your interviewer see why you are priceless… do not overdo it of course.

Contact me if you’re not certain or would like more advice.

Good luck!

Maarten Jonckers

Employee engagement – what does it mean, and where do you start?

In any week, we often spend more time (awake) with our work colleagues than our much better other halves, family and friends. As a rule, you don’t marry someone you don’t trust and you do not befriend people you do not like, however some of us find ourselves spending over 8 hours a day in a business we do not 100% trust, working with colleagues we do not really like – how did that happen?

Every retailer knows that an engaged workforce will be:

  • more loyal
  • less inclined to be looking for other employment
  • more productive

… therefore saving the company money in recruitment and induction training, and saving time in managing underperformers.

All great news, however with an ever changing mind set and changing expectations regarding work / life balance, what factors influence employee engagement?

Research shows that the following areas will most affect whether people are engaged in working for your organisation, rather than just being happy in their job. In descending order:

1. Trust in leaders – Does the business clearly communicate their goals (vision, mission, etc)? And is the top management’s behaviour consistent with those goals? Do they keep their promises and do as they said they were going to do?

2. Relationship with immediate line manager – Does your organisation hire people who fit the company culture? Has the company culture been defined? Do managers behave and lead accordingly? What do line managers do to develop strong working relationships with their teams?

3. Environment – We have all heard about the Google offices and perks, not every business can (afford to) replicate that, however as we often spend more time in the office than home, it should look and feel more than acceptable – from furniture to technology, from wash room facilities to break-out areas, from the reception area to the meeting rooms. An easy rule of thumb: would you be proud to show your mother around the place you work?

4. Belief in the organisation – Do the people working for the organisation feel that the purpose of the business is worthwhile, or do they at least like the purpose? Is there an emotional connection? Easier in an upstanding charity business than in an investment bank I’d say….

5. Opportunities for career growth – Do people understand where they fit in and how they relate to others in the structure? Is there a clear path for promotion? Do people understand what would warrant a promotion?

6. Opportunities for development – Do individuals feel that they are coached, mentored, trained, developed, or are they just coming in to do a job, do it well and go home? Do people feel that they are developing their career or do they just have a job with a monthly pay cheque?

7. Relationships with colleagues – How does the business engender relationships and mutual understanding across the business? Not only is it helpful to know how your work ‘fits’ with the rest of the business, it also develops respect for each other when you all know how, together, you make the business tick.

8. Enjoyment of work – The job is the job is the job. Why do people enjoy their work? Different strokes for different folks. Find out from your team what makes them tick, look for common ground – how can you make their work more enjoyable?

9. Compensation level – Funnily enough, compensation is not no.1 in employee engagement, however it clearly is an important factor. If your business is a top quartile payer, than you’ll reduce staff turnover (after all, not all other businesses can match their pay), but you will also be able to recruit the top performers, who are more likely to be interested in career development.  And as long as you can deliver that, you will further reduce staff turnover … more stability in the business equals higher productivity.

10. Recognition programme – Is there a clear and consistent manner in which good work and good ideas are publicly recognised within the business? This is not difficult, yet so many businesses struggle with this or at least struggle to keep going once they have set up a recognition programme. Make it someone’s responsibility to drive this. So easy and so effective.

11. Business transparency – This really links in with point 1. Is everyone in the business clear on why they are there, what the objectives are and how you plan to meet these goals? Do you give regular, company-wide feedback on progress? What has gone well, what not so well? What are the obstacles in your way? Who has good ideas on how to deal with these? Those businesses, where everyone is in the same boat and all are rowing in the same direction, will reach their goals quicker and give their employees a real sense of achievement, belonging and pride!

At a time when demand outstrips supply of talented individuals, we’d better spend time and energy on keeping the ones we have. As a result you may just create the environment and engagement that attracts more talent!

From shop keepers to customer keepers

A guest post by Suzy Ross – Accenture

We must become a nation of ‘customer-keepers’.

By looking at their performance through the customer lens, rather than the usual store- and product-based metrics, retailers can see where exactly most of their profit is coming from.

There is no doubt that retailers across the UK are navigating very stormy waters. The ability to shop anytime, anywhere, anyhow has changed consumer behaviour more profoundly and rapidly than ever before.

Increasingly savvy and addicted to promotions, consumers have never had it so good. For retailers trying to adapt, some long-established principles that have served them well for years have fallen away with remarkable speed.

Even just a few years ago, retail growth was driven by expanding the customer base by opening a new shop in a new location. Retail was about land grab.

Today, as digital capabilities unlock a customer base all over the world, the future is all about a land grab for high-value customers.

The new organising principle for retailers in an omni-channel world is the customer. If retailers continue to make decisions based on a store- or channel- only basis they will miss opportunities.

A couple of examples illustrate why. One menswear retailer had concessions in a number of hotels. Sales per outlet were low and the concessions seemed obvious candidates for shutting down. However, analysis showed while revenue per outlet was low, the business was achieving remarkably high repeat sales from international customers who had stayed in the hotels but subsequently ordered via its digital channels. These stores were critical in acquiring high-value customers.

Another example. A women’s beauty retailer was looking at discontinuing a niche skincare brand. But analysis of its performance through the customer lens showed it was disproportionally important for its high-value, most loyal customers. So instead of discontinuing, the brand expanded.

What’s the common denominator in these examples? The customer. Or rather, it’s the analysis of business performance through the lens of customer profitability instead of through the traditional vector of store and product performance.

That new perspective creates a seismic shift in how retailers can manage their business.

What are retailers likely to find when they analyse their business from this new perspective? Chances are that most profit will come from a relatively small number of individuals.

Our analysis of 28 retailers – across geographies, sectors and sizes – highlights that typically 5% of customers generate a third of the profit, and 35% of the customer base accounts for 80% of the profit.

Even more extreme profit concentrations are frequently found.

More worryingly, as much as 2% of the customer base typically is loss-making because these customers are so adept at using discounts, promotions and returning items.

In fact, this focus on individual customer profitability enables a far more sophisticated set of customer strategies to retain and acquire the highest-value (and potential) customers.

For loyal customers, it’s all about keeping them and potentially nudging them into the next sale or a new category.

For new customers, it’s about managing them through the ‘getting to know you’ phase and converting them to loyalty quickly. And, of course, retailers always need new customers.

But it is about hunting for those with the high potential. Armed with the insights from their existing high-value customers, retailers can target individuals with forensic precision, using innovative, personal and creative marketing to get them on board with the brand.

Being a ‘customer-keeper’ is not a CRM strategy. It affects the entire organisation. The retailer needs to take all of its data and all of its insights into customers and profitability and rethink key areas of the operating model.

For instance, product design teams should now be leveraging customer data as a matter of course, understanding how a high-value customer differs from an average- or low-value customer.

Marketing needs to be assessing every action and investment through the lens of incremental customer lifetime profit.

How this new mindset influences different areas of a retailer’s business is one of the most important factors for them to explore.

You get what you pay for

To minimum wage or not to minimum wage, that is the question.

This week’s headline news of Aldi increasing their pay structure made me think. As a retailer, would I want to pay the minimum wage, the living wage, London weighting, an extra 10% … or just blow that whole pay structure out of the water and hire the very best people for the job, which would mean that their salary is determined by supply and demand?

There are a few examples of where that has worked extremely well – staff in Apple stores tend to have taken a step back in seniority when joining, but have maintained their previous salary level – Apple gives great service. And Costco are paying well over the odds with the result of a great shopping experience, extremely helpful and friendly staff and virtually no staff turnover.

I can hear the collective sigh from all finance directors and budget holders, thinking that they cannot increase the payroll-to-sales ratio in stores any further, as it has invariably already taken a hammering due to lower level in-store sales and increased online turnover.

Playing devil’s advocate, let’s assume that online turnover continues to grow at the detriment of in-store sales (pretty likely in my opinion), this will mean that an increasing number of stores will become unprofitable and will close (even more likely).

One option open to most retailers is to improve the in-store customer experience and fight the bricks and mortar sales decline with extrovert staff who want to be there, who can relate to customers and who will make the shopping experience stand out from the dreary experience one receives in most stores.

We all know that one store where the service was excellent, where that shop assistant was just brilliant and where you walked out with a smile on your face. And here is the problem, why can we only remember one such store?

I think now is the time to be bold and hire the staff you want (not just those you can get), pay over the odds, train to within an inch of their life and measure results. Just one such hero in each store will have a huge effect on morale, if managed properly, and give the other staff something to aim for. Raise the bar, create memorable experiences for customers and you may find that the extra spend on wages will be outweighed by the extra sales and margin.

These are investment hires, so a return on investment is required, it is eminently measurable, so why hesitate?

Focus on what’s important

After yet another year of fun and games, ups and downs, successes and failures, it may be a good time to reflect on what actually is important in our brief lives on this globe. And to help you reflect I have listed some of the things that I believe, which I hope resonate with you:

– I believe that we don’t have to change friends if we understand that friends change.

– I believe that no matter how good a friend is, they’re going to hurt you every once in a while and you must forgive them for that.

– I believe that true friendship continues to grow, even over the longest distance. Same goes for true love.

– I believe that you can do something in an instant that will give you heartache for life.

– I believe that it’s taking me a long time to become the person I want to be.

– I believe that you should always leave loved ones with loving words. It may be the last time you see them.

– I believe that you can keep going long after you can’t.

– I believe that we are responsible for what we do, no matter how we feel.

– I believe that either you control your attitude or it controls you.

– I believe that regardless of how hot and steamy a relationship is at first, the passion fades and there had better be something else to take its place.

– I believe that heroes are the people who do what has to be done when it needs to be done, regardless of the consequences.

– I believe that money is a lousy way of keeping score.

– I believe that my best friend and I can do anything or nothing and still have the best time.

– I believe that sometimes the people you expect to kick you when you’re down, will be the ones to help you get back up.

– I believe that sometimes when I’m angry I have the right to be angry, but that doesn’t give me the right to be cruel.

– I believe that just because someone doesn’t love you the way you want them to doesn’t mean they don’t love you with all they have.

– I believe that maturity has more to do with what types of experiences you’ve had and what you’ve learned from them and less to do with how many birthdays you’ve celebrated.

– I believe that it isn’t always enough to be forgiven by others. Sometimes you have to learn to forgive yourself.

– I believe that no matter how bad your heart is broken the world doesn’t stop for your grief.

– I believe that our background and circumstances may have influenced who we are, but we are responsible for who we become.

– I believe that just because two people argue, it doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. And just because they don’t argue, it doesn’t mean they do.

– I believe that you shouldn’t be so eager to find out a secret. It could change your life forever.

– I believe that two people can look at the exact same thing and see something totally different.

– I believe that your life can be changed in a matter of hours by people who don’t even know you.

– I believe that even when you think you have no more to give, when a friend cries out to you, you will find the strength to help.

– I believe that credentials on the wall do not make you a decent human being.

– I believe that the people you care about most in life are taken from you too soon.

May you know grace, peace and love each day. Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Maarten Jonckers

Idle Thoughts – when laziness is a powerful weapon…!

This is a guest blog from Sophie Devonshire, CEO of The Caffeine Partnership and author of Superfast: Lead at Speed.

It’s a truism in business that to get anywhere, hard work is essential. Occasionally, though, it helps to be a little ’lazy’. In researching my book Superfast: Lead at Speed, I discovered that successful leaders are skilled at ‘strategic laziness’, smartly choosing to do less.

The art of strategic laziness

One leader who understood this was the German Chief of Army High Command in the pre-war period. Kurt Gerhard Adolf Philipp Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord was a successful strategist and leader who resigned his office in 1934 due to his opposition to Hitler. In assessing how to make a success of his army, he classified his officers into four simple groups. “There are clever, diligent, stupid and lazy officers, “ he said. “Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent – their place is the general staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy – they make up 90% of any army and are suited to general duties. One must be aware of anyone who is stupid and diligent – he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will only cause mischief. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions.”

Hammerstein’s classification feels as relevant as ever to organisations of today. Laziness for Hammerstein did not mean idleness, it meant doing what was most efficient and effective – and no more. If you spend your time doing everything and thinking about everything, you will not have the cognitive clarity to focus on those things that really matter. Smart leaders are often natural delegators who look for simpler, easier ways to make things happen.

Automate it: make it easy

Bill Gates is alleged to have said, “If I want a job done, I give it to someone lazy. They’ll work out the fastest and easiest way to do it”. A ‘consciously lazy’ mindset helps you to think about how to scale things, about how to make them easy so you can do more, more often. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes stated that by 2030 there was likely to be a system of ‘technological unemployment’, with people working 15 hours or fewer per week. You may not be ready for that, but it’s definitely true that wasting time tweeting again and again when Tweetdeck or Hootsuite can do it, is as mad as choosing to wash up by hand or to get the mangle out.

It’s your duty as a leader to find ways for your team to automate and accelerate by using smart tools.

Do less: delegate and empower others

One of the global leaders I interviewed for my book made his name as the eponymous third of an advertising agency and then as CEO and chair of a media company. He told me that he had two clear objectives for meetings he went to:

a) He wanted to add as much value as he could in that meeting;
b) To make sure he left the room without anything on his ‘to do’ list.

Not only was this empowering for those around him but it allowed him to focus on the things others couldn’t do or didn’t want to do.

Ask yourself: ‘Do I have to do this?’

Then only do it if you are the only person who can do it. Laziness is an excellent leadership trait. If it doesn’t come naturally, nurture it. There are so many opportunities out there for those of us in business at the moment: the exponential growth in technological development, the international potential of markets, more flexible career options. These are choices you can make every day to shape your career and organisation in different ways. If you focus on what really matters and put your attention and energy there, then that means doing less elsewhere.

Save your time for what really matters.

 

Credit: Sophie Devonshire, CEO The Caffeine Partnership and author of Superfast: Lead at Speed

Second interview – how to prepare

Going for a second or third interview with a potential new employer? How do you prepare?

Having successfully cleared the first hurdle and being invited back for a subsequent meeting with a prospective new employer, what could possibly go wrong?

There are a few points to consider here, some of which relate to your preparation for the first interview…

1. If after the first interview you don’t really know whether this opportunity is or is not right for you, then it is probably because you have not asked the right questions in the first meeting and this is probably down to poor preparation. Your first interview is as much part of your due diligence process as it is part of the hiring authority’s. So prepare well, ask the uncomfortable questions, do not assume anything and make sure that at the end of the meeting you know whether you want to be invited back or not.

2. However, if after the first meeting you are not 100% convinced that this is the right company, right position or the right fit for you then you must communicate this to the person who is arranging the second meeting. After all, if they weren’t 100% convinced that you were the right person either, then the chances are that this is probably not right for either party, therefore it might be best to stop the process and avoid wasting each other’s time. If it is decided that you should go ahead and meet a second time anyway, then this will be a very different meeting in which you can ‘clear the air’ and have a very open conversation about your and their concerns. Based on the outcome of this conversation both parties can decide to go ahead or abort, either way, you will come across as a professional, who wishes to carefully manage their career without making change for changes sake.

3. Assuming you are keen to go ahead and meet for the second (or third) time, then how do you prepare? How do you make sure that there is added value for you, rather than just a repeat of the 1st meeting, but with another person? Again, some of this will come down to the fact finding questions you asked in your first interview. Assuming you are meeting with a different person this time around, you may chose to verify your understanding around some of the facts you learned in the previous meeting – do I understand correctly that…? Is it true that…? As I understand it, this role will….?
Your colleague described the culture as…., would you concur?
Your aim here is to absolutely make certain that this is the right opportunity for you.

4. One good way of finding out about opportunities within the business is to ask questions such as – what will happen to the current person in the role? (if they are leaving, why? Were there no opportunities for further progression?). What is the average tenure of people in senior positions and what is their background? (in other words, were they external hires or were they promoted?).

5. It goes without saying that before the interview you need to do your homework on the person(s) you will be meeting. What is their background? Do you have common acquaintances or interests? If so, use these facts as an ice breaker. Depending on how well you got on with the first interviewer, you may ask them about advice on how to ‘handle’ the person you meet for the second interview.

6. If you prepared a presentation for your 1st meeting, make sure to bring it to your subsequent meetings too. Make sure to make any appropriate amendments based on your findings from previous meetings.

7. Do not assume that everything you told your first interviewer has been passed on to the next interviewer. Be prepared to give a repeat performance.

8. It may be that an offer is extended in this meeting, make sure beforehand that you know what your expectations are and particularly make sure that you know what your minimum is, below which you will not accept. If you are offered in the meeting and it is below your expectations, do not decline or comment on it. In stead, thank them for the offer and ask whether you can think about it for 48 hours. Your search consultant / head hunter should negotiate the offer, after all, that is what they are paid for, so let them earn their money and expect them to negotiate an offer that will be acceptable to you. On the other hand, if the offer in the meeting meets or exceeds your expectation, then accept it and ask for it to be confirmed in writing.

9. Based on the information gained in the first meeting, you will probably have some idea of how you would tackle the challenges in the role. In most cases, it is worthwhile clarifying your understanding around these challenges, before giving an overview of your first 100 day plan. It does not need to be too detailed (unless asked for it), however they need to know that you have thought it through and that indeed you have a plan…!

10. Always, always, clarify at the end of the meeting what the process will be from here on (another two meetings? Who will make the final decision?) and to what timescales they are working. You need to manage your own expectations here and if possible, create a bit of urgency.

 

Congratulations if you’ve reached second interview stage! If you have any questions or need more advice, feel free to contact me.

First interview – how to prepare

Exciting times, you have been invited to meet a potential new employer for what sounds like a great opportunity for furthering your career.

Problem is, you probably are not the only person they will be meeting. Assuming a shortlist of three candidates (and at least one internal candidate), it seems that your chance of success is 1:4.

So how can you swing the odds in your favour?

There are plenty of online articles and books about clever ways to answer interview questions, how to walk, talk and shake hands with your potential new employer and there are plenty of Do’s and Don’t’s regarding your conduct in the meeting and of course the dreaded dress code.
After interviewing potential short list candidates on behalf of my clients for more than 20 years, I have come to the conclusion that if you prepare well for the interview and stick to your plan then you have nothing to fear about.

Whether you have attended scores of interviews, whether you are naturally a confident person or whether you believe the interviewer will not be as senior as you are, if you do not prepare, the likelihood is that you will fail.

So what to do? Well you can’t go far wrong by following these tips:

1. Prepare a 10 minute mini commercial about yourself:
a. Expect the interviewer to have read your CV, so start off by giving only a brief overview of the companies and positions you have held (in no more than 2-3 sentences).
b. Then highlight the experience you have gained that is relevant to the job you are interviewing for, ie ‘the biggest team I have managed was at XYZ, where we achieved the following’, or ‘whilst at XYZ I lead the transformation project that lead to a 180 degree change in company culture’.
c. Highlight 2-3 specific achievements that are relevant to the job you are interviewing for. You really want to talk in quite some detail about what the situation was, what plan you / your team came up with, how you implemented it and what the final result was. Note: the more specific you can be in terms of % or £, the more memorable it will be for the interviewer. Achievements ought to be time based, specific and bench marked, it is the difference between saying ‘whilst at XYZ I significantly improved sales’ and saying ‘in 2013 I increased sales by 15% or £1.5m on a like-for-like basis against a market increase of only 2%’.

Btw you prepare this 10 minute mini commercial so that you can answer the ‘so tell me a bit about yourself’ question. You need to practise it, so that you know what you’re going to say and in what order. Don’t be word perfect, because you might come across as a news reader. Make sure to stick to 10mins – shorter will make you wishy washy, longer may make you verbose (please note that most interviewers will start to switch off after 10mins), however with 10 mins you’ll come across as succinct, to the point and (hopefully) with great clarity.
2. Research the company:
a. Read their website enough times for you to be able to speak knowledgeable about the business.
b. Search the internet for recent news articles on the company.
c. Visit the company’s stores, talk to the store staff, observe what works well and make a list of the things you think do not work well / want to ask questions about. Make a purchase, use their product and have an opinion about the experience and the product.
d. Check the online user experience, compare the digital customer experience to the one you had in store. How did the check out procedure work, was the order delivered on time. What did the packaging look like?

3. Research the competition:
a. How do they compare in service, price points, quality, availability, customer journey on and off line?
b. Speak to customers, why do they shop there? Do they also shop at the business you’re interviewing with? Why, or why not?

4. Research the interviewer(s):
a. LinkedIn is of course a great source for this, however are there also any articles published by or about your interviewer? Check!
b. Is there anyone in the interviewer’s background, who you know? Can you find out some background information on the interviewer? Even to know where they have last holidayed or what sports team they support can help you find common ground, which is so important in establishing rapport.

5. Prepare a SWOT analysis or a brief presentation based on your findings on the business. Preface it with ‘without any concrete information, but more as an outsider looking in, I believe that…’. You need to let the interviewer know in a subtle way, that you have done your home work. And you have done it thoroughly.
Btw if you (and I suggest that you do) leave a few slides / printed pages behind, then make sure they are printed on good quality paper, make sure that your name is printed on each page and depending on how many pages you leave behind, either put them in a nice folder or have them bound professionally. It is amazing how a few quid spent on a simple hand out can make a massive difference.

6. Find out what the company’s dress code is (even better, find out what the interviewer’s dress code is) and either match it or slightly better it. It’s better to be a bit neater than a bit more casual than expected…

7. Make a list of topics you want to talk about / questions you want to ask. The first question after your 10mins mini commercial ought to be ‘although I have done a lot of research, I wouldn’t mind hearing from you what the company has been through in the last 3 years, where it is today and where it aims to be in 3 years time’. Followed by ‘what has prompted the business to want to recruit a new xyz and what would this person need to achieve in their first 6 months in order to be deemed successful’.
Btw, the more you can find out about the interviewer’s or the company’s expectations for this role before you have to start answering their questions the better it is, because it will give you a good idea of what to highlight in your background later on to pique their interest.

8. Prepare yourself for the difficult questions – ‘what are your salary expectations’ (never give them a number, because you will be committed to it), ‘what are your weaknesses’ (give them a past development need that you have now overcome or a development need that has nothing to do with the job you are doing or the job that you are interviewing for).

9. Before you go to the interview think about how you can give some anecdotal evidence of your achievements. Just quoting facts and figures will ensure that the interviewer will forget your achievements, whilst if you wrap them up in an anecdote and tell them a ‘memorable story’ then that is far more likely to stick. Even better if it is a funny story, if you can make the interviewer smile then you are definitely building rapport.
Btw, don’t tell jokes, stick to the truth, don’t set out to be the funny guy. However, we all have experiences that we can smile about – share them!

10. Prepare a few ‘closes’ to the meeting, so that you can chose which one to use depending on the level of rapport you have built. A pushy, in your face close would be: ‘do you at this stage have any reservations regarding my ability to do the job or my ability to fit in from a cultural or personality perspective’. Less direct would be ‘I enjoyed the meeting, what are the next steps please’. Note: you will learn more from the first one, but it might not always be appropriate to use it.

Good luck and make sure to enjoy the experience, because you will come across as more confident if you set out to enjoy it. If you have any questions or need more advice, feel free to contact me.

Customer service – nurture or nature

Here I am in early September, the summer seemingly behind us, hurtling towards autumn and slightly down-hearted after a number of conversations with clients, candidates and general retail friends. Things are tough, sales are slow, margins are thinning, Sterling is dropping, do I dare say it – Brexit, no consumer confidence, general uncertainty, etc, etc.

Boris, May, Corbyn, it is just all so depressing.  House of Fraser, Homebase … do I need to go on?

However (and there is always a however as you can’t keep an optimist down), we are quietly forgetting that unemployment is at an all-time low, the fact that retail businesses are disappearing, means that there is more left of the pie for the remaining retailers to go after (not many tears shed over the demise of Homebase at the Kingfisher head office, I bet..) and the change in weather will drive fashion sales – woolly jumper anyone?

Although I absolutely recognise that retail is a tough gig right now, I cannot help but believe that retailers are making it tougher for themselves than necessary. And this, dear friends, brings me to one of my favourite subjects – Customer Experience.

By and large, we cannot control the economy, the weather or the political climate. However we can, to quite a large extent, control how customers are made to feel when we have them as a captive audience in our shops.

That of course is down to shop fit, visual merchandising, availability and most importantly the shop floor staff.
I found it fascinating that straight after the demise of House of Fraser and before it was bought out of administration, I was in Debenhams and had a shocking experience of disinterest, apathy, name it what you will.

One of their main competitors had gone bust and this person clearly did not see it as a threat that she too might lose her job if Debenhams’ fortunes aren’t turned around, nor did she see it as an opportunity to win a customer.

And although I was frustrated at the time, actually it wasn’t her fault. And here we come to the question: nurture or nature.

Had she been recruited because of her extrovert personality, her ability to connect with people from all walks of life, her desire to please and make people feel good, then she would have made a sale that day or in the very least, leave a lasting impression of great customer service.

Had she been recruited as a ‘blank canvas’, someone we’ll train and develop to within an inch of her life and teach her to eat her kpi’s for breakfast and understand that the shop floor is a stage, so you have to put on your best sales act, then she would have made a sale and possible leave an impression of good service.

The fact that she clearly did not fall into the first category, means that something had gone wrong for this person in the second category…

So, as always, the recruitment question is, do we hold out for the individuals with the right mentality, personality and outlook? Or do we recruit and then train and develop (and hope for the best)?

Of course skill sets can be trained, however my view regarding attitude and general soft skills is that you can’t train what God didn’t put in.

Is there any retail organisation out there that is consciously paying a higher hourly rate in order to attract just the individuals that they feel will enhance their customer experience? Is any business trying this in an isolated manner, ie in a store designated to be a centre of excellence?

Would the additional payroll costs be negated by additional sales, more loyal customers, higher frequency or a real lasting relationship with the customer?

I can’t answer those questions, however I would love to hear from those that can.

Of course, I would like to think that the situation described above was one isolated incident, however there are so many shops where you enter enthusiastically and leave disappointed.

I genuinely believe that those retail businesses that deliver exceptional customer experience, are those who will survive.