Most distributorships today operate lean and hungry, expecting more from a slimmed-down work force. The need for efficiency has required a re-evaluation of all job descriptions, and every employee must be flexible enough to handle tasks previously assigned to individuals no longer with the company. The bad news is (that wasn't the bad news?) the labor force for the electrical industry is shrinking, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. Young people aren't lining up to join the wholesaling industry. So, in spite of an uncertain economy, distributors can't wait for recovery to augment already streamlined branches. Just as a realtor will tell you, it's the right time to buy a great house, the same wisdom applies here: It's a great time to hire the “right person.”

In fact, Dr. John Sullivan, a leader among human resources advisers, designates recruiting as an “evergreen job, a mission-critical job where hiring is continuous,” regardless of whether an opening exists. By always interviewing promising job prospects you can prequalify candidates for possible future openings, thus speeding up the hiring process when the job becomes available.

Though hiring is the last thing most wholesalers are thinking about, the smart distributor is actively pursuing talent. He understands that a business is only as good as its employees, and knows that finding and hiring the right person isn't simply a matter of placing an ad in the Help Wanted section of the local newspaper. Hiring great people requires a well-thought-tout recruiting strategy. With that in mind, here are five steps to follow in developing such a strategy.

Step 1. Know why you're hiring

Designing a recruiting strategy involves answering the question, “Why am I hiring?” Maybe that seems obvious, but it's important to write down in a sentence or two what you intend to accomplish. Determine how this new hire helps you in your bigger plan. How will it bring you closer to achieving your business objectives? Your decision to hire could be based on current or future growth. Or it could be to capture business from a competitor and grow overall market share. Or you could be broadening your product or service offerings in a new area, such as fiber optics, datacom or security systems. Of course, you could simply be replacing a worker who is no longer on the payroll. Know why you are hiring and it will help sharpen your efforts.

Step 2. Write a customer-centered job description

Most electrical distributors don't bother writing a job description. “What's to describe? We're hiring someone for sales/warehouse/whatever,” they say. Or, if a job description does exist, it usually lists a set of tasks to be performed, like this one for an outside sales rep: Maintain account base, take orders, and add new customers. Perform any duties assigned by branch manager. Not a word about the “soft” skills needed like the ability to empathize, improvise and proselytize. While it's true you want someone with the “hard” skills suited to the job at hand, your primary concern is how the individual interacts with customers to meet their expectations. That's where soft skills come in. It's important to determine if a job candidate owns the behavioral characteristics to successfully meet the expectations of the customer. Those qualities include verbal skills, high energy, enthusiasm and strong work ethic. Consider using a personality assessment survey or developing interview questions that focus on uncovering behavioral traits. Finally, make your job description all-inclusive. There are a growing number of women in electrical wholesaling, and this labor pool is a rich source of talent often overlooked in a male-dominated industry.

Step 3. Prioritize your hiring needs

Now that you have written a job description and you know what performance level to target, next focus on where it will do the most good. Warehouse, sales, purchasing, operations? Don't assume if you hire enough people the job will get done. You need to hire the right people. Naturally, it would be ideal if you could always hire top performers, but in the real world, that's not going to happen. Sometimes it is a matter of choosing from the best of available candidates.

Step 4. Identify future hiring needs when possible

For instance, when the company wins a project requiring a bigger work force, let's say an on-site vendor managed inventory contract, obviously more workers will be needed. Don't wait until the contract is about to start. Begin prescreening applicants right away. Another example of planning for future needs is when you're having disciplinary problems with an employee and it's becoming apparent you're going to have an upcoming vacancy.

Step 5. Design a service-level agreement for new hires to sign

Base it on the job description from step 2. Let employees know exactly what is expected of them. Spell it out. Don't assume they will “just know” to greet customers courteously, answer the phone politely, keep the branch clean, and all the hundreds of other little items you expect employees to do without being told.

Where to look

One of the first places distributors look for skilled recruits is in the workforce of a competitor. But, keep in mind that a worker who will leave a current employer, given the right offer, likely will leave you, as well. Besides, you don't want someone else's disgruntled employee. So how do you know when it's worth taking a risk on an employee from a competing firm? Ask your sales people. Chances are they know who the best workers are in your community. If you've been in business for five years or more, you probably do, too. Make a point of getting to know the top performers in your marketplace.

Your own backyard

Don't overlook the development of people who already work for you. Invest in training and develop your own talent pool. Offering training to eager employees can help retain workers and improve morale. It can also serve as a barometer for discovering which workers show initiative. Most employees, given the choice, won't take advantage of training offerings. The ones that do will be your more ambitious workers.

Future now

Dr. Sullivan reminds managers and business owners to always be alert for good people. By looking outside the industry, you can start fresh with someone who doesn't have preconceived ideas about the job requirements of a supply house employee. Remember, most distributors are downsizing. Your competitors aren't going to take the talent shortage seriously until it's too late. It's just easier to procrastinate and scramble for warm bodies as needed. It's much harder to focus on skills development, strategic planning and constant flexibility. But, developing strategies for hiring and keeping the best of the best can give you the competitive edge in the war for talent. And the distributor with the most talent wins.

Mike Dandridge has 25 years of experience in the electrical wholesaling industry, including positions as corporate trainer and consultant for all branch merchandising for Rexel USA, Dallas. He is a nationally recognized speaker on sales, marketing and merchandising, and author of Thinking Outside the Bulb, (later republished under the title The One Year Business Turnaround). Reach him by e-mail at md@theperformancepro.com or via his website, www.highvoltageperformance.com.