This article was originally published by Linkedin on November 26, 2016

Retailers across the country hired between 640,000 and 690,000 temporary workers for the holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation. Though some of these positions start as early as October it’s the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas that put the greatest stress on temporary employees, the companies that hire them, and customers.

Whether your temporary help is dealing face to face with customers, in a call center helping them by phone, or behind the scenes in a warehouse or backoffice, they all contribute to your customers’ experience, which you want to be consistent with your brand and what customers expect and get the rest of the year.

Training temporary employees provides a basic level of competence, but to get them to where they can wow customers, you have to go beyond training and educate them about your culture. Culture is commonly understood as “the way we do things.” Our research in service design has taught us to go a step further: Culture is “the way we do things – and why.” The “why” is critical, because you can’t provide a script for everything, and understanding why helps people figure what they ought to do. Here are five ways to ensure your temporary employees provide winning customer experiences.

1. Make sure seasonal employees are sprinkled in among more experienced ones at the same level, and give them all chances to know each other. People learn by example. If temporary help has the opportunity to observe others in action, those behaviors and values will rub off on them. The regulars will also be able to answer questions that training couldn’t cover.

2. Let holiday workers know not just the rules, but also where the “give” is. What you do on the plus side –extras that employees have the discretion to give to customers – says a lot about your company. Do you let employees waive return fees for good customers? Is there a set number of freebies the staff can give away each day in a coffee shop? Can a late fee be removed when a customer’s explanation seems reasonable? Letting temporary workers know how much latitude they have–and making it easy for them to check with a supervisor if they are unsure– is a powerful way of teaching them about your values and standards.

3. Give “battlefield promotions” to your full-time staff. All those new people need supervisors. Rather than overstretch existing supervisory staff, give experienced hourly workers a temporary management role, and some extra pay, too. You’ll not only get the supervision you need: You’ll get a chance to test employees to see whom to promote permanently as positions open up in the future.

4. Put folks from headquarters and other departments into the trenches. Your holiday help doesn’t all have to be new hires. At Warby Parker, the trendsetting eyeglasses seller, people from every department sign up for “Holiday Help” shifts in customer experience and retail. “It’s a great opportunity to reconnect people regardless of their positions or roles back to what it means to actually make customers happy when they’re selecting frames,” says Dave Gilboa, one of the founders and Co-CEO. “We generate a lot of great insights and learnings and I think it is also eye opening for folks that are not in day-to-day customer facing roles.

5. Don’t punish failure; study it. Seasonal workers can be a great source of insight about systems and processes that are hard to learn or perform. Watch what they do to learn what to streamline. After the holidays are over, consider bringing groups of seasonal employees together with a service design team for a debriefing.

You’re all out during the holiday season, but that’s no reason to stop innovating. Use service design techniques like rapid prototyping and experimentation to learn as you go. Intuit’s TurboTax team runs hundreds of weekly live experiments every tax season, with each week’s results feeding into the next week’s experiments. Retailers can do the same, online and instore–learning and changing as the season progresses, and emerging smarter.


© Thomas A. Stewart and Patricia O’Connell

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