Hire Your Customers – The Top Recruiting Source In Retail (Target this often-ignored talent pool)

If you recruit in retail or service industries, a top source should be your customers (after employee referrals).

Article Descriptors| Recruiting /Targeting Customers – Advantages – How To – 4 Min

Recruiting Your Customers Can End Your Talent Shortage

Most recruiting leaders who work in organizations that interact with the public (e.g., retail shopping, hospitality, transportation, and service) are currently facing severe talent shortages that, in some cases, are actually limiting their operations.

Fortunately, a large-scale solution to their talent shortages may be right under their noses. That recruiting strategy involves targeting their customers as a prime source of recruits. In my view, ignoring this talent pool is a major strategic error.

Because your current retail customers fit most criteria that objectively define “the perfect recruiting target.” They are perfect candidates because they already know and like your organization. And because they visit your facility frequently (or website). They will have many opportunities to see and read your recruiting messages. 

Category I – Reasons Why Recruiting Retail Customers Is Easy

There are many benefits associated with a “recruit your customers” strategy. They fall into two categories. This first category covers why recruiting them is easier. The second category covers why former customers make better employees. 

  • Reaching customers is easy – because you already have regular contact with these customers. Getting a recruiting message in front of them is almost always easy and inexpensive. That is because you control all aspects of your retail environment. You can easily make your recruiting messages highly visible around the store and on your website. 
  • This applicant pool will include a significant percentage of passive candidates – most corporate sources primarily reach” active candidates.” However, this customer source will also include a large percentage of the highly desirable, not-looking prospects. Of course, selling these customer-candidates will be more difficult. Because the currently employed customer–candidate will always have the option of remaining with their current employer.
  • Customers are more likely to apply because they are familiar with you – many prospects are reluctant to apply for a job formally. Because they are anxious and uncertain about a job and a company that they have only read about. Because your long-term customers are quite familiar with your organization’s operations, employees, and values, a much smaller percentage of your customers will have second thoughts about becoming a candidate. 
  • Customers will see your recruiting message multiple times – if they are frequent customers, they will likely see your recruiting messages every time they visit. And as a result, your recruiting message doesn’t have to be effective the first time around. Frequent visits by the customer means that they will see your recruiting message during the specific times when they are in job search mode.
  • Customers are likely to see and read your message – especially retail customers who will be shopping. Because they have idle time, they will be able to read and reflect on your recruiting message. 
  • Your existing trust relationship means that they will believe your recruiting message – as loyal customers, they already have a degree of trust in your organization. So, building the required trust level during the recruiting process will be much easier. And that high level of trust will make it more likely that they will believe your recruiting messages.
  • Selling a customer–candidate will be easier because you already know a great deal about them – assessing the capabilities of this type of candidate will be easier. Because, unlike most candidates, they are not “strangers.” If they are part of your customer loyalty program, you likely already know a lot about them (note that airlines, restaurants, and hotels all have customer loyalty programs). That knowledge may include their years as a customer, their payment history, and which of your products they have purchased. For certain loyalty member programs, you will also know their current job title, employer, and income. So you can recruit customers for hourly jobs and back-of-the-house professional jobs. You will also be able to target customers who currently work in a particular organization. Knowing their income means you can also eliminate those who currently make much more than you could pay them. 
  • This applicant pool is likely to be diverse – if you have a broad, diverse customer base (as many in retail do). Your applicant pool will also be diverse. And that means that you will likely be able to attract a significant percentage of diverse applicants. 
  • The applicant pool is likely to contain more technologists – compared to a normal pool that is made up exclusively of retail candidates. A customer applicant pool will be wider. So, it will contain potential targets that work in industries that are more advanced in technology. And that may increase your chances of landing more technologists and AI experts.
  • A product discount will likely be a key selling point – for customers who spend a great deal of money at your organization. If you offer a significant employee discount, that will likely be a key attraction feature. Because it is essentially a not-taxed boost in their income.
  • A short commute may have some advantages – if you are recruiting for an on-site job. The fact that these candidates are also customers means they probably live nearby. So, if hired, they may be able to fill in in a pinch. An added selling point is that they will likely have a short commute.
  • Recruiting these customers–candidates may be cheaper – because most of your recruitment messaging will be on-site or on your company’s website. You won’t need to spend hardly anything on external recruitment messaging. And because many of your customers will be locals. You most likely won’t have to spend any corporate funds on interview travel expenses or relocation.
  • In-person interviews will be easier to schedule – because customers will visit your facility frequently. It will be relatively easy to schedule in-person and peer interviews with them.


Category II – Reasons Why Former Customers Make Great Employees

This second category of benefits covers why customer-candidates make better employees.

  • As employees, they are likely to fit – if they have been long-term loyal customers, they probably already share your corporate culture and values. This is because these customer applicants will already have interacted with several of your employees. So when they become an employee, they are likely to quickly feel comfortable with your current employees and the way you operate and do business. As a result, “fitting in” will be less of an issue.
  • They will get up to speed quickly because they already know your products/services – after they are hired. They won’t likely require a great deal of onboarding or training because they have already used your products/services. It will be easy for them to get up to speed quickly. As employees, they will be able to spread a positive, credible message to the customers they will now interact with.
  • Loyal passionate customers will likely become loyal, passionate employees – because they have been loyal and passionate customers. In my experience, as employees, these former customers are likely to maintain their loyalty and become a longer-term employees. 
  • You will already know if they are moody – after perhaps hundreds of hours of interactions with them as a customer (outside of your formal interview process, where they are likely to act differently). You will already know if they are moody or even toxic.
  • Recruiting them may make them even better customers – if you don’t hire them. The added knowledge that your customer-candidates will gain during your recruiting process. It will likely make them even better customers in the future.
  • Even if you don’t hire them, they may become a great referral source – because your customers also frequent other retail outlets even if you don’t hire them, if you allow your customers to make referrals of potential employees from other retail organizations. There is a good possibility that you can turn some of your best customers into a continuing referral source.


Tag Applicants That Are Also Customers

Another important note. Is that the last thing that you want to do is anger any of your customers that have become candidates. If you recruit in retail, it makes sense to proactively ask applicants if they are currently also a customer of yours. Then you should “tag” customer applications in your ATS system.

First, they deserve special attention because they are likely to be excellent candidates. Research has also shown that treating customer candidates poorly during your hiring process may literally “cost you millions.”


Implementation Tips For Recruiting Your Customers

If you have decided to implement a customer recruiting effort. You should familiarize yourself with the best practices in this area. So here is the updated version of my list of the top customer recruiting implementation tips. 

  • Ask your employees to refer knowledgeable customers – employee referrals are almost always the best source of quality hires. So it’s critical that you empower and educate your current employees. So that they can identify and refer knowledgeable and passionate customers that they regularly interact with. 
  • Target members of your customer loyalty program – it makes sense to recruit members of your customer loyalty group specifically. Because you know a lot about them, and they are also likely to be great customers. The clothing company Hollister once specifically targeted for hiring those in their customer loyalty program who exceeded their purchase limits. 
  • Make “this is a great place to work” messages highly visible – rather than putting up an overly simple “help wanted” sign (which can actually hurt your image). Instead, include signage that is more powerful and makes you stand out as an employer. For example, “We are looking for a few great associates,” “If you love our product, consider joining our team,” or “Join our team, because employees get generous discounts.” The foundational premise is that when customers see this type of recruiting message, they will mentally think, “That’s me.”
  • Be creative in where you place your recruiting messages – a one-page recruiting flier can be placed in their shopping bag at a retail establishment or as an insert in a delivered package. 
  • Utilize social media – recruiting messages can be included on corporate social media landing pages, or they can be sent directly to your online followers. Humorous and entertaining Tick-tock videos can be especially effective for your younger customers.
  • Have your employees wear great job T-shirts/buttons – have your employees periodically wear buttons, baseball caps, or T-shirts to let your customers know that you are a great place to work (Wegmans has done this). “Ask me about what is like to work here” buttons have also been effective. 
  • Print a recruiting message on your receipts – including a simple recruiting line on your printed receipts can be a simple and cost-effective recruiting approach (Wells Fargo did this). You can also include a QR code to take them directly to your careers website. 
  • Use corporate business websites – placing recruiting messages and web recruiting banners on your corporate sales, credit applications, and customer service websites. It can be an effective tool if you can get permission from the marketing department. 
  • Add recruiting to your customer communication process – because many firms send customers a monthly paper or electronic mailing. It makes sense to also include recruiting messages in monthly statements and advertising pieces. 
  • Involve your customer service centers – recruiting messages should also be part of the customer service or call center operation. Individuals who offer good suggestions or even well-thought-out criticisms may be ideal recruiting targets. Call-center operators can either directly suggest that they apply, or forward their names to recruiters.
  • Include a message in your product ads – consider putting a small recruiting message in your media product or branding ads as one way of reminding current and potential customers that you are actively recruiting. 
  • Hold hiring events in retail locations – holding hiring events at one of your retail locations (Seattle’s Best Coffee did this) can make it easy for workers in the area to stop by for a quick interview. You can announce the event on your point-of-purchase signs.
  • Offer a discount for customers that apply – consider giving a small discount or product sample to customers who apply for a job and complete an interview.
  • Allow applications on your on-site kiosks – include recruiting messages and the opportunity to apply online on in-store customer kiosks. 
If you only do one thing – first research Wegmans Food Market’s approach to recruiting customers. Then, ask a store manager at one of your retail locations to run a pilot customer recruiting program. Then, use these “proof of concept” results to convince your executives to expand the program. 

Final thoughts

Using any objective standard, your top customers should be labeled as prime recruiting targets. They are easy to find, communicate with, and sell. Best of all, they generally turn out to be loyal and top-performing employees. So, in my view, recruiting leaders who have retail operations should jump on this simple, low-cost, and effective recruiting strategy. This program alone has the capability of ending the current retail talent shortage.

Author’s Note

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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