Cherry-Pick Amazing Customer Service Talent From The Struggling Retail And Hospitality Industries… And Become A Corporate Hero

During this pandemic, many “hidden gems” of talent can be found among employees in the retail and hospitality industries. In fact, it’s an amazing once-in-a-lifetime recruiting opportunity. 

I find it to be a WOW recruiting opportunity, first, because white glove customer service is more critical than ever in almost every industry (every CS mistake is now publicly and painfully amplified over social media). It’s a paradox when the tremendous value of great customer service is now more strategically understood. At the same time, almost every industry is suffering from a painful shortage of customer service talent. 

By coincidence, the two industries (retail and hospitality) that have historically developed and delivered the highest customer service levels are now struggling economically due to massive facility and service shutdowns resulting from the worldwide pandemic. So at the current time, these two struggling but leading-edge industries have little to offer their current or future employees in the form of development and promotional opportunities both immediately and in the near future. 

However, if you step back and look at the “big picture,” you will realize that this is the perfect, once-in-a-lifetime employee for corporations in most industries to meet their CS talent shortages. By proactively taking advantage of this opportunity to aggressively and proactively recruit, raid, and cherry-pick a handful of “hidden gems” from the weakened retail and hospitality industries. And surprisingly, in tough TA budget times, it’s also an opportunity for smart TA leaders to fill some of their urgent service talent needs without much recruiting competition. 

For Those That Are Thinking That People Working In Retail And Hospitality Are Soft, Consider This

Start by imagining the complexity and the cost of the single catastrophic error made by the reservation manager, the mayor’s table waitperson, or the head banquet bartender at a well-publicized high-end restaurant. Or the customer complaint/returns manager at Tiffany’s. I would forcefully argue that you should hire any of them for your corporate customer service job. Because of all of the skills they have developed and polished due to all the crisis situations they have encountered. 

For example, they couldn’t have lasted more than a month in their high-pressure jobs if they couldn’t solve immense problems. Just imagine the skills that they have developed while working for hours under immense continuous pressure. Then imagine how they couldn’t have survived if they didn’t develop pressure-related skills like the ability to diffuse a building crisis, how to calm handfuls of difficult, volatile customers, and how they made numerous multi-thousand-dollar decisions under that pressure. Imagine their exceptional sales ability, including their ability to read people quickly, to understand their diverse needs accurately, and the skills required to keep customers happy. While simultaneously convincing customers to spend more than they can afford repeatedly. 

Imagine the skills that they must bring to work every day to make an important contribution to the team’s white-glove service approach. They continually satisfy individual customers because they likely know several languages, and because of their work and travel, they likely understand diversity and multiple different cultures. Remember that they have to build and exercise their team skills every day because they work in a total team environment. Their highly developed skill sets almost always include human relations, organizational/management skills, empathy, two-way communications, listening, memory, and negotiation skills. 

And last, realize that if you cherry-pick the very best from an industry that operates successfully despite such a low-profit margin. You must be getting exceptional experience and skills in each of the above critical corporate skill areas. Rather than needing additional training, these proven professionals have survived many hellish on-the-job experiences that will likely teach your customer service team a thing or two about customer success.

What Makes A Candidate A “Hidden Gem”?

In case you’re not aware of the term, a “hidden gem” is an extremely talented candidate with years of experience and with extensive management, organizational, and customer service skills. To start, they can be classified as “a gem” because their skills make such a valuable economic contribution. And a good one may generate up to 10 times their salary each year.

I would classify them as “hidden talent” because few are recruiting customer service talent from other industries. You would probably also agree that they are mostly hidden because, in the immediate future, no one outside of their industry would likely be actively recruited. Even if they were to post their resume, most of the recruiters outside of your industry would immediately overlook them. Probably for one of the five resume rejection reasons in the section immediately below this will. So they will remain “hidden” from hiring managers for at least the next year. 

And finally, if you read in the last section about their backgrounds and the trials and tribulations that they must go through each day in their current job. You, too, would call them hidden gems. 

The Top Five Reasons Why Recruiters Often Immediately Reject CS Talent From Other Industries.

  1. Your job description didn’t encourage them to apply – you never saw their resume. They never applied for your open job because your job opening wasn’t posted where they would see it. Or because the content of your job description didn’t attract them or openly welcome those from other industries. 
  2. Their resume will likely be auto screened out by one or more ATS runs – because they work in another industry, the terminology that they used in their resume won’t likely match the keywords that your recruiter included in his/her search string. Therefore, their resume will be ranked low by the ATS. They may also be screened out by the ATS system run by the job board that your company is using.
  3. Not having worked under “the right job title” will lead to their rejection – working in another industry means that they worked under job titles that won’t necessarily coincide with the ones that your company uses. For example, the customer return clerk’s title might not trigger a recruiter’s mind that their job was an extremely difficult 100% customer service position.
  4. Not having the ideal educational background may lead to rejection – unlike many job requirements that are quite precise about educational requirements. Often success in an industry like retail doesn’t require them to graduate from a top school or have a degree under a precise academic major. Often, those now working in retail/hospitality will have lower GPAs because they worked their way through school in a retail/hospitality job. As a result, many resumes from retail/hospitality professionals will be discounted because of their “different” but not necessarily inferior educational backgrounds. 
  5. Problems related to their lack of industry experience will reduce their chances – many jobs in professional industries demand that the candidate have prior years of work experience in the company’s exact industry. However, because those that work in retail and hospitality seldom move to other industry groups. Most will be rejected even though they have done the job but lack sufficient knowledge of how their new industry operates. Requiring this industry-specific knowledge/experience is a mistake because it is only essential in 40% of industry jobs. With the Internet and social media networks, most industry knowledge can be learned quite rapidly by those coming from retail/hospitality. Many managers have an unavoidable preference for hiring individuals who have worked at a few specific “benchmark companies” in their industry (that the hiring manager is always striving to be like). Therefore, those moving from retail/hospitality would often start with a disadvantage that cannot be overcome.

The Many Advantages Of Recruiting A “Hidden Gem” Candidate

There are many reasons why you should proactively approach and hire these extremely valuable hidden gems. Those many benefits include:

  • These transfers have a high rate of success – I haven’t found that those working in the customer service and hospitality industry do not have a significantly different success rate after moving than the success rate of those that emanated from the same industry. This no difference in the success rate should convince skeptical hiring managers and recruiters that recruiting from these industries for top talent is a positive ROI recruiting action.
  • Most candidates moving away from retail/hospitality have the required skills for critical customer service jobs –  the skill sets that most corporations are targeting are relatively scarce within their industry. In direct contrast, these needed skills are abundant in the retail and hospitality industries. Fortunately, these skills are easily and quickly transferable to other industries. The corporate job families, I have found, outside the industry where new hires are likely to have the greatest business and revenue impact include customer service, sales, sales support, CRM, and call center operations. 
  • The pandemic means a high-volume of recruiting targets from retail/hospitality – the widespread, long-term unpredictable closure of restaurants and hospitality facilities has made working in either industry less desirable. And that bleak experience has, unfortunately, turned legions of customer service, top performers and managers, into active job seekers that are unsure about their future in their current industry. The massive layoffs in the two industries have also created many openings in their administrative functions that often also have easily transferable skill sets. These layoffs have created even more hidden gem recruiting opportunities for jobs in HR, Finance, Accounting, Real Estate, and PR in other industries. 
  • Because they are hidden gems, the recruiting competition is low – during this pandemic and business downturn, the competition for recruiting all candidates in most open jobs is already low. In contrast, the recruiting competition for customer service talent currently working outside of the retail and hospitality industry is almost nonexistent. So, if you decide to recruit talent from these two industries, not only will you encounter little competition from other recruiters, but you also likely have an extremely high offer acceptance rate. 
  • Unhappiness with the retail and hospitality industries are turning many of their employees into active jobseekers – the best in retail/hospitality already know that there are few development and promotional opportunities within their current industry. And as a result, most of the best talent affected by the downturn/pandemic is already openly and actively seeking other jobs. So, if you know the attraction factors of R/H job seekers and show that you meet them in your recruiting materials. Even if you only place a limited set of job postings, most R/H active jobseekers will easily find you and apply for your open jobs. 
  • If the hiring firm is in a stable industry, you are almost guaranteed new-hire retention – almost every industry is likely to have better long-term job security than the retail and hospitality industries. So, if you are recruiting from these two industries, use your firm’s job security as an attraction and candidate closing factor. In addition, the exciting possibility of no longer being required to work nights, weekends, and holidays will be a major factor in keeping new-hires happy and long-tenured at their new company. In addition, because much of retail pays so poorly, even the standard compensation in your industry may be a raise to many new hires that leave these two industries.

Actionable Tips

Suppose you want to get started immediately using the strategy outlined above. Here are six quick, actionable tips to follow when targeting your CS recruiting on firms in the retail and hospitality industries.

  • Rely heavily on employee referrals – referrals are almost universally the best source for both volume and quality of hire. Start by mentioning in your marketing materials that you’re purposely targeting employees in the retail and hospitality industries. Next, make sure that your employees also understand that you are targeting only those who perform in the top 5% capable of providing white-glove treatment and an exceptional level of customer success. Finally, make employees aware that you expect them to have first-hand knowledge of the work of the person you are referring. It’s also wise to encourage your employees to be 24/7 talent scouts actively on the lookout for possible R/H recruiting targets when shopping, eating out, or traveling. Also, during onboarding, make sure that you ask every new-hire coming from one of these two industries to refer at least the name of someone who is at least as skilled as they are.
  • Target your corporate alumni (Boomerang rehires) – if any of your excellent former CS employees left and went on to work in either the retail or the hospitality industries. Keep in touch with them and eventually ask them to consider coming back as boomerang rehires. If they can’t come back, at least try to make them active referrers of additional CS talent.
  • Revisit your silver medalists – if during the last two years you had CS candidates from either of these two industries that came in a close second for one of your open jobs. Visit their latest LinkedIn profile and see if they have overcome your previous concerns with their additional experience. And if so, you should proactively approach them once again.
  • Target these types of companies – it makes sense to target the very best well-branded companies in the R/H industries. And especially those companies with an even stronger employee CS training program. Consider The Container Store, Costco, Apple stores, Starbucks, IKEA, Trader Joe’s, Publix, Whole Foods, In and Out, and REI in the retail industry. Some benchmark companies to consider, Ritz-Carlton, Disney, the Hilton, Marriott, and some smaller boutique hotels in the hospitality industry.
  • Target these jobs – within the R/H industries look specifically at Bartenders, hosts, weekend waitstaff, banquet organizers, reservation managers, and sommeliers at high-end restaurants in major cities. 
  • Utilize job boards – in this case, because you’re dealing with mostly active candidates. It’s okay to post your jobs and look for resumes in the appropriate sections of large job boards like LinkedIn, Indeed, and However, it’s even better to utilize industry-specific niche job boards (e.g., The NRF job board) that exclusively cover only talent in one of these two industries. Normally, you would also recruit at industry conventions and trade shows. However, that is less feasible during the pandemic. And there’s no need to target college students because there is plenty of excellent senior talent available in the R/H industries.

A Quick Illustration Of Cross-Industry CS Poaching

My search for hidden gems from different industries began nearly two decades ago when I was the Chief Talent Officer for Agilent Technologies. At one informal team breakfast, a top executive was totally impressed by the exceptional service of a waitress at one of our informal team breakfasts at a mediocre coffeehouse. From out of nowhere came an off-the-cuff comment from a top executive. He not so subtly stated that we needed people who could provide that service level in his customer success department. I, of course, said, “Hell yes, let’s bring her over and hire her right now.” Several at the table immediately started mumbling about possible HR concerns. However, I stopped all of that BS quickly by loudly calling her over to begin the hiring process. It turns out that she had a young family and dreaded working every weekend (we were, of course, closed during weekends). Our lowest paying customer service job was at $19 an hour with full benefits, which she stated was $6 more than she was currently earning with no benefits. The deal was quickly done, and just that fast, I became the HR hero during my first visit to the plant. 

Final Thoughts

If you want to be as successful and industry-dominating as firms like Amazon, you must quickly realize that “putting the customer first” must permeate your entire organization. Hiring newbies and then developing their customer-first service skills and attitudes is five times more difficult than finding experienced talent that already has this ingrained service mentality. So purposely skip the employee development option and instead purposely recruit in two overflowing industries that are overflowing with CS talent makes complete sense. It becomes a better opportunity because so many of the best employees in these industries are now willing to jump ship because of the pandemic. 

And once you begin recruiting under this strategy, you should target candidates that “put the customer first” and those that fully understand a customer’s needs. Of course, this targeted recruiting is much more difficult than standard recruiting. Because you are recruiting outside of an industry that you know well, so starting off your contacts and experience levels will be somewhat weak. However, because the outside of the industry competition for these hidden gems is weak, you might come out of the whole recruiting experience being lauded as an HR hero.

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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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