Zen and the Art of Employee Retention

by Jeff Mowatt, BComm, CSP

Imagine you’re a front-line employee working at a ho-hum job. It’s so boring you simply go through the motions, on autopilot, counting the hours and minutes until your shift is over and you can go home to something you enjoy. Or you stick with the job until something more interesting or better paying comes along. Then you’re gone.

In that scenario, managers resign themselves to the belief that there will always be high front-line turnover. They don’t bother training employees because they’ll just quit anyway. Continuing with that line of thinking, these managers assume that the only thing keeping staff around is higher pay.

Unfortunately, customers dealing with bored employees feel absolutely no loyalty. So revenues go down while the wages keep costs high. Not exactly a formula for success.

It’s Not Always About Money
Today’s employees do indeed want more – and it isn’t just money. According to landmark studies in employee motivation spearheaded by Dr. Kenneth Kovach at George Mason University, the number one motivator for employees is interesting work.

The question: how to turn a potentially boring job into something interesting?  It might be a stretch but consider the traditional tea ceremony — a potentially mundane task that turns into an art when performed with a dedication to quality, mindfulness, and service.

Tidbit . . .

Tea CeremonyFortune Magazine did a survey of the “100 Best Companies to Work For.” The number-one factor people considered when choosing a company? Professional training.


Practitioners of the tea ceremony don’t just read a manual and get certified. They train for years under the guidance of a master. And like artists, they adopt an attitude of humility, knowing that no matter how advanced they become, they can always improve.

That kind of front-line training goes beyond the standard approach where managers list what employees can’t do, then teach them the technical details — like how to deal with paperwork, run the cash register and make deliveries. (Oh, yeah, and be nice to people.)

Adding Sizzle
What we need is training with spice – equipping staff with communication skills that build strong customer loyalty and encourage more spending. Training that turns the job of interacting with customers into a craft, requiring focus, quality, and attention to detail. In other words, training that makes even the most mundane work interesting.The fascinating, sometimes frustrating, part is that there’s always room for improvement.

Adding Substance
I recommend a two-phased approach. Phase One introduces employees to the subtleties of service that make work more interesting. Once that foundation is established, we move to Phase Two where managers conduct their own monthly 90-Minute Customer Service Team Meetings, shifting the learning from a one-time event to an on-going process.

From the moment our clients conduct their first Customer Service Team Meetings, they notice the emergence of a much more motivated and engaged workforce. So do their customers.

Tidbit . . .

Tea CeremonyA one-time training session is likely to raise unrealistic expectations and eventually annoy people. Without reinforcement and support, everything reverts to the way it was. We need to convert training from a novel, isolated event into an on-going process.


It’s ironic that a lot of managers believe they can’t afford to train employees because they have high turnover. The truth is they have high turnover because they aren’t providing on-going education or growth. Employees don’t quit jobs when they’re overworked. They quit jobs when they’re bored or, worse, when they’re paid enough to physically show up but have mentally moved on.

The bottom line — As managers, you have the opportunity to lift your business from a place where employees go to earn a living, to a place where they can satisfy an innate need to learn and grow. That’s a learning organization where the flavour of work is like well-brewed tea… richer and more satisfying for everyone.

Jeff Mowatt is a customer service strategist, Hall of Fame speaker, and bestselling author. For more tips, training tools or to inquire about engaging Jeff for your team, visit www.JeffMowatt.com

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