Jan 31, 2011

The last two years have really proven challenging to any staffing firm, let alone a small, two-office firm specializing in worker bees—the entry-level workers that are often the first to be let go in a downturn. As our clients experienced layoff after layoff (starting with our temporary workforce), we were forced to do our own layoffs, trimming our staff from a dozen people to four. How could we not only survive, but thrive, in this downturn? This question—how to make “lemonade” out of the lemons that this economy was dealing out—was critical. And the reality and gravity of the situation really forced us to evaluate who we were—our values, our brand, our essence. We discovered some interesting things. 

When you are “all things to all people,” who are you, really?

Since I started our staffing firm 30 years ago, we’ve always strived to learn and to follow best practices in the industry. Over the years, unfortunately, this has often translated into our trying to be all things to all people. When you are in a “generalist” niche, it is easy to look at every company out there, and every piece of business, with the “we can do that!” frame of mind. After three decades of trying to be all things to all people, we’ve spent the last few years really celebrating our niche and refining and defining what it means to be a small, generalist light manufacturing and administrative support staffing firm. With limited resources and an economy that was tanking, we just didn’t have the means to be too “generalist.” And there was no better specialty than the one that carried us through the prior three decades.

A new plan was needed—one that was more streamlined, focused and flexible. How could we “make lemonade” out of a situation, in an economy, that seemed most dire? We had the two most important ingredients: loyal staff (all two of them!), and loyal customers (increasingly fewer of them, as the economic downturn took its toll).

Our new planning began with an in-depth analysis of what was working, and what was not, before the big downturn hit us. When I really drilled down, not just at the numbers but at activity details (for example, reading history notes in our database), I found that while our salespeople did a lot of activity and generated some new business, 80-90% of our revenues were from repeat business. We had great customers that had strong relationships with our staffing coordinators, not our salespeople. And much of the new business leads were coming from my own networking, community involvement, and fascination with social media as a new and growing tool for marketing and recruiting.

We have ingredients for Lemonade . . . How do we make it OURS?

So with those ingredients: Loyal customers, seasoned staff, and networking—both in person and through social media—we began perfecting our “lemonade” recipe.

We decided to trash the traditional model of outside salespeople teamed up with inside staffing coordinators. We’d worked hard to have separate jobs, each with their own set of metrics, goals and compensation plans. For the first 25 years we were in business, this model was our goal, and all of our strategy, hiring, and training focused on separate recruiting and sales people. It was, and continues to be, the industry standard. So after the difficult decision was made to cut all salespeople, including sales management, we were left in a very scary situation—one that we knew would require additional strategy, training and execution. We discovered some unique things about us in the process. In all reality, we completely changed the formula for lemonade, and made the added unique flavor work to our benefit.

With the standard staffing model in the trash . . . there was a vacuum. Lack of the old model didn’t necessarily mean we automatically had a new model. We needed to fill the void with a new, vibrant model that was uniquely Brigham—not following the norm. The norm wasn’t working.

This uniqueness, born out of natural evolution and economic necessity, has now really flavored our brand, and spurred a new business model that works well for us: Staffing Coordinators / Account Managers as one combined role, including new business development. We strengthened the lead-development portion of the equation with an enhanced marketing and branding plan. We made one new key hire that focuses entirely on recruiting, sales, marketing and branding utilizing our tried-and-true methods of networking and relationship development, enhanced with new social media that didn’t exist for the first 25 years we were in business.

We rely on hiring strong advocates for our brand who not only recruit, place, and communicate, but also sell who we are by simply developing relationships and continuing to exceed our clients’ expectations. We are fortunate to have a very strong team of staffing coordinators and recruiters. Our focus now is a strategic training plan that allows each staff member to excel at what they do best.

Our Strategy

Here are three primary, strategic initiatives that we put into place, with some explanation of how this looked in practice:

  1. All staffing coordinators would become not only recruiters, but account managers and business development staff.
  2. They were already familiar with the client contacts, as they had taken and filled and serviced orders all along. Even though they aren’t the initial sales contact, they are very comfortable stepping up to the plate and easily handle “soft sales” to existing client base. Our “sweet spot” in terms of client demographics is local, hometown, small, and entrepreneurial industrial companies.

    Over the years, we had always tried to add big corporate accounts to our mix. This type of sale requires a very sales-focused staff and process, as the competition for those accounts consists of much larger, more sales-focused, usually national staffing firms. In our new model, we decided to focus instead on the smaller, entrepreneurial firm—primarily in technical manufacturing or technical service. We discovered that these clients really prefer to speak with their recruiter/customer service person, and never really appreciated the additional layer of salesperson/account manager thrown into the mix. This has not only allowed us to strengthen our existing relationships, but develop a camaraderie that shows, “we’re here to help you, not sell you.” This model has proved fruitful already with over 89% of growth in the past year. It’s an astounding number when you really think of the economic times, drastic staffing changes, and the new model we have implemented.

  3. We decided on a new feel to our brand that focuses on education and service, rather than sell-sell-sell.
  4. For example, when we laid off staff, our clients were struggling with layoffs themselves. Because of the small, local nature of our client base, many had never had to deal with layoffs. Besides being shell shocked by the economic reality and necessity of layoffs, they had questions. So in the midst of our own downsizing, we brought together a panel of Human Resource and Employment Law experts and offered free seminars for our clients (and prospects) on “Survival Strategies” to boost their bottom line. This sent an important message to clients: Brigham Group Staffing is here for you, whether you are in a position to hire or not. We offered the seminar multiple times across our two markets, and some of the sessions were standing room only. We helped to facilitate and encourage our clients to think ahead of the 4th quarter financials by empowering them with industry information and strategic solutions. At the lowest of the low point in the economy two years ago, we decided it couldn’t be about sales. With our clients and our newly refined focus, it had to be about relationships, strategy and problem-solving.

  5. Brigham Group Staffing was already a local leader in networking and public relations. We looked at ways to enhance that leadership position, while reinforcing our brand. We also studied our recruiting and marketing spend, and tracked where the actual placed candidates were coming from. This showed us that—similar to sales—the larger, spendier sources for recruiting (big job boards, paid advertisements and other expensive sources) were not producing for us. Our best recruiting results were from what we started out doing 30 years ago—when we couldn’t afford the big recruiting spend. It came from networking and referral-based recruiting. We found that by focusing on what made us successful, and not trying to compete with the job boards or bigger firm tactics, we continued to more clearly define ourselves and who we were.
  6. Our focus for reaching quality candidates doesn’t start and stop with basic job descriptions and the phone. We utilize all methods of recruiting including Social Media. What platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook offer us is a low-cost, high-impact solution to connecting with true purpose. We cut tens of thousands of dollars out of our advertising and recruiting budgets and instead focused on learning and utilizing social media to attract and engage clients and prospects as well as applicants and employees. In addition to learning how to utilize these tools in a smart, cost-effective manner, we also made a conscious decision to help our clients and applicants use them as well. This strategy has resulted in several speaking engagements at local companies, local workforce centers, at a User Group meeting of our staffing software vendor (Bond-eEmpact), and most recently at Staffing World 2010 in Las Vegas.

Looking ahead: Walk the talk and enjoy the Lemonade

The secret to great lemonade is a recipe that offers fresh ingredients and a lasting impression of taste. We had a difficult choice to make when considering lay-offs. We have always been an evolving company; however, in this challenging environment, it was tempting to neglect the changing economic landscape around us and stick to industry standards. Instead, we decided that our commitment to innovation would not be served by that approach. After taking stock of the situation and our strengths, we chose to align our growth strategy with a model that worked to our greater success. We looked to our clients, our employees, and our commitment to strengthening our sales and recruiting in this new market through our longstanding and successful methods of networking. Being fresh and innovative in this new economy, for us, was really discovered by looking inward. As we look forward, we continue to “walk the talk” of this new business model and brand messaging—not only with internal staff (old habits are hard to break!), but also with new team members, temporary workers, clients, and prospects.

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