Photo by John Cobb

As a retailer, you’ve likely been through the hiring process countless times. You know the drill: you put out the call for an associate, outlining the experience and qualifications you seek, then sift through a mountain of applications.

There’s a real rockstar somewhere within that stack, and I’m going to teach you how to find him or her.

Look for these three words

Look for candidates who tout their “customer service experience” over their “retail experience,” because they’re two very different things. To me, retail experience suggests they understand the functions of the job: managing inventory, merchandising and operating a POS system. Customer service experience, on the other hand, is less tangible.

One of our best hires came from a big-box retailer. The way she described her role on her application impressed me. She called herself a customer care associate. That said a lot about her mindset and how she approaches the job. In the interview, it was obvious that she was a people person — someone who went above and beyond to please. I immediately knew she was a fit because that’s exactly how we want our customers to feel — cared for.

A skilled customer service associate is going to do everything in their capacity to make a customer feel heard and valued. They have empathy and they want to ensure the customer has a great experience in the store.

You can train an associate to do the technical things, but the ability to relate to a customer is much harder to come by.

Find candidates who are involved in the community

A candidate who volunteers for a charitable organization goes to the top of my list. That signals a level of care and attention that translates well in a retail environment.

Volunteer work conveys compassion and it signals that an employee will care about your company’s standing in the community. And through volunteering, they’ve broadened their experience and gained skills that would no doubt come into play in your business. For example, maybe they serve as treasurer of a nonprofit. Great! That means they understand how to balance a budget and track finances — something they may be called to do as they move up the ranks within your company.

Or maybe they’ve served on a local election campaign. Excellent! They understand how to appeal to peoples’ emotions and to create effective store promotions.

In our case, volunteer experience also signals that they’ll make a solid cultural fit here at Gohlke Pools. We’re very involved in the community. Being active in a number of local organizations gives our employees numerous opportunities to volunteer, whether it’s ringing bells for the Salvation Army or reading to school children as part of Read Across America. Candidates with volunteer experience are going to be enthused about our work in the community and will gladly roll up their sleeves to pitch in.

Bottom line: If you’re looking strictly for candidates with pool industry experience, then you’re overlooking potential rock stars. Broaden your search and you’ll find people who’ll surprise you.

Matthew Gray is the retail/hot tub manager at Gohlke Pools in Denton, Texas. You can attend his presentation, 10 Keys to Retail Store Success, at the virtual International Pool | Spa | Patio Expo. Register at