It’s rare that you see profound examples, back to back, of the right way and the wrong way to do something.

Recently, I spent a day with employees from American Spa Services, first at the company’s office, and then on the road with a service tech. He showed me how he repaired a number of portable hot tubs.

The firm, which is based in Canoga Park, Calif., has eight employees. I met four of them. As I hung around the office asking questions, I was struck by the passion these people had for the company.

At one point, the receptionist was explaining a unique, and highly effective, referral program she had implemented. As she whipped out an Excel spreadsheet and talked me through the details, I noted her excitement and assumed she had thought of the idea herself. When I asked, she said, “Me? Oh, no. This was all Todd’s [the owner’s] brainstorm. It’s been so great for us.”

It took me most of the day to figure out why these people acted as if they were out to change the world, one spa at a time. For starters, I got the sense that they probably earned better salaries than the current market rate. Secondly, they were paid straight commission, which tied their fortunes directly to the success of the company. On a different note, Todd Slasor worked with them in the field, wore the same uniform and created the feeling that they all owned the company together.

Riding with the tech later in the day, we stopped at a distributor’s branch to pick up a part. Inside, a friendly and competent employee helped us. I noticed a large display for the Western Pool & Spa Show, so I asked the worker if he planned to attend. “I’d love to,” the man replied sadly, “but they don’t let anyone go except managers.”

“Really?” I was a little surprised. We were only about 30 miles from Long Beach, where the show was to be held, and WPSS offers day and evening hours.

“Do you know their reason?” The man shrugged. “Guess I don’t qualify for a polo shirt,” he said half-jokingly. “The bummer is that I’m interested in the new products. I’d like to know what’s out on the market.”

After we left, I asked the tech if he thought it was odd that the distributor only allowed managers to attend the show. He thought for a second and said, “Well, that place has major turnover. They don’t pay their people much, and you never see anyone behind that counter for more than a couple of months. It’s a pain in the butt for us because the staff usually doesn’t know what they’re doing.”

“But that guy was fine,” I replied, confused. “And he seemed legitimately interested in learning.”

The tech explained that the man I met was the only good employee they had, as well as the only one with any real time invested in the company. He had been there two years.

In this industry, we simply cannot afford to treat our employees badly. Our ongoing problems finding and keeping qualified staffers is becoming a serious impediment to growth. Overall, I think the best bosses have the best employees. While our labor problems won’t be totally solved by good management techniques, they certainly can’t hurt.

I’ll bet that distributor spends a lot more money training new employees than it would cost to send a guy to WPSS. And maybe they could even give him a free polo shirt for his hard work.

Erika Taylor