Up Front with YR: How to Effectively Motivate and Retain Employees

There’s a lot we can learn from people in other industries about how to be successful. In fact, sometimes that’s where the best ideas begin. A lawyer may be amazed what he learns about teamwork from speaking with a soccer player, while a teacher may discover a thing or two about performing in front of an audience from a Broadway performer. And, we think, people in the restaurant industry just may be surprised what they can learn from the people who work at Yelp Reservations.

That’s why we’re kicking off a new series called Up Front with Yelp Reservations, where we interview Yelp Reservations employees on all sides of the business to find out their tips and tricks for success in ways that will definitely resonate with everyone in the restaurant industry.

First up, we spoke to Michaela Woods, the Head of Sales for Yelp Reservations. Woods spends her days overseeing sales and account management and making sure her team is hitting their sales goals, while also making sure everyone is getting the training and development they need to do their job well and forge a career path at Yelp. Which is why we thought she’d be the perfect person to talk about motivating and retaining talent. Keep reading to find out how she keeps her team motivated and what she looks for when hiring.

In sales positions and in restaurants, it can sometimes be a challenge to motivate employees. What’s your advice?

On the sales side, the number one thing is compensation,” Woods says. “It’s important to make sure people have goals that are attainable so they can make money, especially because in a lot of sales jobs, employees don’t have the highest base salaries, but there’s earning potential through commissions.”

But it’s not just about compensation, Woods says. Having a career path is equally as important. “Making sure the employees have something they’re working towards is a huge motivator. Sometimes with a start-up there isn’t a clear path that if you do X, you’ll work towards Y,” she explains, but it’s something that’s valuable to employees and should therefore be a goal of the employer. It’s also helpful if people have a vision and are thinking bigger picture. “If people are motivated by the impact they’ll have on the company and the industry and not just what’s in it for them, it helps them understand how they can benefit the company long-term,” she says. And that makes people feel valued and want to stay.

High turnover rates are a reality for people who work in sales and in restaurants. How do you work to retain talent?

“It’s tough,” Woods admits, adding that turnover is definitely something her team experiences. In some cases, she explains, it’s a result of people not knowing what the job entails. “There are folks who decide straight out of college that they want to be in sales, but they don’t know what that means. Then, after they get a taste of what it’s like, they decide it’s too stressful or not for them.” That’s not in her control, she says, but adds, “We try to interview and vet for that before we bring people in.”

For employees who are enthusiastic about the job, however, Woods says that’s where emotional people management skills come to play. “It’s about taking the time to really understand what makes them tick; what gets them excited about coming into work every day; what are their long term goals and their short term goals; and what are their strengths and weaknesses?” Understanding all of that allows a manager to refine an employee’s skills and make sure that they’re following through about the right things and in the right ways. “It’s a matter of checking in along the way, especially during a ramp-up period, and making sure they have the right attitude about how they’re approaching the job and that we’re doing everything we can to make the them successful.”

When people leave for another job, is there something management can learn from their exit?

Woods says that on occasion, there are people who leave the job voluntarily. “When that happens, it’s an opportunity for us to see what we can do better,” she says. “Obviously, the end goal isn’t to have someone leave and then understand why they left; the goal is to have everyone be transparent throughout the process. If someone is thinking about leaving, we want to understand why and have an opportunity to save them.” But for those employees who do ultimately end up leaving the job, Woods asks them to fill out exit surveys so she can get an understanding of what they would have liked to have seen done differently and then tracks those responses, so she can implement change as necessary.

How do you keep morale high even when dealing with turnover?

Woods says she looks to the managers to help keep morale where it needs to be. “There’s a saying that people don’t leave their company, they leave their manager,” she says. While Woods says she doesn’t necessarily always agree with that statement, she does know that first and foremost it’s important for people to be happy in their environment. “When the job isn’t the sexiest job in the world, aside from compensation and trying to get them excited about what they’re selling, it’s important to also to tap into what the person wants to get out of it. Is it just a job to them or is it a career?”

Woods says she also takes time to personally meet with everyone. “Yes, they report to their managers directly, but I meet with every employee so I can understand from their perspective how things are going.” She says it’s a little like playing the role of a therapist. “I open up lines of communication, so if for whatever reason they don’t feel comfortable going to their manager, they know they can come to me; it gives them another outlet of someone to talk to.”

How do you handle an employee who isn’t living up to their potential or seems unhappy in their role?

Woods says the first thing you want to do if an employee’s performance is suffering is have a conversation with them about it and try to understand what’s going on in their head. “You want to say, ‘Hey, I noticed you don’t seem like your normal self or you don’t seem checked in; can you tell me what’s going on?’ and get them to open up.” Then, she says, you can ask more questions, like, “Do you think you’re doing everything in your power to be proactive about your development?” or “What is the last thing you’ve done in the last two weeks to be better at your job?” The important thing, she says, is to ask open-ended questions so that they can come to the realization on their own that their head hasn’t been on straight or that they’ve been underperforming.

Of course, not every person who is faltering in their role may have that self-awareness. Sometimes, Woods says, you have to have a tough conversation and give pointed feedback, like reminding the person why they were hired in the first place (“We saw you had a great attitude and were confident in your ability, but right now we’re not seeing those things”) and giving specific examples of what needs to happen over the next week or month so that everyone can feel confident moving forward.

How do you recognize a potentially great employee during the interview process?

Woods says she looks for people who naturally stand out based on the way they present themselves. In fact, she says, oftentimes it’s about the questions that person being interviewed asks, especially if it shows they’re thinking about their career and not just the short term.

That being said, there are three things Woods wants to find out about all potential employees:

  1. Do you have a positive attitude?

Woods says she wants to know if someone she’s going to hire can bounce back from rejection and handle change well. One way to find this out, she says is to ask about a time something didn’t go their way and how they responded to that situation.

  1. Can you take feedback?

Implementing feedback is crucial for an employee’s success, so Woods is always sure to ask about it. However, she does say that a lot of time that’s something you just can’t know until the person is in the role.

  1. Do you work hard?

Woods says, “If someone has those three characteristics, I’m confident we can do anything with them and turn them into high performing rockstars. And that’s on us.”

For more restaurant management tips, check out our blog and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram! Are you a restaurant looking for a reservation system that can help you fill empty seats? Visit Yelp Reservations or call us at 888-254-5315.