bizmarketer elizabeth williams conversations

Here is a secret most HR people won’t ever admit to without a few drinks in them: exit interviews don’t count for sh*t.

In the first place, many organizations don’t bother doing them at all, or they leave it to the manager (you heard that right) to have a conversation before the employee leaves. In other cases, only people who are leaving voluntary get an exit interview, and then, only the full-time folks with more than a few months on the job. Tragically, the interviews that do happen are done by junior people working with a form.

What we have, then, even in a fairly big firm, is a very small number of data points from a very unrepresentative sample of the departing population. If I put my marketing hat on that looks like a pile of anecdotal nothingness that sheds little insight on the health of the brand, nor offers any direction for improving it.

When customers quit our brands, we are all over them to figure out why, to win them back and to make sure we stay on their radar. We have focus groups, surveys, save teams, discounts and, occasionally, shameless bribery. Woe betide the marketer who is letting too many of those RGUs slip out the door.

What’s an RGU? Why, it’s a revenue generating unit, aka a customer, often a real person. Guess what other RGUs you have that you’re losing and not dealing with? That’s right, your employees.

Someplace in the finance department the Keebler Elves are tracking the productivity of your workforce, and that metric rhymes with revenue per employee. That’s a real thing. If we marketers are accountable to the company for revenue, we really ought to be considering the impact of internal RGUs, aka employees, aka humans, who are leaving.

Just as we would if there was a ton of churn in our customer base, we should be having a conversation with these people shortly after they escape, and finding out why, and seeing what it would take to bring them back (if you want them back; as with customers, not everyone is worth hanging on to).

We should further be segmenting those folks into a few other groups. There’s the ones who stand a chance of getting an exit interview, those tenured, full-time people who jump ship voluntarily, but there’s also these folks:

  • People who leave in the first weeks or months
  • Contractors and temps
  • Candidates who turn you down
  • People you fire

In most organizations nobody is even thinking of talking to these people, and that is a giant miss.

Cheque Please!

We like to pretend the “probation” period in our organization is so we can get a good look at you in the full light of day and then decide if you’re worth keeping. Some employers actually withhold benefits and vacation until that weird period is over, and most will tell you they can terminate your ass for any reason during that time. But here’s the thing most of us don’t consider: in today’s labour market, the one on probation is often the employer.

There are lots of reasons new employees leave, like a dream job that comes along just after they sign on with you, but I’m willing to bet that someone who has gone to all the trouble to be interviewed, reference checked, onboarded and trained is intending to stick around long enough to have the granola bar in their desk go stale.

In marketing, early customer churn is a very, very big deal indeed. It usually means there’s either a competitor at work or a dismal customer experience. Sometimes both. We find out by, that’s right, asking. We do surveys, phone calls, focus groups and the occasional rescue mission for these customers because they represent a high LTV (lifetime value) that hasn’t yet been recognized against the cost of acquiring them. The same is true of those employees who are heading for the exit in the first six months or so. Something either looks much better on the other side of the fence, or the experience is so awful they would rather be unemployed than come to work each day.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to expect these people to have some interesting and valuable insights about your employer brand, the value proposition, the workplace, their manager, the role and the culture of the company.

Just Passing Through

Another group that never gets an exit interview is the temporary workforce. This includes temps you bring in for a few days to cover a vacation, right up to consultants who may spend weeks or months hanging around while they work on a project.

Here’s why I think they are particularly interesting people to speak to. First, they come in with very little prior information (unless they’ve been there before). Unlike your full-time employees, they probably didn’t go through a full recruiting process, multiple interviews and checks. They likely got a call one week and showed up the next. In marketing, we love talking to consumers who have little to no prior impressions of a brand or category because they don’t drag a bunch of agendas and subjectivity along to the conversation, so can be a bit more insightful about what their expectations might be. The same kind of conversation can be had with your contract folks.

For example, they are relatively immune to the local politics, have little investment in the culture or subculture of their workplace, and likely no emotional attachment to their supervisor or colleagues. This gives you a fairly neutral point of view, even taking into account that they may want to work with you again, and so aren’t likely to unload a ton of negativity.

Another thing I just love about temporary folks is their invisibility. People simply forget they’re there. They sit in their cube or their corner and the day-to-day drama unfolds around them, but rarely with them. I’ve often found they are privy to information (and gossip) that eludes many managers and HR people. They also watch, with detachment, how teams work, how managers manage, how leadership is regarded, what are the mutually loathed corporate policies, who’s getting bullied, what other departments are being nice and not nice, top things to gripe about and so on.

Thanks Anyway, But No

Marketers spend a lot of their tme worrying about the sales funnel. Who’s in the funnel, who should be in the funnel, who’s where in the funnel and, critically, who just bounced out of the funnel and why. Of particular interest are the customers who fall out just ahead of the purchase or who suddenly cancel immediately after. Big alarm bells there.

There should be similarly big alarm bells when we have people who have gone all the way through our recruiting funnel and suddenly leave. That can be the semi-finalist candidate who just doesn’t show for an interview, or it can be the preferred candidate who turns down the offer.

Marketers want to understand if it was a better offer from a competitor, a sudden case of cold feet about a change, a terrible review on Yelp or an experience that didn’t feel quite right. For candidates, we also want some intelligence on why they went all that way with us only to say goodnight in the taxi.

It may be a better offer, in which case, you want to know if it was more money, better location, better fit or what have you. But it could also be they did a bit of last-minute due diligence on Glassdoor or Google, or they shot a note to their network asking for input and were dissuaded by the crowd. Remember, Millennials are all about the network’s opinion. It could be that the last person who interviewed them scared them sh*tless, or kept them waiting for 45 minutes, or was just woefully unprepared.

If brands are built on the way experience meets expectation, then you may have a big problem at the bottom of your recruiting funnel, and you need to figure out what it is.

Fu*k You Very Much

Even for marketers there are some RGUs (aka people) we just need to part company with. They’re simply too much maintenance, too whiney, too unpleasable, or just too unpleasant to keep on the customer list. Mostly this takes the form of ignoring them until they go away, pricing them out of the database or, occasionally, simply firing them.

For employees, the same process is called termination and it sucks no matter how it happens, nor how deserved it may be. But make no mistake: whether a customer or employee jumps, falls or is pushed away from your brand, it’s still a brand experience and it still matters in the larger scheme of things.

Severance packages are an exercise in employer branding, as is the way in which your brand parts company with employees. Which is why it’s a bit baffling that we don’t do exit interviews with the people we fire.

I know, I know, they’re not going to be all sunshine and roses about the company that just turfed them out, and that’s ok. We can hold off for a few weeks or months until the anger dissipates a bit and there is some chance they will be philosophical. We can also control for anger in the way we design the survey and weight the responses. The idea that nothing good can come from this cohort is a bit ridiculous, if you consider all their experience with your brand prior to the not-so-great dismount.

Plus, just in case you were wondering, they may not be talking to you, but they are sure as hell talking about you. To their friends, to their family, on Glassdoor, Indeed, Google, LinkedIn, Facebook and so on. That’s not a conversation you want to be surprised about.

Starting the Conversation

If you’re getting a bit worried that all this follow-up is going to keep your intern busy, you can relax. The last person who should be doing this stuff is the HR team. Marketers figured this one out ages ago, mostly because we’re really pretty lazy, but also because it turns out that people will say all kinds of things to strangers they would never say to you.

Most marketers use third party survey companies or even just Survey Monkey or other online polling software to talk to the departing RGUs/customers/people. It’s fast, affordable and it gives insights into the market brand they just can’t get anywhere else.

I think it’s time HR got out of the exit interview process, except to ask permission to follow up later with a survey or a call. Most people will say yes, even the negative ones, and just like your friends in marketing you’ll end up with actionable brand data and pretty slides.

If you’d like more information about how to set up post-employment conversations and other employer brand stuff, let me know and I’ll share some tools.