Ben Gledhill, Talent Acquisition Manager at Sofology, which has 35 stores around the UK, takes a very common sense approach in securing and retaining talent.
"We sell a pretty important bit of kit," he says. 'You get your house and car and I think a sofa is probably the third most expensive thing you will buy."
When he puts it like that can you see in his approach to talent acquisition that he wants employees to be excited about what they do and feel pride in helping customers turn buying a sofa into an experience rather than a mundane exercise.
"We want to empower our customers with a little bit more than just going into a store and saying 'I'll have that'. We want to make sure they have all the information they need," Ben says.
With several awards under its belt - one for fastest-growing business - Sofology, which started out in the seventies in the North West, has hit the ground running in terms of embracing technology and everything that comes with that in terms of hiring practices.
Sofology was the first UK sofa retailer to make use of the iPad as a point of sale device for taking orders in store, made possible by the development of a bespoke application.
Ben says the company is in a position right now whereby it is doing things not many other retailers are doing and is fully engaged in digital expansion because "we know where the market is going".
"Historically we have sold sofas from source but now we are moving to a digital platform to make a customer's journey to buying a sofa a lot better."
This also means hiring practices have seen a shake-up. According to Ben the company is moving the goalposts with regard to the kind of person it hires. Sofology used to need to just attract operations and retail staff but because it's moving to the digital space, it's needed to attract a whole new plethora of skills and talent.
"Because of that we really have to focus on our ability to attract the best digital talent in the North West and to do that we need to invest a lot in our employer brand to differentiate ourselves against our competition," he says.
"We've kind of gone back to basics in terms of why would somebody want to work here rather than elsewhere in that space. We really concentrate on what we can offer from a career and tech perspective so we made quite a bit of advancement in the way that we use tech. We really focus on this as a key pillar in our employer brand."
Ben reckons a company does not need a huge budget to implement some very quick wins to improve employer brand as long as they get the basics right before beginning, starting with educating hiring staff about the principles of a positive candidate journey and its potential impact. Every single employee should not only be a brand ambassador, but more importantly they should want to be.
Organisations need to understand who they are trying to attract, find out where they can attract them, discover how to build credibility with them as a hirer and how to maintain a long-term relationship with them, he says.
Companies should analyse whether they treat external candidates the same way they do internal, and ask themselves whether rejected candidates receive clear and detailed feedback, and also whether internal opportunities are promoted in an open and transparent way. And though cost per hire is important, Ben says the benefits of developing an employer brand and EVP far outweigh the extra effort involved.
"I think some organisations focus on the wrong things really," he says, adding that many do not realise that modern candidates are much savvier than in the past and it's very easy for them to find out whether a company's facts, figures or image projected on their websites match up with the realities.
"So I think that companies really need to make sure that what they're offering to candidates is genuine and authentic and if not they will get found out quite quickly," he says. "We go back to basics.”
At Sofology, everyone involved in the hiring process has been through hiring manager training to make sure that the brand being projected in adverts, on social media and on the company's website, are all on message, and those who have day-to-day contact with the candidates ask the right questions.
"Candidate experience is really important to us. It's actually something we track at the end of the process. It's really vital if you're coming in for a sales position or a part time position in stores, that you have the same experience and are asked the same questions with regard to values and beliefs right across the board," Ben says.
Ben believes that really stringent or complicated applicant processes are counter-productive especially in an era of skills shortages.
"I think some organisations simply scare candidates by asking too much of them even before they step into the interview room," he adds.
Crucial of course to the authenticity of the employer brand is the company's EVP. Ben says Sofology has managed to get to the bottom of the process. It has carried out a number of workshops and asked staff across the board from stores to distribution to warehouses to IT to customer service, what working at Sofology means to them and what does it take, "what makes them get out of bed in the morning, what makes you not apply for another job.”
The EVP, he adds, must be genuine, consistent and transparent. "It's not something that we're creating. It's something that's coming from the bottom and when we get the information we go away analyse it and hope, touch wood, that we'll come back with a number of themes or messages, opinions, a set of principles that we can go to the market and say this is what it means to work at Sofology, and hopefully, with that kind of genuine approach, it will help us when it comes to attracting and retaining talent."
Ben believes that companies which do not take this methodological approach or don't bother to invest in brand or pay attention to Glassdoor or the soft-skills shortage, will ultimately fail to attract talent in the years to come as things are set to become a lot more complicated out there.
If an employer brand fails to deliver what they need in terms of talent, they won't attract the talent they need to perform, he cautions.
Sofology, Ben says, essentially focuses on non-tangible benefits of working for the company; what the culture is like, the working environment, the atmosphere, opportunities and long-term development for employees, because these are the things that are important to workers these days much more so than salary.
"Any study you look at now shows salary is coming third or fourth down the pecking order of what matters," he says. “The questions people are asking are that as long as they are being paid, do they feel part of the organisation and, do they make a difference?"
In addition, Sofology has managed, with its successful foray into the digital era, to make the job "cool and sexy.” When the company attracts retail staff for example, they offer them tech and digital "toys" to have at their disposal when speaking to customers in the store.
Another way in which Sofology stays 'hip' is realising that Millennials in particular do not stay around more than two or three years and the company has no problem with this. In a way it is also an attraction tool as candidates are able to work out what they can learn from the company before moving on.
More importantly, according to Ben, employees at the company no matter which department they work in, are treated in such a way that they can take overall pride in what they do because what they all do is integral to the company and its success.
"I am a big believer that regardless of salary everyone at Sofology is just as important as each other. Someone answering calls from customers is just as important as our Head of Retail," Ben says. "It's that pride in what we do on a day-to-day basis... it's really important."
What does he look for in a candidate? Ben says the company is big on behaviours and values first and foremost, people with really high personal standards. People who will not settle for anything except their absolute best.
"We look for people who are committed to delivering, whether it's customer service or in a store or in marketing. We look for people who are progressive, because as an organisation we are progressive. We are always looking for what's the next big thing in retail, what's the next big thing in tech, what can we use from a digital perspective that will help our customers so we have a set of what we call beliefs, and when we assess people, and don't get me wrong, it's important what you have done in the past, but the real focus is on what makes you as a person," Ben says.
With 1,000 on staff, Ben is also very much aware that Sofology's EVP and employer brand must be constantly tended to and given a shake when needs be, given that retail itself is a fast-moving sector that must always have an eye on customer habits. Ben says keeping things organic means constantly speaking to every department because EVP can't be allowed to "sit back". "We need to make sure our attraction strategy comes through so it’s had to keep up to date," he adds.
This also involves monitoring the brand and Ben works closely with the company's social media team to keep abreast of comments on Glassdoor and other platforms, and they try to reply to all comments both positive and negative. Dialogue is super important in retail as candidates are also consumers for Sofology.
"That is why candidate experience is really important for us. If a candidate comes and has a really good experience they could be a consumer. If consumer has a bad experience they're not going to come as a candidate," he says. "That's why dialogue is important."
Ben's bottom line is that as with most things, talent acquisition, despite its complications as a tool, is best kept as simple as possible as this produces the best results. "I genuinely do think that if you take a bit of a backward step, break things down and think what you want to achieve, you can do some great stuff that will really add value and highlight the great work that your talent acquisition team does," he ends.