Coles: what to do when the customer becomes the candidate
There are very few businesses that can claim every Australian as their customer – unless you are one of the nation’s largest supermarkets. SEEK Insights & Resources talks to Coles’ Head of Talent Acquisition, Christine Connor (pictured), about the reality that every candidate is also a customer.

Coles serves more than 20 million people every week at more than 2,400 sites encompassing supermarkets, liquor stores, petrol and convenience stores and hotels. Chances are, if you buy anything at all, you’re buying at least some of it from Coles.

What this means for recruitment, says Connor, is that every potential new staff member is also a customer.

When the customer wants a job

Coles is one of Australia’s largest private sector employees. It hires for around 27,000 jobs each year and employs more than 100,000 people for its 2,200 retail outlets.

Connor, who has been in charge of Coles’ talent acquisition since 2013, is a big believer in recognising the candidates’ power in their other position as a customer. Viewing the candidate as a customer is a challenge Connor has taken to Coles and would like to see all organisations take on board.

Too often in corporate HR, she says, interviews are rescheduled or cancelled and candidates are treated poorly, yet that would never be accepted at a company’s customer service desk.

“When the customer becomes a candidate the power seems to change because the customer is wanting something from us, rather than us wanting something from the customer,” says Connor.

“But we mustn’t let our own behaviour change. It could be the difference on whether they choose to shop with us or not.”

She says the impact of a poor candidate experience on brand and revenue should not be underestimated. “At Coles, we always put our customers first. They are the heart of every decision and being a truly customer-led business is how we will win in the market, and also how we will win the war for talent.”

Courting the candidate

Connor says Coles is incorporating a digital marketing strategy and marketing approach to talent acquisition with a view to modernise what she believes is an outdated application process.

“Candidates are consumers and we in talent acquisition need to talk about how we can make things easier from a candidate’s point of view,” says Connor.

“People want to be courted. We have to look at what information we need at a given time.”

Connor says the job application process is one of the only processes in the world that has not changed since its inception. Technology enables people to access everything they need from one spot – such as their Facebook or Instagram account – and they’re frustrated when they can’t access an organisation they want a job at in the same easy to use and intuitive way. The tools you use may be different in this day and age, but ultimately job applicants still fill out their name, work history, references and send it all off to a potential employer.

But, says Connor, do hirers really need five pages of information and a collection of references at the initial point of contact with each applicant?

Why not start the recruitment process with a conversation and build from there?

Maximising candidate quality

Connor took on the task of implementing significant change in the way Coles went about its recruitment process after coming in five years after the commencement of Coles’ turnaround strategy in 2008.

During the turnaround, the company had understandably shifted its spotlight to be firmly on luring back the customer. But, says Connor, naturally during this time, the continued focus on the front end of the business sometimes meant there was a lack of investment in other key areas – the people, processes and technology within Coles.

When Connor came on board she found the recruitment process being used was inconsistent, expensive and not overly effective. There were just four recruiters each hiring 120–150 people a year, but all they had time for was a transactional approach.

Coles utilised more than 58 agencies to find candidates even though the agency usage rate was low at only 16%. These agencies were mainly being used for areas where there were skill shortages or higher level managerial roles.

“This is where we should be having a direct relationship with those people in the marketplace – and they were the more expensive agency fees,” says Connor. In addition, retention rates through the agencies were lower than the direct hires.

Connor says Coles’ recruitment processes had been behind the times with the rising popularity of digital candidate profile search websites, such as SEEK. Where once agencies could promise to share the ‘secret sauce of talent’ held on their private databases – it is now publicly available. Connor took the money being spent on agency fees and reinvested it with the aim of bringing a better service delivery model by:

  • Partnering with RPO (Recruitment Process Outsourcing) company Harrier Human Capital.
  • Introducing proactive sourcing so they could access the inner sanctum of online talent pools, using such tools as SEEK Premium Talent Search.
  • Removing a lot of the unwieldy application process.
  • Increasing its graduate placement numbers.

“When you partner with an RPO it is because they have specialist expertise and can do it better than you… we needed to learn from others,” says Connor.

Two years into a three-year transformation strategy, the change in resourcing for recruitment has taken Coles from a ‘post and pray’ approach to a much more effective talent acquisition system.

Connor says it is already seeing better talent and improved retention rates from the first 12 months.

Bringing a marketing approach into talent acquisition

During the past 5–10 years, the grocery scene has significantly changed with the arrival of companies such as Aldi and Costco providing new sources of competition.

The next phase of Coles’ transformation will focus on overlaying a marketing slant to their talent acquisition.

“Retail in Australia has not traditionally been seen as a significant career opportunity,” says Connor, who wants to ‘turn that upside down and help young Australians understand how they can build great careers through grocery retailing’.

In the UK, she says, retail is considered a great career destination, and when you consider the revenue, customer numbers and complexity involved in running a supermarket,  it deserves to be more highly regarded here.

“It is a multi-faceted role,” says Connor. “It is a profit and loss business, it needs local marketing in-store, relationship marketing, finance management – a store manager is a mini general manager so they are learning a lot of skills.”

She says changing the mindset is a key strategy Coles is taking into the next phase.

“We want to be seen as a destination in the external marketplace that people come to in order to build a great career.

“Our strategy is to become Australia’s best food, fuel and convenience retailer. We have a whole strategic pillar centred on building great careers and it is how we ensure we secure the best talent.”