Above the Trees

Staying Power

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No business can exist without frontline employees, those who come face-to-face with customers every day. When employees on the front lines have one foot out the door, the bottom line can swirl down the drain.

Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp.’s “frontline-centric” focus is the reason for its strong employee retention record, says Estelle Conover, the company’s vice president of indirect sales. In lay terms, frontline-centric means that the company works hard to train and retain employees who interact on a day-to-day basis with customers. “If the ship were sinking,” Conover says, “those frontline people are the ones we’d put on the lifeboats first.”

Conover oversees 79 employees who, in turn, manage 175 outside salespeople who sell BellSouth’s telecommunications products across nine states. In 2005, her department had a 94 percent retention rate. She says that’s typical across BellSouth because of the company’s focus on career development.

How does BellSouth achieve those impressive results? “First, we try to hire the right people up front. That certainly has a major impact on retention,” Conover says. “It’s not about the resumé, the college you went to or your grade point average. That certainly is important.” But other factors apply as well: “Are these people going to fit in? Are they honest? Do they have an outlook that’s going to fit into this culture?”

Paving Career Paths

Once employees are on board, “we help them think about their career goals,” Conover says. “Once a year, we have a career discussion with each employee to understand the employee’s goals and what it’s going to take to reach those goals.”

Conover says the company essentially creates a career plan for each employee and then determines what training is needed to help employees reach their goals. “We gather input from the entire organization and focus on two or three skills each year,” she says. “This year, we focused on negotiation and persuasion skills. Last year, one skill we focused on was understanding financial information.”

The company also offers tuition reimbursement up to $5,200 annually for all employees, no strings attached. It’s a benefit that Conover understands firsthand: “I started my college education when I was in my 40s, and I graduated the same year my son graduated from high school.”

Joseph F. DiMisa, an Atlanta-based senior vice president of sales effectiveness for Sibson Consulting, headquartered in New York City, works with BellSouth and Conover.

DiMisa says one thing BellSouth does right is that it doesn’t focus only on compensation. “Compensation at BellSouth is consistent with the industry,” he says, “but that’s just one cog in the wheel.”

Rather, BellSouth concentrates on creating a sense of value for its employees, rewarding them in tangible and intangible ways for their hard work and loyalty, which leads to a higher retention rate. Compensation enters into the strategy, but he says there are four additional elements:

• Affiliation. “Affiliation with a company that’s perceived as a winner or that’s a leader is key.”

• Work content. “Employees ask, ‘How fulfilling is my work?’ ‘Am I constantly challenged?’ Everybody likes to do work that’s challenging and makes a difference.”

• A career path. “What opportunities are being provided to advance employees’ careers? You have to show employees the path for advancement.”

• Benefits. The types of benefits offered, such as health plans, stock options and pension plans, are important and become more so as employees mature.

It all comes down to priorities. “We almost turn the organizational chart upside down,” Conover says. “The people who are getting the day-to-day job done are the ones we put at the top of the chart. They’re the ones we really invest in and support because they’re driving the bottom-line revenue at our company.”


Above the Trees looks at leaders and industries outside the law. It lets you draw analogies to how you run your business, how you deal with your clients and how you face your own challenges.

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