Friday, September 17, 2010

Sorta Counter-Intuitive, Innit?

…Bicycle, scooter, motorcycle…couriers are sought. As always, only couriers with direct DC courier company experience will be considered. Those highly experienced and capable couriers must also be hard working, dependable, polite, clean, and intelligent. You are not yet qualified…just because you enjoy bike riding and working outdoors, are a good rider or fast learner, or because you've done courier work in another city, delivered pizza, flowers, furniture, or hardware, drove a taxi, built an aqueduct in Africa, or really think you can do the job if given a chance. One must begin one's 'career' elsewhere, and perhaps try back after at least six months to learn the business. It's not necessarily that you are not capable of learning, it's just that we are not interested in teaching, or in taking the extra time and effort required to help you learn…
I pulled this nifty little quote off the internet this morning. It's from the website of a D.C.-area messenger service, from the 'employment' heading (Not that I was looking). Despite the lapse into the passive voice, I find the tone charmingly engaging, and can almost hear the speaker. I give them props for specifying “…hard working, dependable, polite, clean, and intelligent,” characteristics that, if I recall correctly, were frequently left by the wayside by many of those responsible for hiring couriers.

But I must take serious exception to the fundamental philosophy on display. There’s a slightly delusional whiff of hubris about it, a haughty arrogance that I think is undeserved. Come on guys—being a bike messenger ain't rocket surgery, is it?

Back in the day, I took the diametrically opposite approach.

My ads called for “Enthusiastic Bicyclists—Experienced couriers need not apply.” Despite the occasional offended phone call from irate couriers, who would attempt to convince me of the error of my ways, it was a pretty fool-proof approach. The ad attracted a caliber of bicyclist who might not have considered working as a courier, but loved the idea of making money by bicycling. These riders were definitely cut from a different cloth than your typical bike messenger, and that was a real plus in what is first and foremost a people-oriented service business.

My logic was two-fold: First, I attracted good, interesting staff for whom, frankly, the pay was a secondary consideration (the mantra was “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this…”). Second, I didn’t have to break the bad habits that someone picked up at a poorly-run competitor, also known as the ‘beaten-dog syndrome.’

Rookies were paired with a trainer of my choosing for two days. Day one, the rookie followed and observed, shadowing their trainer's every move; day two, the rookie did all the work and the trainer observed. Day three, the rookie was up and running solo as a productive member of the team—assuming the trainer gave their blessing. If somehow an unqualified person slipped through my net, the trainer had the authority to recommend they be dismissed. A small investment of time and money yielded a smart, capable, reliable fleet of enthusiastic bicyclists.

Now, this is not to say that I didn’t engage in some “poaching” from time to time, if I came across someone riding for a competitor whose work ethic, people skills and intelligence I admired. But I didn’t have the patience for running a ‘cattle call’ for disgruntled, dissatisfied, underperforming hooligans who I had no intention of ever unleashing on our customers. (They would do us so much more good working for the competition…)

I know for a fact some of my best riders—people who became my close friends, and who have gone on to happy, successful, satisfying lives as real people in the real world—were rejected by the company quoted above. It’s a perfectly valid business model. I just don't think it's a very smart one, and it's not a policy I would ever agree with.

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