Truckstop Operators Get Creative To Find, Hire And Keep Top Employees


The First in a Two-Part Series on Human Resources Best Practices

To find and keep top talent, operators are constantly looking for potential employees and are thinking out of the box during the interview to gain deeper insight into applicants. Once hired, training and engaging employees helps keep them onboard, benefitting both the business and the customers it serves. 

“Great organizations capitalize on their people,” said human resource expert Michelle Fenton who spoke during The NATSO Show 2013 in Savannah, Ga. “The only thing that makes me stop with you instead of your competitor 20 miles down the road is the people who are inside of your business. People are going to stop because of the people they’re interacting with, not just the product you’re selling.”

Finding Talent
Despite high unemployment rates in some areas, operators told Stop Watch they often have trouble finding qualified candidates. To increase the pool they pull from, managers at Coffee Cup Fuel Stop have started adjusting who they consider the right candidate and have started hiring high-potential high school students. 

“If we hire someone with high potential, they can be with us six years because we have a college here,” said Ericka Schapekahm, director of human resources and special projects for Coffee Cup Fuel Stop, the South-Dakota-based company that operates eight locations. “You have to start considering employee banks of people you normally wouldn’t think of for our industry. There are no types any more. It makes hiring easier when you aren’t limiting yourself to certain ways of thinking.”

While traditional ‘help wanted’ signs hanging on the door might seem like a good option, human resource expert Darren Bateman warns that they are actually one of the least effective. He said one of the top methods is for the company’s current employees to constantly troll for new employees, particularly at places where they experience top customer service.

“Notice behaviors or service that match what you expect your employees to exude. Then all it takes is to talk to them about their current job and possible interest in yours. That way you’ve seen the person in action and not just in an interview,” Bateman said.

“They may not be happy with their current employer, you just never know,” Schapekahm said. “If I interact with somebody who is amazing in a retail environment, I don’t mind talking to them and telling them we have an opportunity.”

Mary Eriksen, human resource and safety manager for Sapp Brothers, which operates 16 locations, said she has found the company’s best and most productive employees are those that are referred by other employees.

To encourage referrals Sapp Brothers is currently working on its employee referral program and plans to offer a graduated award where the referring employee and the new hire both receive a sign-on cash bonus. The amount would depend on the position and how difficult it is to fill. As the new hire stays longer, the referring employee would receive additional cash rewards, such as at 30 and 180 days.

“We’re trying to encourage them to refer a person they think would be a really good fit and then encourage the new hire to persevere through the learning curve,” Eriksen said.

Eriksen said it can take time for new hires to get comfortable in certain positions, such as the fuel desk that can have a high-stress environment. “We do have a fairly good drop off in the first 60 days of employees who just go to lunch and don’t come back. We’re working on ways to get around that particular problem and encourage them to push through it.”

Bateman agrees that referrals are one of the top ways to find new candidates. “When someone is hired and they already have a connection to the business, they stick around. The key is making your business a place people want to work,” he said. “Make sure your employees are happy because they, in turn, will want to bring people in and you’re going to have a better quality of employee present.”

No matter where companies find their applicants, one of the first steps to making the right hire is identifying the traits the new hire needs to have. “Envision what you want the person to be like to be successful. The easiest way is to take your best employee in that position and write down their traits,” Bateman said.

He added, “When you’re looking for a cashier, what traits are you looking for? You should sit down and identify within each position which traits you’re looking for. Outline what will make a person successful in that position.”

Klaus Kokott, a partner at Kokott, Wood & Associates, LLC, works with businesses that are seeking top-notch talent. He said businesses should also create a thorough job description for each position within the business.

“When candidates email us and say they’re interested, they’re responding to a job description. You want that job description to create some interest in the person who is reading it and have them say they have that skill set and they’re interested,” Kokott said.

Job descriptions should include roles, responsibilities and qualifications. However, Kokott said many job descriptions fail to include the employee’s objective in the position. He said, “Is it to handle a lot of customers? Is to solely work behind the register? Is it to be multifaceted?”

Fenton said, “What is your ultimate goal? Translate that into words that make sense for that employee.”

Operators should also determine how important experience is versus whether or not the job can be trained. Bateman said, “Do you want a grizzled veteran or a rookie with all the makings of a legend that you can mold?”

Digging Deep During The Interview
The in-person interview is one of the best and sometimes the only way companies get to know potential employees before they make a hire. To make the most of the interview, more and more operators are turning to behavior-based interviews that provide greater insight into the candidate’s personality. 

Schapekahm has created a list of behavior-based interview questions for Coffee Cup Fuel Stops’ managers to use when interviewing. She said there are free behavior-based interview templates online, which is a good place to start. “You can get a generic form you can edit. Then you have to teach your managers what those questions are really getting to and explain why you’d ask that,” she explained.

Some of Schapekahm’s favorite interview questions are, “What do you think your peers expect from you in your job? What do you expect from a supervisor or an owner when you work for them?”

“When you ask those two questions alone you’ll learn something about the candidate. They don’t have a canned answer for you,” she said. “If a candidate replies with, ‘I expect them to be understanding about my schedule needs and fair when it comes to time off,’ it may indicate they’ve had attendance issues in the past.”

She added, “We always ask about a goal they’ve accomplished this far in life that they’re most proud of. There is no right answer. Sometimes it is raising kids and sometimes it is getting into a Master’s program, but you also get to see their level of pride in their work.” 

Coffee Cup Fuel Stop advises managers not to start an interview by asking about the candidate’s availability. “Managers who focus solely on the hours a potential candidate can work often eliminate a lot of terrific potential employees. Forget about availability and focus on a behavior-based interview," Schapekahm said. “I spend so much time with my managers saying hire outstanding people and we’ll make the availability work.”

Bateman recommends operators look at their interview questions and rephrase any that would allow for a yes or no answer. “In a lot of our interviews, if you don’t phrase the question right, you let the interviewee get out of it with a yes or no answer. You don’t want them to give yes or no answers to your customers, so don’t let them give them to you,” Bateman said.

Bateman recommends asking candidates about a time when they had an altercation with a customer and how they handled it. “We want someone with drive. We want someone who can analyze a situation and say this is how I handled it and this was the result,” he said.

“The first thing is we train our managers to interview. If your managers aren’t interviewing behavior in mind, you get someone who is hiring for availability,” Schapekahm said.

Eriksen also watches for body language during the interview. “One of the things we look for when we’re hiring is does the person smile when they come in for the interview. It is a small thing but we found it to be key,” Eriksen said. “How candidates act during the interview reveals a lot about how they will interact with the customer.”

Eriksen said, “Everything that happens from the time they look at the application until we hire them is a test. Did they come in as a wrinkled mess? Do they turn their cell phone off when they’re in the interview?”

Kokott said the interview process begins as soon as the company makes contact with a potential candidate. He explained, “You want to look at how the candidate reacts to the job posting or the initial phone call or email. Do they respond to the posting or an email on time? Is the email timely? Is it well written? Do they pay attention to spelling, grammar and punctuation? Those looking for someone with a mindset for management will want to see pride of ownership even in an email reply.”


Travel Plaza And Truckstop Training Manual
Training is an essential element in the success of any operation. To help NATSO members, NATSO offers an electronic Truckstop and Travel Plaza Training Manual. The manual is designed to help you create your own store- and company-specific operations training manual.

It includes items such as:

  • Detailed job descriptions for key positions of manager, cashier and merchandiser;
  • A sample cash audit form; information on how and where to find good job candidates; and
  • A sample end-of-the-day checklist.

NATSO members can purchase the Travel Plaza and Truckstop Training Manual for $175 and nonmembers can purchase it for $675 here.



This article originally ran in Stop Watch magazineStop Watch provides in-depth content to assist NATSO members in improving their travel plaza business operations.

The magazine is mailed to NATSO members bimonthly. If you are a member and not receiving Stop Watchsubmit a request to be added to the mailing list. Not a memberJoin today or submit a request to receive additional information.

Mindy Long's photo

Mindy Long

Before launching a full-time freelance career, Long edited NATSO's Stop Watch magazine. Prior to that Long worked as a staff reporter for Transport Topics, a weekly trade newspaper, covering freight transportation, fuel and environmental issues. In addition to covering the transportation sector, Long has written, reported and edited for a variety of media outlets. She was the Washington correspondent for WCAX-TV (CBS) in Burlington, Vt., a criminal court reporter in Chicago and a freelance copy editor for Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine in Washington D.C. Long hold a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill., and a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Westminster College in Salt Lake City.More
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