Attract and Retain: People Strategy, or Roach Motel Ad?

The phrase “attraction and retention” falls naturally off the lips of HR people. It’s also common with the customer relationships crowd.

Yet it’s also perfect ad copy for selling flypaper or roach motels; “they can check in—but they can’t check out.”

So which is it? High-minded strategy for people and customers? Or unfortunate parallel with the extermination business?

The phrase “attraction and retention” grew out of McKinsey’s 1990s “war for talent,” crystallized in the 1997 book of that name.


…a company’s ability to attract, develop and retain talent will be a major competitive advantage far into the future. “The only thing that differentiates Enron from our competitors is our people, our talent,” said Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay recently.

Ouch…score a few points for the insect hypothesis.

Let’s have a look at how the phrase has evolved in ten years. Today:

It’s still about employee attraction and retention—in the HVAC contracting business.

For the 7-county Milwaukee area, Deloitte Consulting offers a 5-step process for attracting and retaining new business and industry residents.

It’s about website visitors

And it’s definitely about customers

But just how does one attract and retain?

Well, for customers, you could use one-to-one marketing:

Remember all of those advertising brochures you’ve found in your mailbox over the years from them? Those are the results of a one-to-one personalized marketing strategy. Most likely your relationship with Radio Shack began when you walked into one of their locations and purchased a stereo.

Yup, that’s probably where it started, all right. Though I haven’t been back in years…wonder why…

To attract and retain employees, you could create a retirement plan .

You could also “attract and retain more supporters, members, and donors, through a BrandXcellence consulting relationship.”

Here’s how Brunswick does it:

• Business and financial leadership development programs
• Products managed and engineered by local and regional talent
• Performance management process

You could do it through CRM.

You could read about the Five Key Elements of A&R.

But wait a minute—why is it that are we doing this? What purpose does attraction and retention serve? Ask that question, and we get some consistent answers:

the long-term sustainability of an organization’s business strategy and market differentiation hinge on effective recruitment, talent development, and retention.

Human capital continues to be the single-largest investment a company makes, and now management can quantify the return on investment of its human capital and connect it to business results…"

We use tools such as the Watson Wyatt Human Capital Index ® – which links the effectiveness of human capital practices to shareholder value creation

A primary challenge facing almost every organization today is quantifying human capital investments and their effect on shareholder value.

Ah, yes, that’s it—the reason we want to attract and retain employees and customers is so that we can raise shareholder value. People and customers are the means;  business success  is the end. Therefore the value of employees and customers can be measured by their contribution to financial value creation.

Does it not dawn on these people that they’ve gotten it backwards?  That financial performance is a result, an indicator, of success in serving employees and customers?  That companies should serve people—including shareholders—rather than the other way ‘round?  Causality flowing one way doesn’t mean it flows the other too; people who like things hang around for more, but just because people are hanging around doesn’t mean they like things (prisons, for example, have high retention rates).  

The sin of the roach motel approach is that it focuses on symptoms, not causes—and in so doing, perverts means and ends.

It all comes down to motives, and motives can be slippery. Even the same person, moments apart, can treat customers like ends—or like means.

One of the best—and most vacuous—recommendations is to engineer your entire company culture around doing things that attract people and encourage them to stay. Best, because it’s absolutely correct. Vacuous, because if you don’t start with a profits-exist-for-people mindset, you’re never going to get there by pursuing X-step processes in support of increased shareholder value.

You either live it or you don’t. People are attracted by genuine motives—not by some technician measuring their attraction levels. People stay most if they genuinely want to stay—not because of a program that locks them in in order to increase shareholder value.

The roach motel crowd is dominating the dialogue. In our pursuit of minute measurement of the effectiveness of flypaper, we’ve forgotten motives.

People come if we really, really like them and treat them well. Period. People stay if we really, really like them and treat them well. Period. Not for the sake of shareholder value. For their sake. Period.

Then—and only then—the shareholder value thing works best too.  As an outcome—not as a goal.