Hiring more staff doesn't always mean better service

Photo: James McCauley/Harrods via Getty Images

It’s odd how people talk about the number of employees a company has as if it’s some measure of success. I actually think it’s a real trap when you’re creating a business to think too much about things like how many people you employ. Don’t value the number, value the employees. Value what they get done.

Your employee headcount is a pretty arbitrary measure of success in this day and age. We see big businesses that employ thousands of people go to the wall all the time. Big is not always better. Big can mean bloated. It doesn’t have to, but big can mean top-heavy bureaucracy that can’t respond quickly to market demands. Big can be an easy target for competition.

Rather than focus on numbers, ask how productively employees are being utilised? Is the number of people employed just a matter of corporate largesse, unchecked empire building, failed oversight within business units? Could some roles be merged or even automated, allowing the freedom to redeploy people to make more creative contributions to the company’s growth and innovation?

The number of employees you have should be derived from what resources you need to service your customers. Get the processes and systems that enable your employees to service customers right and you will arrive at a number close to what’s best for your business.

Keep tweaking and adjusting processes and systems, taking into account such things as technology utilisation and customer demand. No process is forever; no system is infallible. Build accountability and transparency into processes and systems as a feedback mechanism to ensure you’ve always got your ear close to the ground, listening to what your employees and customers are saying.

Some people might call this an alignment strategy. Whatever label you want to use, it’s about having a clear, defined focus for your employees and giving them the tools and environment to get the job done. That defined focus needs to be centered on providing the best possible outcomes for your customers.

More employees does not equal better service for your customers. Having said that, you might actually need more employees. This is not an argument for more or fewer employees; it’s about staying lean and aligned.

Overall, I think we’re at 150 employees at Marketplacer. We’ll probably add to that number very soon. There’s nothing tricky or very novel about what we look for when we employ new people: smart, energetic, passionate, and with a problem-solving mindset. To state the obvious, you need people who can get the job done. And at a certain point, you need people who can help those people get the job done.

(150 is an interesting number when you take into account Dunbar’s number theory, which says people work best in groups of between 100 to 250 because that’s the limit at which social relations can best be maintained. But that’s a topic for another day…)

As a business grows you need to keep your eye on the infrastructure that supports that growth. You don’t want your frontline staff engaged in backend admin type functions that someone else might be better placed to do or that you can outsource.

You don’t want to become a top-heavy organisation more concerned with administrative functions than getting the business done. It can happen all too easily and it’s something I observed in my days before starting Marketplacer working with corporates.

Getting employee numbers and roles right is a balancing act, especially for businesses going through a rapid growth phase. You’ll get it wrong at times. Which is why you need to tweak and adjust.

So don’t get hung up on numbers. Try not to think about growth in terms of ‘how many employees do we need to have to look successful?’ Look at the people in your company, understand what they bring to the table, value them and their contribution. Think hard about how you can help them get the most out of their work and what they need in order to provide the best possible service to customers.

Because a small motivated team focused on clear goals will almost always beat a large group of people lacking motivation and goals.

Jason Wyatt is the CEO of enterprise market platform Marketplacer.

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