Day one at my new job. Sporting white headphones, I am plugged into a computer watching Ridley Scott's awe-inspiring "1984" Macintosh ad, reviewing the company history, and getting pumped up about my new workplace. Like most of my coworkers, I'm already a loyal fan of the company, so starting this job will take my interest to the next level. I'm working as a Mac specialist at the Apple Store.
What happens between now and Christmas is the most important time for a very large sector of our economy: The National Retail Federation predicts almost $475 billion will pass between customers and merchants this holiday season, and whether such notable brands as
You can only learn so much about frontline employees as a customer, or even as a reporter. I knew that to find out how the best companies train and indoctrinate employees, I'd have to become one myself. In what wound up as a two-year undercover project, I took a series of entry-level retail jobs, becoming that critical employee who represents the company's face. I did it to better understand the world of commerce and the corporate cultures that drive it. In the process, I learned that Apple Stores, with their aura of cool, were in fact living up to their mission to "reinvent retail" and setting a high bar for other companies in the retail world.
I knew I'd have competition when I applied at the Apple Store, but I also knew store managers hire from the ranks of the brand's fans. Apple is surely a rare bird--few companies have such a broad and committed following, let alone frontline employees who revere its CEO. (When I worked at Gap, then-CEO Paul Pressler showed up in the store and coworkers knew he was a bigwig but didn't realize he was the boss.)
But even companies that have devotees don't always look as hard for passion as they should. On its hiring application, Starbucks asked briefly about my interest in coffee ("What do you like about coffee?") but left it at that.
In my journey, only the Container Store did as good a job as Apple Stores at finding people passionate about what they're selling. When I went in for my Container Store group interview, I choked during a show-and-tell exercise that's an impromptu sales demonstration-slash-passion display that rapidly separates wannabes (like me) from the real deal. Learning from that experience, in my Apple Store interview, I talked about all the Apple products in my life: from iPods to iMacs, AppleCare to Safari.
Once on staff, I learned the difference between a gigahertz and a gigabyte, but more important, I saw that, like the iPod's user interface, training of Apple Store employees has been carefully designed. A series of podcasts I listened to and watched showed that selling was all about the approach. I shadowed other workers as they executed the company's three-step sales process. They explained to customers that they had some questions to understand their needs, got permission to fire away, and then kept digging to ascertain which products would be best. Position, permission, probe.
All this sets the employee's on-the-job attitude. At an Apple Store, workers don't seem to be selling (or working) too hard, just hanging out and dispensing information. And that moves a ridiculous amount of goods: Apple employees help sell $4,000 worth of product per square foot per month. When employees become sharers of information, instead of sellers of products, customers respond.
Many companies fail from the start by talking down to their new hires and using training materials geared for the lowest common denominator. Gap started employee orientation on the wrong foot by showing us a video about the perils of employee theft. Starbucks handed out Orwellian handbooks telling us to "Be Authentic." Such approaches produce cynicism and engender a fake sense of belonging, if any at all. Apple treated us like adults.
Apple does a lot of other things well. Employees are taught how to work together because customers notice when employees don't get along. Apple floods its retail zone with staff because the bottom line suffers every minute customers wait for help. By the time I got to Apple (my last stop), I knew that dress codes (like Gap's) were bogus and uniforms that match a job (like at UPS) are critical. Apple requires staff to wear tasteful company-issued T-shirts and lanyards. Employees also hand out business cards as in high-end clothing stores, an act that calls them out as individuals in a way not typical of traditional retail.
Though profitability depends on the efficacy of these frontline employees, few companies pay much attention to them. At Gap, when I saw then-CEO Pressler in my store, I had the rare opportunity to see him folding sweaters (something I did without end). But he was just acting the part. Had he gone through training and worked a few shifts, he would have returned to headquarters wired with new insights on store layout, customer needs, merchandise, and employee satisfaction. More companies should take a cue from the UK's Pret a Manger, which regularly sends out newly hired execs to work in the trenches. There's no doubt about it: You get a different view from the ground floor than from the corner office.
Alex Frankel  is the author of Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee, which will be published by Collins this month.