How to Hire the Best People for Your Pharmacy

They say a business is only as good as its people. If that’s true for any business, it’s even truer for independent pharmacies. In an industry where there’s not a lot of room for differentiation, your employees are essential to standing out.

“It is so important if you want to differentiate yourself from somebody else,” said Tom Shay, principal at Profits Plus, a firm that specializes in small business management. Before starting Profits Plus in 1997, Shay ran several family retail businesses spanning eight stores in six cities. “Your people can make you or they can leave you out there with the rest of the world, common and bland as ever.”

Take Deborah, the pharm tech at the independent pharmacy Shay uses for his own prescriptions. Like clockwork, Shay says, he can count on Deborah calling each month to review his prescriptions, confirm his auto-refills, and ask about any changes he’d like to make. Over the years, Deborah has become his go-to source for information about his medications.

“If I have a question and I catch a cold or something, more so than the nurse, more so than the assistant to the physician—definitely more than the physician, even though he’s a friend of mine—I go back to her,” Shay said.

As a resident of St. Petersburg, Florida—a city of 250,000 people—Shay has plenty of pharmacy options. But he sticks with his independent pharmacy because of people like Deborah. “That’s the kind of difference a person in a pharmacy can make,” he said. “If you can have a staff that is able to demonstrate a sincere interest in your customers, your patients, it’s a world of difference.”

Attracting the Best

If you’ve noticed it’s getting harder to find good help over the last year, you’re not alone. With unemployment hitting record lows, job seekers have more power now than they’ve had at any time in recent memory. And they’re not afraid to use it. Some businesses report up to half of their candidates don’t even show up for interviews. Others have gone through the whole process of hiring only to have the employee never show up to the job.

“There’s just not excellent people hanging around on street corners with nothing to do,” Shay said. “All the people who want to work are working. And if they get ticked at somebody and walk out, they can go across the street and get another job just as easily. It’s an employee’s game right now.”

That doesn’t mean you can’t be selective when it comes to hiring your staff, but it does mean you’ll have to stand out as an employer to snag the best people. “When you have a job opening, is your pile of qualified people empty?” Shay asked. “Why is that? Why aren’t people knocking on the door wanting to work for you?”

The more Deborahs you have on your team, the more appealing your pharmacy will become to applicants. “Good people want to work with good people, when your business gets a reputation as to, ‘Wow, the best people work here. These are really outstanding folks. They really are into their customers,’” he said.

In the current market, you may also have to up your pay. Shay says you don’t have to be at the top, but you have to be competitive. He suggests looking into what your competitors are offering. According to the 2018 NCPA Digest, community pharmacies are paying pharmacists an average of $58.10 per hour, technicians $15.05, and clerks $11.05.

Breeding the Best

Assembling an elite staff begins with the employees you already have, especially in the current job climate. Bright people with good attitudes can be molded into high achievers with the right training. “Make a commitment that you’re going to teach people how to be better,” Shay said. “I’ve never seen anything else that works better than that.”

At Shay’s family businesses, class met every other week for an hour after close. Every employee was required (and paid) to attend, and every employee was required to teach their peers. They worked on customer service skills, from practicing phone calls to swapping tips for better interactions with customers.

Part of nurturing an excellent employee crop may also mean weeding some people out. Shay says cutting out employees who resist and refuse to grow is crucial to elevating your staff. “It has to demonstrate, this is the level I want my business to be at, and I would rather be without an employee than have a bad employee,” he said.

“Make a commitment that you’re going to teach people how to be better. I’ve never seen anything else that works better than that.”


Finding the Best

Even when you commit to training an excellent staff from within, you won’t be able to avoid the need to hire new people. And identifying promising hires begins with the job application, which Shay only offers to people in person. “There’s so much more you’re going to learn about a person when there is face to face,” he said.

And the application itself isn’t a walk in the park. He includes a twenty-minute, twenty-question quiz to see how well the applicant can think on the spot. For example, if he’s hiring a cashier he includes some basic math questions to ensure they can calculate totals and change.

He also stressed the importance of using the application process to count out applicants who aren’t there for the right reasons. Don’t hire people who are simply looking for any job.

Even when you aren’t looking to fill a specific opening on your team, Shay recommends accepting applications continuously. “I’m always leaving the door open. I’m always looking for applicants,” he said. “I’ll take a look at anyone who walks through the door. You could be someone awesome.”

Evaluating the Best

Once you decide to interview a candidate, evaluating them effectively is key. And that starts with listening instead of talking. Shay said too many interviews fail because too much time is spent trying to convince the candidate to work for the business. “That’s backwards,” he said. “Ask the person questions. Get them to tell you about themselves.”

The right questions can get to the core of the candidate. Shay suggests asking candidates what their previous boss would say about them. Ideally they will tell you to give the boss a call. He also likes to ask candidates the three most recent books they’ve read. If he’s hiring a manager, he expects that candidate to be reading business books.

“I want to ask questions where you have to think and you have to tell me about you. I want to understand the thought process of this person,” he said.

Shay advocates for an unorthodox approach to interviewing candidates: Let your employees conduct the interviews. Instead of grilling job candidates yourself, choose two or three top performers to ask the questions and help you determine if the candidate is a good fit. That was one of the most successful changes Shay made to his hiring process. “Unfortunately, as a person who owns a business, too often we think that all the answers come from us,” Shay said. “Who are the best people you’ve got now? Those are the ones who need to be doing the interviews.”

When the best employees conduct the interviews, they’ve shown a strong ability to find candidates who more closely match their own strengths, Shay said. And owners or managers may be more likely to overlook potential negative factors that their employees will spot.

And first impressions still matter, Shay said. Candidates should show up neatly dressed and on time. They shouldn’t come in with their spouse, children, or friends in tow. Their cellphone should be on vibrate or left in the car. “I think we’ve forgotten those signs of someone who’s trying to make a good impression.”

Lastly, don’t skimp on following up with references. That sealed the deal for one of Shay’s hires. When he called the previous employer, the boss told Shay if he was smart he would hire that candidate immediately. Shay did, and he turned out to be an excellent employee.

Committing to the Best

Building the perfect team for your pharmacy may force you to change your practices and mentality. But if you heed Shay’s advice, he’ll tell you it’s worth it.  “Listen to what I say and quit doing it the way we’ve always done it,” he said. “You’ll actually raise the bar in your own business. You’ll have extraordinary people working there.”

Want to hear more from Tom Shay? Listen to him live at the 2019 Unify Conference in Kansas City, Missouri, where he’ll be presenting on Strategies to Win in a Challenging Healthcare Environment. Learn more.

Crucial Interview Questions
  • Where did you work last?
  • What did you like most about working there?
  • What did you like least?
  • If you could define your ideal job, what would it be?
  • What would your last boss say about you?
  • What are the last three books you read?
  • What special talents would you bring to our business?
  • What would you consider your greatest achievement at your past jobs?


From the Magazine
This article was published in our quarterly print magazine, which covers relevant topics in greater depth featuring leading experts in the industry. Subscribe to receive the quarterly print issue in your mailbox. All registered independent pharmacies in the U.S. are eligible to receive a free subscription.

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