5 ways to motivate (even inspire) part-timers and temps

October 4, 2013, 5:02 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Dear Annie: I was promoted to store manager, in charge of two locations for a regional retail chain, in mid-July, so this is the first holiday season that I’ll be in charge of hiring extra people to help out from November to January. I have two goals here: First, to beat the competition locally, I need to get outstanding customer service from the part-time and temporary employees we’ll be bringing on board. This will be tough because, not only is this the most frantic and difficult time of the year, but we’re hiring fewer people than last year.

And second, this is a college town so, usually, many of our holiday hires are students, and I want to encourage the most promising ones to consider coming back to us full-time after they graduate. (We have a great management-training program.) Do you and your readers have any suggestions for me on accomplishing both of these goals? — Sal in Santa Barbara

Dear Sal: Your company isn’t the only one bringing on fewer temporary helpers than last year. With a few notable exceptions — like Amazon (AMZN), which is adding 70,000 seasonal jobs, a 20% jump from 2012 — holiday hiring at many major retailers, including Wal-Mart (WMT), Target (TGT), and Toys R Us, is flat or declining.

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So the people who do get hired will likely need to put in extra effort, and a big part of your job as a leader is to make that as painless as possible or, ideally, even fun. “You absolutely can inspire terrific customer service from part-time and temporary employees,” says Michael Burchell, a vice president at the San-Francisco-based Great Places to Work Institute, Fortune’s partner in its annual 100 Best Companies to Work For list. “The key is creating a sense that ‘We’re in it to win it.’”

How, exactly? Burchell is co-author, with colleague Jennifer Robin, of a fascinating new book, No Excuses: How You Can Turn Any Workplace Into a Great One. Noting that more than a dozen of the employers on Fortune’s current list are retailers, hotel operators, restaurant chains, and others who rely heavily on part-timers and temps to produce great results — especially around the holidays — Burchell and Robin suggest you consider these five practices:

1. Hire smart. “Make sure at the outset that you have a clear idea of what qualities you’re looking for,” says Burchell. “Focus more on culture than on specific skills.” Skills can be taught, but enthusiasm and energy, for example, can’t. Since the holiday rush will require teamwork, “ask in interviews for specific times when the candidate had to pitch in and help to achieve a difficult goal,” he suggests.

2. Enlist your regular staffers to help train part-timers. Zappos, No. 31 on Fortune’s Best Companies list, “does a great job at this,” notes Burchell. “A full-time employee is assigned to sit with each temp and teach them the job, including going over details about what went well with each customer call, and what didn’t. You can also ask your regular staff to mentor their part-time peers and be your eyes and ears on the sales floor — especially in ‘catching people doing something right’ and praising them for it.” Which brings us to the third point …

3. Say “thank you.” A lot. “Appreciation and thanks are always important, but especially at this time of year,” says Jennifer Robin. “It’s so simple — it only takes two seconds to say, ‘Great job!’ — yet, especially when things get busy, it tends not to happen.” Robin adds that very young people in particular (your college-student hires, for instance) “expect a lot of reinforcement, and they really miss it if it isn’t there.”

4. Encourage everybody to see the big picture. “It’s easy to get caught up in how pushy and crabby holiday shoppers are. But try to get people to focus on the larger meaning behind their jobs, because there is one,” says Burchell. “The gifts people are buying for their loved ones are really important to them. So think about starting each workday with a short, stand-up staff meeting where you say something like, ‘Let’s try to make every customer’s experience with us the high point of their day.’”

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5. Make it fun. It’s no coincidence that so many employers on the Best Companies list are famous for their festivities. Men’s Wearhouse (MW) (No. 50), for instance, slashed many of its operating costs down to the bone during the recession but did not lay a finger on the budget for lavish employee parties.

Luckily, though, fostering a sense of fun doesn’t have to cost a dime. Zappos, for instance, encourages employees to make up their own titles. A few that staffers came up with: Clothing Czar, Love Bug, and Happiness Hippie. “Having fun makes people feel connected to each other and gives them a chance to express their individuality,” notes Burchell. With any luck at all, some of that joie de vivre will carry over into their dealings with customers.

Robin notes that the combination of all of these things could not only help you reach your customer-service goal, but might also endear you to those holiday helpers who you hope will come back as full-time employees later. “Making temporary work both meaningful and fun is how The Container Store (No. 16) does what the company calls ‘creating fans,’” says Robin. “Some of those fans turn out to be loyal customers and brand ambassadors later on. And some turn out to be future Container Store managers.” Either way, you win.

Talkback: If you’ve ever worked at a holiday job, what did (or didn’t) motivate you to go the extra mile for customers? Would you have considered working for that same employer full-time? Leave a comment below.