Is there a disconnect between what you want your customer experience to be and what is being served up, every day, by salespeople?
Sales Management by Joe Capillo
I am disappointed and dismayed. For nearly 18 years I’ve been spreading a message of the importance of turning around the focus of retail furniture salespeople from being one of self-interest to one of customer-interest. It is obvious to me that this message hasn’t been completely effective, and I think I know why: on the floor, salespeople are often in complete control of both how customers are served, and the systems and processes employed to engage them.
In December 2003 FURNITURE WORLD Magazine published an article titled “Herd Mentality on the Selling Floor”. The article pointed out that unless sales managers and owners provide leadership to ensure that the their vision for how customers will be engaged and treated – someone else will provide it. Most likely that person will be the strongest-minded person on the sales staff, who will advance a vision and strategy quite different from that of the owners and managers of the business. I provide this link to the article for your consideration, posted to the furninfo.com website at http://bit.ly/eLdo59
I can assure you that a sub rosa leadership cabal is in control in your stores if you have:
- No defined customer engagement strategy.
- No effective methods for management oversight and accountability for its implementation.
- Managers who are afraid to confront the powerful elements on the sales force.
- No sanctions for non-compliance with established store policies.
- Frequent and continued interpersonal conflicts among your salespeople that managers don’t attempt to resolve.
The Trouble Begins
Here’s how it starts: The owner attends a seminar or reads an article that advises putting customers’ interests first in all sales policies, procedures, and processes. He or she comes to believe that this customer-first thinking is the right way to build strong relationships within the communities served by the furniture store in question to ensure long-term customer loyalty. So, the owner or manager installs an “ups” system which has, in theory, only one purpose: To ensure that each and every shopper (customer) that enters the store receives the highest level of defined service regardless of the level of their needs. The system ensures that no customer is ever subject to an interrogation regarding whether they’ve shopped in the store before, or asked who helped them. Neither will they become involved in, or witness any conflict among salespeople as to who “owns” them – as in “You stole MY customer!” In other words, “ups” systems are aimed at welcoming every customer, and making it all about them right from “Hello.”
Having a customer focused “ups” system is a great idea, but often, the system breaks down in the following way.
The ownership/management team develops a policy regarding the “ups” system. Each member of the sales team is given a copy, and a meeting is held. No one argues or speaks out against the policy because there is a tacit understanding that management won’t enforce it anyway. This understanding is based on a belief that management won’t enforce any rules except those that take money away from salespeople.
Following the meeting, a core group of alpha-females and males meet privately. They reach a secret agreement regarding how the “ups” system will be implemented in a way that directs customers to the salesperson that served a customer on a previous occasion. This becomes the way the system works, even if a customer does not ask for a specific salesperson, doesn’t want to be served by a particular salesperson, feels no relationship with that salesperson, wasn’t well served by that salesperson, or simply can’t remember who that salesperson is.
When new people join the sales force they are presented by management with the company policy regarding the “ups” system. However, they are often not told how the system really works. Soon they fall victim to one of the booby-traps, and run afoul of the core alpha-group of leaders on the floor. When, in their own defense, they recite the rule as they were taught, the response is: “That’s not how we do it. That policy is wrong. We do it this way….” Then they tell the newcomer: “This will work best for us all because the owners don’t have our interest at heart – ever.”
Now you have new employees who are put in the position of quietly accepting a hidden agenda by violating a stated company policy. Their other option is to speak to a manager about the situation and become traitors to the team. Either way, new hires will feel afloat in a leaderless ship. And let’s face it, that is a fairly accurate assessment.
When this scenario plays out, your selling strategy and training programs that aim at having salespeople establish strong relationships with customers is sabotaged. Salespeople no longer need to provide excellent service so that customers are so impressed and so well-served that they will always ask for them, unprompted, by name. You’ve managed to short-circuit that training. Why should salespeople do extraordinary things when no matter what they do the customer will belong to them on their next store visit? The “shadow ups” system will make sure of that, regardless of what the customer actually wants.
There’s a principle that argues against the sales-floor wisdom that circumvents store policy, and here it is: Salespeople cannot own a customer, but a customer can own them. Getting people to “own” their salesperson as an advisor and friend in the business is a powerful way to build a strong customer following so as to become less dependent on door traffic, and more focused on creating satisfied customers and referrals over the long term.
But there is another evil outcome of these kinds of inward-focused systems: they breed mediocrity. No one has to excel. No one has to do those extra things that please and surprise customers. No one has to serve customers at a high level to earn permission to follow up with non-buyers, or learn to serve at such a high level that they can work by appointment. Worst of all, this kind of broken “ups” system serves as a disincentive for individual members with high potential to step out and shine by outperforming the others. The system won’t allow it. “We’re not competitive” is what I hear from these groups and individuals. “She’s too competitive” is a typical response when a newly arrived star performer joins the company – but doesn’t join the herd.
All of these bad outcomes are completely due to weak leadership by management and owners. There’s a fear that upsetting the alphas in the herd might cause sales to decline, when exactly the opposite is happening. When the system holds people down by not supporting success for those who break out, the stars simply leave – or, worse, give up and hide their real potential to retain a job. That’s today’s reality, and in my old age I have this advice: If this shoe fits, change shoes.
A plan for taking control of your businesses relationships with your customers requires some micro-monitoring and demands a lot of on-the-floor observation and intervention by sales managers. In one-to-one selling, as practiced by most furniture store salespeople, coaching in the game should be the primary sales management activity. If you think about all professional sports, whether individual or team sports, coaches always watch the team or player play the game. In fact, in sports like football or basketball there are many different observers both on and off the field watching the action to make adjustments to the tactical applications of the team’s game plan.
One big difference in our “game” is that our coaches can actually get out on the sales floor and play. They can be directly involved in many salespersoncustomer engagements, offering support, suggestions and advice. This can help to ensure that your company’s selling strategy (game plan) is being properly executed by the “players” – your salespeople.
Probably the biggest difference between our “selling” game and organized sports is that most retail furniture companies have no written strategic selling system, and no true customer-centered approach that must be followed by everyone. Generally, the “way to sell” is entirely up to individual salespeople resulting in a self-centered approach to their jobs, and as many different opinions regarding what’s right as there are salespeople on the staff.
One result is that each individual is in business for him or herself, and ownership has no real connection to the level of service being provided to the people in their communities who shop at their stores. This means there is no management or control of the customer experience, and no way to set your businesses apart from all the others vying for consumer dollars in the new retail reality. I think this is a point of failure for bricks-and-mortar retailers as consumers opt more and more to shop and buy online and the old model slowly, but surely, disappears.
Here are some solutions I see as being necessary and critical to competitive success:
- Account for every consumer transaction in detail. Make salespeople report on what happened to the manager and/or owners. There are electronic systems that do it, or you can use good old paper systems.
- Manage the “next step” for each non-buyer. Our business lives largely on be-backs, shoppers returning again on the same project. First-time close rates are under 15% while second time visits result in sales over 70% of the time. Manage this dynamic of your business.
- Work by appointment. Set up a store appointment book for salespeople. Act like professionals and you’ll be treated like professionals. Train people on how to do it. If you believe it can’t be done, then it can’t. If you can move from a no-appointment strategy to having 2 or 3 a week, you’ve made great strides. Make as many be-back appointments as possible. You’ll never get every customer to commit, but your work with those customers who do will be rewarded.
- Track everything to determine your store’s performance baseline. Use this to improve in a measurable way. Don’t just say “Let’s get better.” It doesn’t work. Have a plan and a way that you, the owner or manager decides is the way to work.
- Do NOT train without a supporting management system to see to it that the things you teach are actually executed on the selling floor. Training without on-the-floor management is a waste of time and money. Training without a goal for achievement coupled with supportive measuring and feedback systems is useless and does not work. Don’t do any training unless you have a 100% expectation that the things you train will be done on the floor. Let individual personality be shown only within your selling strategy, not in place of it.
- Make your customer experience expectations clear. This means write them down and gain complete, personal, and one-on-one agreement from each individual who engages your valuable customers.
Joe Capillo is a 41 year career veteran, experienced in managing and consulting with furniture retail operations. He is also a contributing editor for Furniture World Magazine. He is a contributing editor to FURNITURE WORLD and a frequent speaker at industry functions. See all of Joe’s articles on the furninfo.com website.
Read other articles by Joe Capillo