In today’s hyper competitive environment and constricted economy, home furnishings retailers are working harder than ever before to capture more business. One strategy that is more important than ever is to staff our stores with a sales team of experts, a team of the industry’s best.
Interestingly enough, as I was contemplating this article topic, ESPN aired a documentary on 1992’s Olympic Basketball Dream Team. This got me thinking about how we can go about creating Dream Teams in our stores.
Building a Dream Team requires commitment from both management and sales professionals. We ask a lot of our sales professionals and we must also ask a lot of ourselves as owners and managers. True teamwork requires a commitment to providing ongoing education to our team. It also requires a commitment to lead by example and demonstrate behavior that reflects the values we want to see echoed in our team. In other words, we have to not only recruit great players but we have to hire and be excellent coaches as well. Sales people have to understand the value of mastering multiple areas and we have to commit to demonstrating the value of ongoing training and coaching of our staff.
This is the first in a series of articles you can use to build a Dream Team from the ground up. This time you will get an overview of the three skills your team has to master to excel at home furnishings sales. Three of the top skill sets sales professionals must master are the fundamentals (product knowledge), being a team player, and “wowing” the crowd (customer service skills). Subsequent installments will provide practical tools and techniques you can use to help your team to achieve mastery in all of these areas.
MASTER THE FUNDAMENTALS
In this case, the fundamental we are focusing on is Product Knowledge. It is critical that we have sales staff trained so that they can make solid recommendations on products and give customers useful information to help them make informed buying decisions. Our dream team may not need to keep their dribbling skills sharp, but they do have to be committed to constantly updating their knowledge of the features and benefits of the lines on their sales floors. Product knowledge will help sales professionals feel more confident and that confidence will result in sales. This can be especially challenging in stores that carry multiple lines. We deal with educated customers today and our sales professionals need to be able to provide them with the information they need to feel comfortable with their purchases.
There are a few ways we can encourage ongoing learning in our stores. First, establish it as a priority. From the onset, let sales professionals know that it is an expectation that they have a baseline level (determined by the store) of product knowledge. Make sure they understand that part of being a true professional is being knowledgeable about the products they sell.
Also, help them to understand the payoff of doing so. Secondly, take advantage of learning opportunities. When manufacturers’ reps are available, use them. Take them up on offers to come in early and share new (or review existing) product information with your team. Next, coach staff on how to leverage this information in the selling process. Mastering product knowledge is important and it’s crucial that the information is used correctly. Having a handle on product knowledge is only useful if a sales professional delivers the right information to his or her customer. Sometimes customers will make it simple by asking, “Where is this made?” or “Does it come with a warranty?” Other times it is left to the sales staff to determine what information is important to their customers. Some customers will be thrilled to know that they are looking at a designer line. Others want to know all about construction, and still others may be intrigued by the company story. In order to help staff master these fundamentals, it is essential that retailers do their best to make learning enjoyable. One way to do this is to incorporate product knowledge into contests and activities.
Ongoing education programs that focus on product knowledge build employee confidence and ensure that they have the ability to do an exemplary job. The right coaching and training will, in turn increase revenue.
BEING A TEAM PLAYER
Did you know Michael Jordan admitted to agreeing to play on the Dream Team only if Isaiah Thomas did not? Many analysts believe the team functioned at the highest level possible due in part to this decision.
Organizations spend a lot of time evaluating how they are treating their external customers. While external customer relations are important, attending to internal relationships is equally important. Having players on your team that get along well and function at the highest level is critical to long-term success. Many businesses fail to take the time to evaluate how employees are treating each other within their organizations. If employees are not satisfied and working well with other team members, it shows outwardly. This is why it is so important to encourage sales professionals to hone their team skills.
Organizational morale has a tremendous ripple effect. That is why it’s so important to ensure our team members are working in a symbiotic manner. Happy employees don’t just improve morale. They achieve higher productivity and you can count on retaining them longer. As owners and managers, we want to recognize this value and make it a top training priority. After all, happy employees equal happy external customers and happy customers (internal and external) equal a healthy bottom line.
There are three concepts to consider when evaluating the overall morale of your sales team. It’s what I like to call Team Player Criteria:
1) Attitude—Is it positive?
Do team members show up on the court (or sales floor) with a smile on their face and leave their personal problems at home? A bad attitude seems like a major stumbling block, but the beauty of attitude is that it is completely controllable. Be sure to hire employees that recognize that they can control their attitude, and are willing to do so or learn how to. Truth be told, if an employee’s attitude is consistently negative, that person is probably unhappy and not a good fit. Most of us in the workforce spend 40, 50, 60 hours a week working (many more hours than we are able to spend with friends and family). Why would anyone want to spend that much time in an environment that they don’t enjoy? It is everyone’s responsibility, leadership and staff, to make a positive contribution to a positive work environment.
2) Connection via Communication:
Do employees actively attempt to connect with their co-workers? Do managers make it a point to show appreciation for a job well done? Are they quick with a compliment when it is well deserved? Are people within the company really working to understand and listen to each other and not just going through the motions? It is important to have those strong connections in order to build trust and a sense of security.
Team members have to be confident that the person they pass the ball to is going to execute the play. When team members feel valued, they perform better and, in turn, maximize opportunities by providing genuine, enthusiastic customer care. Communication preferences differ greatly and miscommunications are usually at the root of any conflict. Understanding one’s own communication style and being observant and tolerant of other’s styles can cut conflict down to a minimum. In our organizations communicating information is an ongoing, vital component of daily operations. A culture of quality, open communication is vital to a well-functioning team and an empowered workforce.
3) The Fun Factor:
Are your team members encouraged to enjoy their roles? It was a long held belief in the American workplace that fun had no place there. Obviously everything has a time and place. But there are lessons we can learn from places like Seattle’s Pike Place Fish market and their famous “flying fish” or watching a team of athletes that enjoy playing together. It is definitely possible to have fun and be productive. That energy is contagious. Our external customers love coming to a place where the positive atmosphere is palpable. It is another way to ensure they keep coming back for more.
Having this foundation in place is similar to the human body having a strong core. It prevents a multitude of problems down the road and enhances performance. The healthier your team members are, the healthier your business will be. This commitment is reflected in our leadership, policies, procedures and the overall atmosphere of our work environment.
There is much to be gained from spending some time cultivating and ensuring this highly functioning team environment. The internal environment should be evaluated regularly and can be improved with proper training. Activities that target team building and improved communication can greatly enhance the work environment. By investing time in these activities, we demonstrate to our employees that we value them. Employees that feel valued have a much greater success rate with our external customers, ultimately creating a very worthwhile return on this investment.
WOWING THE CROWD
By now, our sales team has an understanding of what it means to provide an adequate level of customer service. Now it is time to challenge them to up their game and reap the rewards. There are two areas of focus that can take the delivery of good service and escalate it to the level of delivering exceptional customer service.
The first is communication skills. This goes beyond the basics. An expert sales professional is completely tuned into each customer. This means tuning out the distractions in their heads and in the store, giving customers their full attention, and actively listening.
When working with a customer, it is also essential for sales staff to know who they are dealing with in terms of communication style. One of the most fundamental concepts of effective communication in the work environment is making sure that the message is “customer-oriented”. This means not only communicating what is most important to the client or customer, but also communicating it in a way that they will understand. The cause of most misunderstandings is ineffective communication. This includes non-verbal communication. What is the body language and tone communicating? Is it reinforcing the message or fighting with it? Dream Team members know how to not only pick up on a customer’s communication style and read his or her body language but they know to adjust their style to subtly mirror that of the customer. Providing training on understanding body language and customers’ processing and communication styles can be a great addition to your company’s professional development program.
The second element that should be included in this upper echelon of customer service is Design Skills. You may be wondering how mastering design skills relates to providing exceptional customer service (and just how I am going to tie this into Olympic Basketball). If we are truly going to provide exceptional service, we must not just offer what the customer is looking for, but go beyond this ordinary expectation. The Olympic Dream Team did not receive that moniker by being average or delivering what all the other teams delivered. Today’s furniture customer has high expectations. Today’s furniture customer is design-oriented. When was the last time you overheard a customer say to a sales person that they just needed a sofa and did not care what it looked like? That is not the world we work in today. Our customers are reading design magazines, watching HGTV, and scrolling through Houzz and Pinterest. Although many customers may not be seeking to hire an interior designer, they are always looking for design guidance when it comes to making purchases for their homes. The beauty of the furniture industry today is that there is style available now at every price point and even budget-minded customers are looking for pieces that reflect their design aesthetic and objectives.
Exposure to fundamental design principles boosts confidence and allow sales associates to be responsive to this customer need. Design savvy associates help guide customers to make good design and purchasing decisions beyond a single item or vignette as it is shown on the showroom floor. This is a skill that has been proven to build long-term relationships, generate referral business, boost close rates and average sale figures.
There are a variety of ways to incorporate design skills training into your sales environment. First, there are firms that specialize in that type of training and will come to your store to deliver these types of programs. If you have an interior designer on staff, he or she can assist the others in learning the fundamentals. Management can also encourage sales professionals to take courses, read design magazines and watch design-oriented programs to create awareness of what is currently trending. This information can be easily incorporated into the structure of weekly sales meetings. Manufacturers’ reps are also a great resource. Ask them to report to your team on the latest trends they are seeing and how their companies are responding. This is great information that sales professionals can share with their customers. Customers love getting inside information on the latest trends. It is a great way to make them feel that they are getting a level of service that is above and beyond the norm. Selling with a design perspective takes customer service to the next level.
Building a Dream Team involves coaching a team to master the fundamentals, be team players, and to continually “wow” the crowd. These efforts have to be supported by a solid sales process as well as leadership that models the desired behavior and reflects the values of the organization. These efforts also require a commitment to ongoing education as this is not a static environment. The rate of change in our industry requires that we are dedicated to keeping up on information that will continually direct us and our sales team toward improvement.
Creating and coaching a Dream Team is an ongoing process. The creation of this team however will result in a stronger, more confident and productive sales team that is well-equipped to maximize every opportunity and bring home the gold!
Rene´Johnston-Gingrich is Vice President of Training Development for the Profitability Consulting Group, specializing in delivering the programs Design Trac: Design Skills for Retail Sales People and Sales Trac III: In Home Selling. Rene’ has owned and operated an interior design firm for 17 years and now works with organizations to ensure they have the best possible team environment.
Rene´ served as a regular columnist for The Lewiston Tribune Business Profile and is an adjunct faculty member of Lewis-Clark State College’s Business Division. Rene' has a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Interior Planning and Design and a Master’s Degree in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read other articles by Rene´Johnston-Gingrich