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Building Your Dream Team By Teaching Product Knowledge

Volume 142 NO.5 September/October Furniture World Magazine
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See additional articles in this Furniture World Magazine Series below


Article Summary: Get the dream sales force you deserve by establishing standards, committing to ongoing learning and communicating the right information to your customers.

View all articles by Rene´Johnston-Gingrich


The first installment in this series of articles that began in the June/July issue of Furniture World examined how the hyper competitive sales environment and constricted economy is impacting retail profits. The article also suggested that given these conditions, if you want to achieve a competitive edge, you should consider developing a strategy to staff your store with a team of experts, a team of the industry’s best. Furthermore, your Dream Team must be proficient in the three skills necessary to excel at sales, including, mastering the fundamentals (product knowledge), being a team player, and “wowing” the crowd (customer service skills).

This time we will provide insight into how you can help your team to fully master the first of these fundamental skills, product knowledge, by using these three important strategies:
  • Establish standards and communicate expectations to your staff.
      
  • Teach sales professionals to communicate the right information to the customers.  
      
  • Create and execute an ongoing learning program. 
      
First and foremost you must establish standards and clearly communicate your expectations to staff members. As noted in the first article, we must establish the comprehension and leveraging of product knowledge as a priority. From the onset, let sales professionals know that it is your expectation that they have a baseline level (determined by the store) of product knowledge.

What product specifications do you want your sales force to focus on? What is the required level of knowledge? There are no magic answers here. That’s why it’s VITAL that you create a strategy based on the standards you set for your company as well as serious consideration of your customers’ expectations. Find out as much as you can about your market and your ideal customer and build around that. This baseline will vary from store to store. It is critical that you establish standards that your sales professionals can adhere to. You must be clear about what you expect them to know about the product lines you carry. These learning expectations can be described in a job description, or as part of their roles and responsibilities. Determine and express exactly how much you want them to understand about construction, styling, design influences, features and benefits, ergonomics, fabric selections, delivery time or the company story.

Once you have established these standards, communicate with them as if you were a coach presenting plays from a playbook. You have to make sure that your employees understand what you expect them to know. Here are five tips that can help you to clearly express expectations to your staff.

  • Communicate. Be sure to communicate your expectations verbally and in a written format.

  • Clear. Provide the information in writing and give your sales staff the opportunity to ask questions and seek clarification.

  • Concise. Keep the information succinct so it’s easy to understand and implement.

  • Complete. Give thorough information. Outline everything you expect them to learn, and set reasonable timelines for completion.

  • Courteous. Present the expectations in a positive way, highlighting the benefit to the individual as well as to the store.

Beyond just expressing your expectations, you can strengthen your team and ensure sales success by coaching them on how to communicate the right information.

Communicate The Right Information

Mastering product knowledge is important, and it’s crucial that the information you expect your team to learn is used correctly. Having a handle on product knowledge is only useful if sales professionals deliver the right information at the right time. Some customers will make it simple and ask specific questions, but more often it is left to the sales staff to determine what information is important to each customer. Some are going to love that a piece is part of a designer line, others want to know about the warranty, and still others may be intrigued by the company story. Today’s consumers are often interested in a store or a product’s story. Many have a need to connect by establishing an authentic interaction that extends beyond the product itself. If an upholstery line is manufactured by a family-owned company or is made in America in a company town, this may be information your sales associates should relate. Here are five more techniques you can use in your coaching efforts to help your Dream Team to determine what product information to share.
 
Do More Listening Than Talking: Any interaction with a customer should be completely focused on that customer. Listen to their needs and share product information that is relevant to their needs. When sales associates take time to listen, often customers will provide them with the information they need to do the best job possible. Remember people like to be heard not “sold”.

Ask Clarifying Questions: The best way to get good information is to ask good questions. Asking the right questions will allow your team to deliver information that is of primary importance to their customers. Asking questions that focus on the space rather than a specific piece of furniture will do two things. First, they will gain key information to clarify what is really important to the customer. Second, it will help them to get customers thinking of their space as a whole, and not just the individual piece. This is likely to develope into an expanded selling opportunity. I suggest asking what I call “clarifying” questions. Here are some examples.
Clarifying Questions:
  • Where will you place this piece in your home? 
      
  • What is the function of your room?
      
  • Who spends the most time in this room?
      
  • How much time will you spend in this room?
Discovering the function of the room will give members of your sales team a tremendous amount of information about what is important to their customers. For example, if it is for a family room where they watch movies, they can move on to ask questions regarding comfort, fabric durability, motion and more.

Avoid Jargon: One of the biggest frustrations for clients is when designers talk to them with terms and phrases that they don’t understand. When they present all of this fabulous information, they must take care to speak their customers’ language. Furniture professionals live in a world of “eight-way hand tied” and “microfiber” but the customers do not.

Some customers will come in having just seen the latest thing on HGTV and expect to be guided right to it. Others will have little or no knowledge of home furnishings or the furniture buying process. As your sales team works with clients, they should see it as part of their jobs to get a better understanding of how furniture-savvy each consumer is and adjust accordingly.

Don’t Make Assumptions: Your team should always enter customer interactions with an open-mind and allow customers to provide them with the information they need to know in order to best be of service and close the sale. Avoiding assumptions so there are no miscommunications is important.

Make Your Communication Count: Customers are busy. If sales team members bog them down with information that they have little interest in, they risk losing the sale. That is why they must make their communication count. When they listen, ask clarifying questions, avoid jargon and don’t make assumptions, they will get a clearer idea of what is important to each customer and how your store’s products will work for them.

Once you have helped your team learn how to communicate the right information it’s vital to provide ongoing training and learning opportunities.

Ongoing Learning

John Wooden was quoted as saying “If I am through learning, I am through.” Today it's more important than ever for business owners, managers and employees to continue learning. To keep pace with the rapidly changing workplace and help organizations prosper and grow, we all need to stay on top of new developments in our field. The pursuit and inclusion of educational opportunities demonstrates a commitment to your profession and/or business. Sales professionals need to be able to provide our customers with the information they need to feel comfortable with their purchase.

One way to increase sales success is to create a system to educate staff regarding product knowledge. For example, a multi-line retailer I work with developed a four-part educational approach outlined in the sidebar on the previous page (see below).


Four-Part Educational Approach

Step #1:
Establish a point person on each line. This person is in charge of learning as much as they can about a given line (or two or three).

Step #2: Develop strong relationships with the sales representatives for those lines and attend all meetings for those lines.

Step #3: The third step is to educate other sales team members about updates, new product information or any changes at staff meetings.

Step #4: Have sales professional put together a “cheat sheet” on that line or lines (example on page 90). This can be a 1-2 page document outlining pertinent information such as basic construction information, top ten features and benefits, where the pieces are made, and estimated shipping time. Those “cheat sheets” are then compiled into what is lovingly referred to as the “PK Encyclopedia”. This book serves a valuable resource to new and existing sales professionals, a single place to quickly access the pertinent information on each line.





Sample Cheat Sheet Above (text in letter below): 

Product Line: Fictional Furniture Company

Brief Description: Fictional Furniture Company has been making quality upholstered furniture for 62 years. They specialize in transitional style pieces with classic details. Fictional offers a line of pieces designed by Celebrity Designer...

Company Story: Since 1960, Fictional has been building quality upholstered furniture in the foothills of East Texas. Fictional was founded by husband and wife Charles and Rae Fictional whose goal was to provide employment to the people of the area. Fictional started in a 4000 s/f facility with a small retail showroom in the front and has expanded to 5 manufacturing facilities employing over 8,000 people. This company has long been recognized for quality and its rapid delivery system. This product was recently featured on the cover of DeZign magazine when they featured the home of Media Mogul . . . on their cover.

Top Features and Benefits
• 500 fabrics and leathers to choose from
• Hardwood Frame
• 8-way hand-tied coil springs
• Lifetime Limited Warranty
• American Made

Delivery Time: (if applicable)-30-40 days.

Notes: This is a place where sales professionals can make notes of unique or significant experiences (good and bad) they have had in selling this product line. E.g. “My experience has been that this line often ships earlier that forecasted.” 


There are multiple rewards for establishing a highly effective leaning program. Ongoing education will inspire confidence and allow sales staff to stay current in the industry, establishing your team as a team of experts. Ultimately, this learning process supports the objective of maximizing opportunities and increasing sales.

Communication is the cornerstone of a strong sales force. Scheduling regular meetings and activities that allow for learning and connecting is critical. Commit time at every sales meeting for educational activities. Play games or create quizzes with this product information. If it is fun, participants will be engaged and it will facilitate learning (see below).

Games: Product Knowledge “Jeopardy”


Take characteristics of a product line and put them into a  television game show format.

Trivial Pursuit—The Home Furnishings Edition: Begin with a brief description of a characteristic of one of the product lines or items in that line. Use a multiple choice format for sales associates to guess the line or product that matches the description.

Features and Benefits Bingo--Use existing Bingo cards: In order for a participant to claim the called bingo space, they must correctly answer a question relating to the features and benefits of a product or product line.



CONCLUSION: A combination of these three strategies will set your sales professionals on a solid course for mastering the fundamental, product knowledge. If we as owners and managers are careful to set and communicate clear expectations, coach our team members on how to leverage and share the right information with the customer and commit to the value of ongoing education, we will create a team that understands its value. This education and coaching process will also help ensure that this value becomes a part of the organizational culture.

The creation of a Dream Team does not happen overnight. It takes structure and dedication to make it happen. The result will be a strong, productive team, working to make the most of every opportunity and direct you to the winner’s circle.

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 reneg@profitabilityconsulting.com.

View all articles by Rene´Johnston-Gingrich

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