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Are You Telling Customers The Right Story?

Furniture World Magazine


If your “story” is all about you, consider what might happen
if you switch focus and connect to your customers’s story.

Sales Management by Joe Capillo

Watching furniture or reading furniture store ads I see retailers telling their story. Same old, same old story. One major retailer in my area does seem to get the idea though, and tells a different story – the right one - their customer’s story. The right way to connect to potential customers, whether in advertising or in person is to tell the customer’s story. Now, you’re probably wondering “How can I tell the customer’s story?”

Think about this for a minute and you’ll understand. Every retailer and salesperson has been a character in thousands of customer stories. Our part in the plot has to do with how they acquire and use furnishings products to make their homes more beautiful and comfortable. New furniture, for most people, has a positive affect on their overall quality of life. For many first-time buyers of furniture, having their own space to fill is a milestone in their lives, and for many older customers the redo of the living room or dining room or bedroom is a major event. Quality of life improves with the arrival of new furniture, new decorating events. Everyone knows how important a kitchen makeover is to customers, so why would any other room be different?

Problem is, most retailers don’t know these stories and therefore can’t use this valuable information to enhance their message to other consumers. Instead, they continue to tell their own story – “we have this and that, for this or that price, and you’ll save this much this time, and you won’t be able to save as much until the next time we run this sale, plus you can pay us sometime in the far distant future.”

In the store, when salespeople meet consumers, they also tell the store’s story – or the manufacturer’s story, or, more likely both. But none of that is what consumer’s are shopping for. People are shopping for the end result, the “enjoyment” phase of the furniture purchasing process; they try to visualize your furniture in their room – in their lives. Someone once told me that furnishing a home is not a matter of life or death. It’s more important than that.

Our industry suffers from very low conversion rates. Over my 30+ year career studying the selling processes in furniture stores and measuring every possible element of performance, I seldom see store closing rates higher than 25 percent. Most are lower than that, and those that are higher are usually specialty stores or high-service, high-price design stores. Of course some stores who believe their actual closing rates are higher than 25 percent simply don’t accurately count all traffic, for example be-back customers returning on the same project may not be included in the counts for all visits. The truth is that our conversion rate on shoppers is higher than it is for shopper visits, so the issue is arguable, but how you calculate your close rate won’t change your sales volume. Whether you say you close at 30 percent, as the NHFA tells us is the national average, or 20 percent which I claim to be the real rate, somewhere between 70 percent and 80 percent of furniture store shoppers DON’T BUY! What happens to them?

This speaks to the nature of the purchase decision and how retailers gauge the success of their own sales techniques. Every furniture store owner or manager thinks that his or her sales approach is the right one because every successful sale is closed using their current approve. Even if a different sales strategy could result in a higher close rate, the owner or manager would never suspect it. Instead she will naturally work to get better at doing the wrong things (that are working poorly but consistently), with the result that 70 percent to 80 percent of your shoppers don’t buy! The 20 percent or 30 percent that do buy cause them to not change the way they work, thereby perpetuating the same result. So in these cases, nothing fails like success!

This is all part of the problem I see as telling the wrong story. The right story is your customer’s story, and you can’t know that story when you (your salesperson) meet a consumer for the first time on a new purchasing project. You have to do things to help your customer tell her story by dealing with the things that are in the way of her making a decision. You cannot solve a problem you don’t understand, and for some customers – about 20 percent to 30 percent of your total shoppers – it doesn’t matter. They’ve figured it out for themselves. The rest need more help, they need help creating their story, but most retailers don’t have another level of help to give after you’ve told your story, so those shoppers walk.

The Story That Sells

The story that will sell is the customer’s story. That story is the finished room. Whether you sell a whole room or one item doesn’t matter, you’ve got to know the story line, and earn your part in it. Call it outcome-based selling or whatever you want; for the most part it’s missing from our industry with few exceptions. Offering “free design services” isn’t going to get it done, either. Most customers don’t think they need or deserve “design services.” They just need more help developing their story.

And, finally, for many of your sold customers, they haven’t finished their story either. They just don’t know where to go for help. Research tells us that about 40% of furniture shoppers for all categories did not purchase as the result of their shopping. They simply went home and delayed their decision. They already know your story, so some of them will try another store in their quest for the right story writer.

When engaging with customers shopping for virtually any furniture category, many salespeople believe that the question, “Are you looking for anything in particular today?” is a good opener, because until the customer tells them this, they’re stymied. I like to translate this into what I believe most shoppers hear: “If you tell me exactly what you want I’ll be happy to show it to you. If you can’t, I’ll check with you later to see if you have any questions.” Of course this is just fine with most shoppers because answering that “anything in particular” question is why they’re in the store in the first place – looking for ideas, new fashions, new things, new looks to fit into their homes and rooms.

When salespeople are asked why the shopper they served just left the store without buying, the most common response is, “She didn’t know what she wanted.” Like that’s news? Of course she didn’t – that’s why she came here. What did we do to help her figure it out? Instead we asked her a lot of questions about what she wants – a particular style, or color, or wood. None of those things are her issue. I’ll bet that in nearly every sales engagement there is a point at which a salesperson might request that the shopper, “Tell me about your room” followed by, “What are you trying to accomplish with it?” In other words, questions about them and their issues first, before offering to show them things. Try it and see where it leads.

There is one overriding principle here. Our business is not about furniture, it’s about rooms. It’s about quality of life. It’s about helping her to feel good about her home and enhancing her ability to make it both beautiful and functional for her family. That’s the story she’s trying to create.

Who Is Doing It Right?

Raymour & Flanigan is one example of a company that has learned to tell their customers’ stories in advertising. They show people in the enjoyment stage, living in rooms full of their furniture. While the message might be that everything is on sale, or selected merchandise is on sale, it’s the end of that story that matters to consumers.

Ethan Allen has been doing it right for years, focusing on the whole room. The recent recession found them locked into relatively high price levels, and that some of their customer base is trading down. The need is still there, however, and this opens a lot of opportunity in the short term for more popularly priced competitors who can offer simple room-based design services. In other words, more help at better prices - a classic description of value.

For the larger market, La-Z-Boy has understood the need for a higher level of help for its customers with a selling strategy in stores that focuses on the room as well as the furniture. The future will be bright for companies who understand that providing more help in the form of room planning services is a customer-centered strategy that works.