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Who Dreams Of Earning $50,000 Selling Furniture? -Part 2

Furniture World Magazine


Let’s look at salespeople this time. Rather, let’s look at what we expect from our salespeople. How do we hire them and train them to do what we expect of them? Then how much do we pay them to do it? Well, there I go again - not exactly how do we pay them, but how do we allow them to pay themselves? In the June/July issue, I wrote about how disconnected many salespeople are from what it takes in performance to earn the money they say they want to earn (For those of you who missed this article, it can be found in the “sales management article archives” on the www.furninfo.com website.) These people seem to be part of generation-S, where S stands for somnambulistic (sleep-walking). This really bugs me, but I’ve concluded that it’s not their fault. It’s our fault – us, the older generation – the one I’m part of. The one that doesn’t have a letter.

Our business requires a lot of highly consultative selling. This means that good salespeople need to exhibit high-level communications, engagement, evaluation and analytic skills. They also must have the ability to listen to customers, and use that information to help them use the products you sell to solve their home decorating problems, and enhance their quality of life.

That’s some pretty high-minded stuff, don’t you agree? I’ll bet that’s the kind of help your customers would like to receive. But Wait! Your salespeople also have to expertly describe the features and benefits of all the products in your store. Not just one or two categories (like your buyers), but all of them. You expect them to be experts in upholstery (and all of the fabrics and leathers), bedroom furniture, dining room furniture, home office, occasional, bedding, motion, juvenile, accessories, lamps, rugs, different species of woods, different construction methods, and on and on.

We expect them to not just know these products, but also how to put them together to make a beautiful room – which is what customers are trying to achieve. This is the real reason why customers come to your store in the first place.

Wow! Look at all they have to know. But, Wait! They also have to know how to use your computer system, which is probably as user-friendly, and intuitive to most of them as an abacus. They have to understand your finance plans and be able to explain them to your customers, not to mention (though I will) warranties, fabric and leather treatment plans, delivery systems, factory order processing systems and... international relations (so they can explain where the hell the container is).

But wait! On top of this we want salespeople to be “relationship builders”, developing and maintaining long-term, professional and personal relationships with customers so they keep coming back. To make sure they can do this, we give them one phone for every 10 salespeople, and at least a couple of computers, that are also used for inventory lookup and sales order entry. This really bugs me!

Now, think about your salespeople. If they’re like all of the thousands I’ve encountered over the decades, they earn between $25,000 and $50,000. Some really great people, in some exceptional stores, do much better than that, but the bell curve of incomes is heavily skewed toward the lower end. There are not that many million-dollar salespeople out there.

My point in all this is not that you pay your salespeople too little, but that many of them are satisfied with earning so little. Commissioned salespeople do not have “unlimited” potential, as they are sometimes led to believe, but they have far more potential than they accomplish, and the difference between what they do, and what they should (and could) do, is all lost revenue, and profits, to owners. And, it’s all lost income for them. This is one of the conundrums of our business; we need really smart, motivated, professional people to do all those things I mentioned above, but those kinds of people are in great demand, and can choose from many kinds of work. Our industry is not usually on their list of choices.

To be successful, and generate the most possible revenue from each shopper you attract, you need a stable, high-performing sales staff. The truth is, you have to make them that way because you can’t readily hire them. If you want to start a basketball team with all Michael Jordans, you’ll be waiting a long time for tip-off.

The commitment to training and development in our industry is virtually nil. Nada, Zip, nutin (as Yukon Cornelious would say). Last month’s article suggested that retailers should provide each salesperson with an earnings plan that’s based on actual performance data, not guesswork, so you can meet your responsibility as an employer to your employees. Given that great salespeople don’t spring whole from the head of Zeus, I think it’s also part of that responsibility to provide your people with all the training they need. This means more than a few days with the sales manager when they start, and an occasional hour or so with your vendor reps.

I like to refer to the processes of ongoing training as “development”, because it assumes that we take a solid base of knowledge from their basic training. Then we develop it further, in a planned and organized way, over time – as with continuing education. Many jobs require ongoing training to maintain status. Nursing, real estate sales, and most other licensed jobs, are examples. We should adopt this attitude of constant training and constant improvement as we seek to capture more revenue from the shoppers who visit our stores seeking help to achieve their dreams for beautiful homes.

The final message is simple: You need to have more salespeople who have the skills to deal with customers on a highly professional level. They need to be the kinds of people who are capable of earning $50,000 or more – much more. You’ll have to develop them, because it’s not likely you’ll have people who can do this beating down your doors. The history of high earnings simply isn’t there across our industry.