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Revisiting Management By Walking Around

Furniture World Magazine


Is Management by Walking Around still relevant for retail furniture stores in a cyber-based culture?

In the last issue of Furniture World Magazine, I recommended that furniture CEOs should attempt to experience what their customers experience. One fairly big hitter wrote to inform me he no longer had time to walk around in his stores, so he relies on the internet. Yet, before there was ever a WWW, there was MBWA (Management by Walking Around). Today MBWA is referred to at Toyota as Gemba Kaizen (continuous improvement of the workplace). Gemba Kaizen is one of the big reasons Toyota is beating GM. For most furniture CEOs, MBWA has become a lost art. Furniture CEOs should be using cyberspace techniques to embellish MBWA rather than avoiding personal visits to the front lines and support areas of retailing.

Walt Disney, the father of masterful branding, had a way of showing up unexpectedly to test his rides and personally experience what guests to Disneyland experienced. He didn’t stop there. He also went behind the scenes to talk with the people who were in charge of operations, but were rarely if ever seen by guests. Was Walt Disney unique to his time, or would he be able to find time to test the Disney theme park experience today? Would he be able to find time to personally talk to guests, and to those who had daily contact with them? Would he also visit regularly with the associates who labored behind the scenes to make the Disneyland experience happen?

I believe he would. In my entire furniture career I never met an effective furniture CEO who did not develop positive relationships with his associates.

This is very hard to do in your office behind the desk sending emails. The top CEOs I had contact with were masters of MBWA. And by that I mean walking around anonymously without an entourage, the way Mr. Disney did it.

Disneyland was still relatively young in the early 70’s, when Levitz Warehouse Showrooms were the biggest players in the furniture industry. I learned a lesson at Levitz about entourage inspection tours that I will never forget. I was a young man going through their management training cycle at Huntington Beach, California. This was a forty-five day period in which I was required to work in every department for a few days. It was an excellent program that provided management recruits a much better perspective of how the entire furniture operation worked.

The Levitz Huntington Beach Warehouse Showroom was the flagship of the chain in those days. It was immense. When it was built, Leon Levitz declared: “At last we have built a warehouse they can’t fill up.” In less than three months the mammoth warehouse was bulging at the seams.

I was about halfway through my training cycle and working in what they called the back end, the receiving dock. One morning the manager there announced that the top Levitz management team would arrive the next day to make an inspection. Everyone would be called upon to drop whatever they were doing and prepare for the visit. The basic path the entourage would take was through a broad walkway in the warehouse rack area, then on to the eighty-thousand square foot showroom and finally through the offices.

A crew was assigned to prepare for the initial part of the inspection, the path through the warehouse area. Customers entered the same way as the entourage would, through the entrance walkway and past the towering racks. First we scrubbed, waxed and polished the cement floor, going well into the aisles and as far as the eye could see into the storage rack area . Next, we positioned all the cartons that were visible from the main warehouse aisle so that all the brand names could be seen by visitors.

We then dusted and polished all the racks that were visible from the main aisle. It was a huge job that took most of the day.

The next day the receiving crew had their morning meeting. Things were pretty backed-up because we let things go to prepare for the top management visit. The dock area was a mess. I asked the manager if we should get busy and make the receiving dock presentable. His reply startled me. “No, they will never come back here.”

“But,” I said, “What if they happen to?”
“No way. They just won’t.”

He was right of course. The Levitz entourage came and went without coming near the back end. The path was predictable. And when management is that predictable, the troops learn how to loaf without risk.

Management by Walking Around

Fast forward several years. As a consultant, I worked for a different kind of furniture store. The CEO of the fast-growing chain had me interview almost everyone on his staff. I talked with over 300 associates of the company. One of my key questions was: “If you could change anything around here, what would you change?” There were not many surprises in the offices and on the sales floor. But I got answers that I didn’t expect in the warehouse, the back end.

Several members of the delivery crew complained that the CEO no longer came around the way he used to. They said they looked forward to his visits. But, as the company grew larger the CEO seemed too busy now to visit with them on a regular basis. This was a unique CEO, I know. When I told him about the response, he replied that he was a great believer in “management by walking around.” Unfortunately, he admitted that he simply could no longer take the time to execute it to the degree he wanted.

Fast forward to today. Management time pressures are more intense today than at any time in history. As a result, there is an unfortunate trend toward a new form of management, MBE (Management by Email). There are many other new electronic advances that allow the CEO to remain in the office and still maintain contact with everyone. Or so we are told.

The temptation is for the CEO to stay in the office and imagine he has a hold on reality. But only the shadow of reality is produced on a computer screen, the real action occurs in the workplace. Especially in the areas in which a customer comes in personal contact with an associate—the areas most directly related to the shopping experience.

Management by Walking Around requires more than just glad-handing associates. In addition to making a personal contact, a CEO should constantly monitor their customers’ shopping experience. In my article in the May/June 2007 Issue of FURNITURE WORLD (posted to www.furninfo.com), I recommended “five sensing” the shopping experience. Disney never delegated this responsibility.

In retail, we all know that nothing happens until a sale is made. The pivotal point of the customer’s shopping experience is the sales consultant. But, the shopping experience does not begin there, nor does it stop there. The shopping experience is set into motion when the expectations of the prospective customer are formed—either by advertising media or word of mouth. It continues when the prospective customer drives into the parking lot and walks through the door. (In the case of a house call, the experience is initiated in her home, but the principle remains valid.) If the prospect’s expectations are met or exceeded and the sales sequences are successful, operational procedures are activated. If these are done correctly, she will once again have her expectations met or exceeded when the merchandise is delivered. Unless a service call is required, the delivery person will likely be her final personal contact with the store. But the shopping experience continues. Does the merchandise meet or exceed her expectations? Does her family approve? Do her friends admire her purchase? Did the salesperson call to see how she enjoys sleeping on her new mattress or living with her new living room?

I realize it is impossible to experience all these points of contact in the same way a customer experiences them. But if you grasp the principle of Management by Walking Around, you will see the idea is by no means old-fashioned. Let’s apply the principle to cyberspace, to something you can do right in your office. Take the generally neglected area where modern technology makes it possible to experience contact with your company … your website.

As I suggested, the shopping experience begins when the expectations of the prospective customer are formed—usually through your advertising. Those of us who make our living creating advertising know that intrusive advertising, especially TV and radio as we know them, will be things of the past within a decade or less. To be ahead of the curve we will all have to become masters of permission advertising. The advertising industry will be challenged as never before. There is no better training ground for learning about effective permission advertising than keeping a website current and vital.

CEOs will also be challenged. They will have to ride herd on advertising as never before. They must demand persuasive messages that enhance the value of products and stir customers to action without drastic price cuts or no-interest offers. Fortunately, we have a testing ground to begin learning how to master permission advertising right now. Your website. If you don’t have a great one, make plans to get one up and running soon. If you do have one, don’t be smug. Once websites are up and running, the average CEO never visits them. Websites are like the back-end of the warehouse… not to worry, the boss will never go there. But, like MBWA, checking your website to keep it current and vital cannot be delegated.

I will have much more to say about the new art of permission marketing and websites in the future. I can only touch on a few issues now. To add a dramatic personal touch to your website create a “stream.” It doesn’t have to be a huge, big time production. Check out www.wendellsfurniture.com for some fun ideas at modest cost. Look under “About Wendell” and instead of a boring sea of type you can see short streams starring Wendell himself telling his story in small, easy to digest bytes. Also notice how he uses links to suppliers to expand his product information.

On the other hand, when I was researching this article I came across a website from a huge chain that was obviously expensive to produce and maintain. But it was so lacking in product information as to be sterile. This company is a full service furniture store that prides itself in mattress expertise. So one would expect it to have an informative and interesting experience when visiting the website and clicking on mattresses. Instead, there is a single page showing mattress sizes and a list of manufacturing logos. There is a claim that this store is your “total mattress solution” based upon the number of brands it carries. But hey, all the mattress brands and babble is what I am confused about. What about the benefits of better sleep? What about the expertise of your sales consultants? What about your guarantees? I am fairly certain the CEO of this company has not visited this website for years.

The message to take home is: set aside a day and walk around. Visit your website and spend some time with it. A neglected website is much like a neglected back end. It is easy to hide if the boss never comes around. And not only is it a golden opportunity lost in permission advertising, it could very well be a source of annoyance if information is out-of-date and inaccurate.

Contributing Editor Larry Mullins has 30+ years experience in the front lines of furniture marketing. Over the past ten years he has developed a Visionary Management program that can impact the culture of an entire organization and bring it to life. He also produces state-of- the-art promotional advertising packages for everything from quick cash flow to complete exit strategies and store closings. Larry is the President of UltraSales, Inc.. Questions on any aspect of this article can be sent to Larry care of FURNITURE WORLD at mullins@furninfo.com.
See more articles by Larry in the marketing management archives on furninfo.com.