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From Home Furnishing Business

Training Day


By Powell Slaughter


It’s a rare athlete who’s at the top of his or her game every time the clock starts or the first pitch is thrown. The reason all-stars maintain and even succeed on “down” days is the training they do between contests and in the off-season—they’ve drilled on fundamentals to the point that good habits are second nature even if they aren’t feeling at their best. Furniture retailers should look at sales training in a similar way—what you want your sales team to project to your customers must be ingrained at a deep enough level to ensure they’re doing the right things all the time.


At City Furniture, sales training starts with finding the right people for the Tamarac, Fla.-based retailer’s culture. Vice President of Sales Garry Ikola said City’s approach is that sales is a real profession, and for the right person, a job on the retailer’s floor is entry into a rewarding career path. “What we do is a little different from a lot of stores,” he said. “Besides the traditional method of finding people online, we also do a lot of college recruiting.

“We’re fortunate to have a great university system both locally and in the state of Florida. We participate in (the schools’) specialized training programs.” For instance, Florida State University offers a degree in sales and sales management. City also is working to improve its use of online recruiting channels and the quality of new-hires through those sources. “There are some challenges there, because that pool is skewed toward males, and we’re trying to achieve a female proportion of 50 percent,” Ikola said. “We’re focused on improving that process. We’ve implemented video interviews, along with additional screening. “With the college pool, it’s easier to meet with and interview them, and it’s much easier to get a feel for if they’re a good fit, and if this is the path they want to take.”

City also has an internship program that gets students into its stores during their sophomore or junior year. “The goal is to get the right ones to join us after they graduate,” Ikola noted.


One problem with furniture retailers’ sales training is that many don’t make it a priority—or assume that sales are something that can be learned through osmosis. “There’s a huge spectrum from zero to 100 in how much value retailers put on training,” said Mark Lacy, president of Furniture Training Co., North Logan, Utah. “I talk to hundreds of retailers a month, and it’s surprising how low a priority training in this industry is.” Lacy’s guess for why that is: So many furniture retailers come out of a family tradition.

“Dad, or Mom, ran the store, and the children or cousins worked in the store, learned the business, sweeping floors, working in different departments,” he said. “Learning is the permanent acquisition of knowledge, skills and attitudes. The acquisition of that knowledge was passed working side-by-side. On-the-job training would occur over decades in a family business.” He noted that even new stores are largely started by perhaps a husband-and-wife team: “We have a lot of individual entrepreneurs.”

In some cases, sales training might amount to “You’ve shopped in stores, and you know what you’ve experienced,” so the salesperson replicates what they saw elsewhere.

“Those new salespeople are expected to sell based on what they’ve experienced, and that wasn’t always good,” Lacy said. “Even a couple of years ago, in the midst of the economic crisis, we know how many family businesses closed. The short-term future right now for home furnishings is pretty good. We’re expanding again … but a lot of retailers have run out of family and we’re hiring total strangers.”

If there’s no history of formal sales training, that can make problems for retailers looking to open second or third stores. City Furniture’s no mom-and-pop, but as it expanded from serving the Miami area to opening stores on the Gulf Coast and now in central Florida, it’s moved from a centralized training format to a more individual-oriented program; and as with any organization, training depends upon the logistics of bringing people together.

“In the past, we did a lot of classroom training at our corporate facilities, but as we grew (geographically) we moved to online training, self-paced, in the showroom,” Ikola said. “We have a standard program online combined with exercises at the store level with managers and training specialists.”

Those “floor exercises” in the store help gauge how well salespeople are absorbing the online training. And all that’s not to say the classroom format doesn’t have a place.

“We just added Bernhardt last year, which was a big move—we’d never sold high-end goods before,” Ikola noted. “We brought people in for classroom training with Alex Bernhardt. For major initiatives like that we like to bring people together in groups.” City arranged separate Bernhardt sessions in southeast Florida and for Gulf Coast stores, plus another session for City’s new Orlando-area stores.


When training your sales force, one thing to consider is whether they know exactly what you’re looking for beyond the no-brainer of more sales. And that responsibility lies with your sales manager, or whoever is conducting the sales training.

Tom Zollar, practice manager of retail operations, Impact Consulting, Atlanta, Ga.—called the Performance Index (Revenue devided by Ups) “the ultimate measurement for the efficiency of your selling rate.”

“When your traffic is up and your revenue per up is slow, that means you’re not staffing the floor properly,” he said. “I’m more interested in consistency when it comes to closing. … The performance index is the red flag. It tells you the efficiency of the store and the efficiency of the individual. It’s the first number that tells you where you need to look. It separates the strong from the weak, the way GMROI does with product.” Is your sales manager a coach who can pinpoint who needs more counseling?

“When you decide whom you need to work with, look at closing rate and average sales,” Zollar said. They might be underperforming “because they’re not connecting with enough people, or if they are, they aren’t pleasing enough of them, getting them the product and options they’re looking for.

“It’s a matter of drilling down like you would in a financial report, looking at each account individually. Am I giving them too many ups?” Coaching is a fine line.

“The numbers are the objective, but you can’t do anything with numbers,” Zollar said. “You do everything with your eyes, your ears and your mouth—that’s observation, feedback and coaching. … Numbers are a management function; observation is a training function.

“The key to the numbers is knowing whom to look at and what to look for. The key, once you’re studying and observing a person, is to find out what’s impeding their rates. Performance is a function of knowledge, behaviors to apply that knowledge, and practice.”

Tiger Woods couldn’t have changed his golf swing when he was at the top of his game without tens of thousands of shots on the driving range—or without a coach. Even your top performers can use some work.

“The manager has to watch that knowledge being applied and guiding on the sales floor,” Zollar said.

“You’re not going to be successful until doing the right thing becomes a habit.”

At City Furniture, sales training centers on four keys: selling skills; product and service information; what City calls “World Class Service”; and personal business development.

The first two are self-explanatory, but “World Class Service” refers to customer service standards City developed based on standards established by Ritz- Carlton, where the attitude is “everyone is a problem solver.”

“Personal business development” ties back in to City’s approach to sales as a true profession. It helps that the store has developed its own customer relationship management platform, which all sales personnel are required to use.

“We train salespeople to build their own business— register guests, contact customers for special events, telephone prospecting,” Ikola said. “They have a CRM tool they’re required to use. We have successful special events, but that’s because our salespeople are bringing the right customers in. Our internal CRM allows them to look for the customers they should call for these events.

“Retail sales operations have a lot of down time, and this puts that time to good use.” City gathers its key metric for sales performance is an electronically gathered door count compared with revenue, combinded with close rate and average ticket.

“If traffic grows 2, 3, 4 percent, we want to see that revenue growing at a faster rate, so we know we’re making the most of that traffic,” Ikola said.


Lacy at Furniture Training Co. believes too many retailers don’t hold their salespeople accountable for the opportunities they’re afforded. Retailers provide the location, the inventory, the advertising and promotion,” he said. “If someone’s selling $1 million a year, they might not want to be trained, but the reason people do as well as they do is the retailer hands them the business.”

Owners should recognize that they’re providing the business opportunity.

“You have the right and responsibility to help them be better,” Lacy said. “Management’s job is to make the best use of assets, and the job of sales management is to make the best use of salespeople, that asset. Set standards, train to hit those standards, and then raise those standards.”

Look beyond numbers such as close rate and average ticket to the behaviors that influence the numbers: quality of greeting; engagement in conversation. “And if they get the conversation going, are they asking the questions that open the mind of the customer to something beyond their immediate need,” Lacy said. “Do they know the product they carry will be enough to match those needs? The most magic phrase in sales is: ‘Based on what you’ve told me, let me show you what we have.’ When the customer hears that, she breathes a sigh of relief.”

Keep in mind that more customers walk into the store having done a fair amount of research into what they’re looking for, and salespeople must offer intelligent, informed information to maintain their value to those shoppers.

“For home furnishings salespeople I have two keys: First, maybe a customer has looked on the Internet, even printed off a sofa from the manufacturer or another competing retailer,” Lacy said. “We’ve done the research to know there are 15 basic styles of sofas—with variations— on a sales floor, and your salespeople need to know those. Sales staff should be able to say: I see what you’re interested in—that’s a kidney-style sofa—tell me more about the room it’s going in, so we can show you some sofas that might work in that room.

“Second—and this is the saddest part of our industry—the home furnishings industry is a fashion business, but the salesperson on the floor so often acts as if they’re selling the customer a toothbrush they like,” Lacy said. “Every salesperson doesn’t need to be an interior designer, but they need to know something about creating a room environment. The job of the salesperson is to know what it’s going to do for the room, so they should have an understanding of basic room design.

“Don’t show a book of swatches and ask what the customer likes. ‘Let me show you colors that would work in that room.’ The customer is about to drop a significant amount of income on a purchase that will last a significant number of years. They’re all buyers—they wouldn’t come to the store if they weren’t—but they walk out because they don’t know what to buy. That’s why product knowledge and room design go hand-in-hand.”


Zollar once saw General Norman Schwarzkopf give a presentation on the subject of leadership.

“His point was that leaders lead and managers manage,” he said. “Leaders get people to do things they wouldn’t do on their own. It’s about knowing your people, developing common goals and a desire to succeed, and a lot of it has to do with hiring the right people.

“You can’t lead from an office. When times are tough or when times are good, the best leaders are coaching in the game, on the floor.”

To properly service a customer and help them solve a problem they have in their home, it’s less about how many people a salesperson approaches than it is about getting the customer to talk about the problem and provide a solution.

“The goal of sales management is each customer getting the most out of every sales interaction,” Zollar said. “Always look at that from the customer’s point of view. Teach your salespeople to really connect with more people versus giving them more ups.

“Sales managers have to remember they manage individuals more than groups, and they must manage each individual’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Independents should know that the big boys aren’t standing pat on training.

“The Top 100 retailers are going after this, it’s amazing how many are making training a priority,” Lacy at FTC said.

To whit, the approach at City Furniture: “I believe selling is a profession, and the way you approach it is critical,” Ikola said. “I’m a big advocate of adding more professionalism to the job, and it can be a very professional position if you manage it properly.

“There’s been an image perpetuated of sales as a game.” HFB

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