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From Home Furnishing Business

Coach's Corner: Do Your Customers Know More Than Your Sales People?

By Tom Zollar,

We have often pointed out in this column that over the last few decades, pre-shopping internet research and HGTV-type programing have created an educated consumer who knows a great deal more about what they want by the time we see them in our stores than they did in the past. This better prepared customer is much different than previous generations we have dealt with on our sales floor, because they are a lot more confident when making a decision for their home and therefore need a different type of interaction and assistance from a sales person or designer in a store.

For many, at least initially, they are seeking answers to the remaining questions they have before zeroing in on their final product selection. Often this involves seeing, feeling and touching items to learn if they provide the look, comfort and functionality they seek. But in many cases, it also involves other considerations like financing, pricing, design assistance and other options available to them. In other words, while they can get a pretty good picture of what they want product wise from their research, customers often do not understand our promotions, programs, product selection opportunities and support service offerings. As a result, our sales people are expected to give them answers and explain their options so they can become completely confident with their decision. The problem is that our staff members do not always have these answers readily available, and today’s less patient consumer can be easily turned off when this happens.

This point was driven home to me when a family member recently remarked that every time he shops for furniture, he seems to know more about what is available at the store than the sales person in the store. He explained that he does a great deal of online research using the store’s website before he visits. So, when he gets there, he has maybe two or three items to look at and a few questions to get answered in order to make his decision. The problem is that in his experiences the person who greeted him was either unaware of what was being promoted in the store, not familiar with what was offered on their website or unable to easily explain the pricing and purchasing options.

What hit me about this conversation is that I hear the comment “I knew more than the store’s salesperson” so often, that I believe it probably ranks right up there in the top three or four customer complaints about the in-store retail sales experience. It is certainly part of the reason that so many of us prefer to purchase products we understand and know about on the Internet. Perhaps it is one of the proverbial straws that is breaking the brick and mortar camel’s back?

Truth be told, this is probably not a product knowledge issue. I am pretty sure that most sales people in our stores do know more about the products they carry than their customers. We spend a great deal of time training them about the items we carry, so they should be able to answer product related questions fairly well. So why then do we continue to hear complaints on a regular basis about sales people’s inability to handle their customer’s information needs?

I believe that in many cases, the issue we are dealing with relates to other things our staff members should be able to help with and also their ability to see things from the customers point of view, so they better understand the questions being asked. Today I think we have many cases of sales person confusion or unfamiliarity with their store’s website, promotions, financing programs and other offerings. While this is initially a training opportunity, it is the ongoing communication and coaching effort that I see as the problem. We often make assumptions that our people understand what we offer in these areas and know how to properly explain or sell the benefits available to the customer. In many cases we let them use their own words instead of helping them learn the best way to say something.

In addition, we are constantly changing our programs/promotions, often assuming they are keeping up with it all. The worst cases are when a retailer does not “trust” their staff with prior knowledge about upcoming promotions or programs, so they don’t tell them about what is happening until the last minute, leaving little time to prepare. Some forget to formally tell them at all, merely posting a copy of the ad. As a result, we hear many comments from customers about sales people not knowing what is on promotion or what is being featured on the store’s websites. This is one of the biggest mistakes a retailer could make. Not only do we look like fools, but it only adds to the consumer’s natural distrust they feel towards our industry. This is reflected by the fact that retail sales people finished second to last on a recent “Occupational Trust Level Report”. Nurses were in first place, which is a good thing!

If we are not communicating with or educating our staff members about our programs, on a timely basis, how can we expect them to consistently use them to help our customers make informed decisions? Do we just assume they can figure it all out and maximize their results with them? Unfortunately, I think many retailers do that either by accident or a lack of accountability with their store management. Some may think it is getting done, when in reality, it is not happening consistently, if at all.

Remember that Advertising + Merchandising + Selling Effort = Sales Success, so tying them all together with a consistent communication program is critical. Here are some points to consider when putting together your sales communication program.

  • Your message needs to be delivered on a consistent basis by your management team. This should include monthly sessions to review results, celebrate success and preview the next month and weekly update meetings to inform, prepare and excite your staff for every event/program/promotion the store is running.
  • Here is a list of Advertising related considerations for this process:
  • What is the theme(s) for the month or individual week? This is particularly important for major events like anniversary or warehouse clearance sales. Share it with your people so they can get excited about it and be ready.
  • What are the events each week? If the promotion involves different segments or advertising vehicles, makes sure the staff knows about them.
  • Are there any pre-events or special events like private sales? Will there be an invitation only type presale or some other limited offering to current or targeted customers?
  • How will they be advertised or promoted? Your staff should be aware of what ads will be run, when they will hit and who they are going to. If possible, they should have copies of them to review prior to them hitting the media.
  • What POS will be used? Most events, particularly big ones have supporting tags, posters, signs or other POS items to keep the theme throughout the store. Preview these items to the staff so they know where they are and how to use them.
  • Here is a list of Merchandising related considerations for this process:
  • What products will be featured in the promotion? Inform the staff which products or product lines will be featured and any special information about them to help build excitement.
  • Best price? Let them know how the pricing works out and what are the ways they should consider selling up or down from the featured items. Is there a related good-better-best story they need to be aware of to help their customers select the proper product for their wants and needs?
  • Competitive Situations? Let them know how the featured products are positioned in the market place so they have no surprises.
  • Stock status and any systems or logistics considerations? Inform the staff about the in-stock situation for featured products and any other supply or delivery information they will need.
  • Below is a list of Sales related considerations for this process:
  • What is the Salespersons role and how should they work with consumers – what are the “hooks”? Don’t assume that your sales people know how to best use the tools that every promotion gives them. Each one has its own set of reasons for the customer to want to buy now and from you. Make these clear and use role play if possible, to help them learn how to use them in the selling process.
  • Financing programs? Again, if the promotion includes long term financing as a reason to buy now or to buy more now, make sure your people understand what is being offered and how you want them to use it to maximize their results.
  • Delivery and Follow Up recommendations? If there are any delivery or other considerations tied into the promotion, make certain they are clearly covered with the staff and understood.

Additional considerations to keep in mind with your staff:

  • Do they know what to say? Don’t just let them figure it out themselves. Give them the words you want them to use and coach them so they do.
  • Train your people on how to best use your website so they understand it and can help their customers use it. I am amazed by how many sales people do not take the time to study their store’s website and learn how to use it. As a result, their customers often know it better than they do. I recommend you have monthly sessions dedicated to reviewing and working with your website, so they know it as well as they know the showroom, because that is what it is!
  • Have your website easily available throughout the store, so your sales people and customers can work together using it as a tool. This includes having Wi-Fi available for your customers and sales people to use in the store. If you have put the thought and investment into your site that you should, then it is one of the greatest selling tools you have available. Make sure it is used as often as possible.
  • Keep your staff aware of what is on your site on a weekly basis so that they are not surprised by anything the customer finds on it. Your weekly sales meetings should always have a five-minute website update so they always know what is happening on the site.

This is by no means a complete list of the things you need to make sure you are communicating to your staff on a regular basis. However, it is a good starting point. And, if you pick up a few tips from it to help you expand your list then we are on our way to satisfying more customers, or at least not scaring off as many.

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