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From Home Furnishing Business

Coach's Corner: Good Advice That Helped Along the Way

By Tom Zollar,

My father gave me some great advice when I left home to begin my first job. He said, “Find out who knows what they are talking about and listen to them.” Of course, when you start out in any career, almost everyone knows more that you do so you try to listen to all of them. Eventually though, you do need to figure out who is giving you good direction and learn from them. This is, for the most part, common sense, but we have all seen individuals with good future potential fail because they listened to the wrong people. So, my dad’s pearl of wisdom was to seek out those that will give you good advice and follow it!

I am fast approaching the 50th year of my post college business career. Most of the first five were in retail management and the other 45 years have been spent working for three companies in the furniture industry: Kroehler, La-Z-Boy and Impact Consulting Services. Over the years I played many roles and had a lot of different titles. During the first half of my career most of my responsibilities involved selling, developing, merchandising and marketing furniture products. Later my focus became more on teaching and training people about these areas in both the wholesale and retail arenas. I have had the opportunity to work with a ton of people throughout these last five decades, most of which had information to give, opinions to share or lessons to teach. But as my Dad indicated not all of them offered advice that was worth taking. Luckily for me, many of them did and over time I became better and better at figuring out who to listen to and who to ignore. I also realized that many authors and famous people have passed on a great deal of wisdom in their works that can help move the needle too. As a result, much of the success I have had was because I got good advice from people who knew what they were talking about. So, I thought that it may be helpful to those who take the time to read my column, if I offered a few examples of good advice that helped me win a few battles over the years.

Learn how to sell what’s in your bag My first position in the industry was as a sales rep for Kroehler Manufacturing, who at the time was the largest furniture maker in the country. I was probably a bit cocky, as new kids often are, and initially hung around with similar young reps in the “Bullpen” at markets and shows. We would spend our time criticizing the product line and complaining about what was missing, poorly designed or overpriced. Luckily, one of the “old-timers” took a liking to me. He pulled me aside one day and told me that he thought I had the potential to be a success, but I would never make it until I learned how to, as he put it, “sell what’s in your bag.” His good advice was to stop wasting time with losers talking about what we did not have and find some winners to teach me how to sell what we did have. That was a turning point for me, because with his help and the help of others, I was able to refocus my efforts and ended up setting some sales records, which got me moving up the corporate ladder. The lesson here is to resist the temptation to complain about or criticize what is not and concentrate on doing the best with what is.

Find out who to be important to and make yourself important to them My coaches also made it clear that you could not be successful trying to sell a branded line like Kroehler to every dealer in a market. If they all had it, then price would become the competitive weapon of choice and that would diminish the product’s value and kill the line. He told me to study each market in my territory and determine which would be the best store with whom to partner. Then do everything I could to make my company and myself important to that dealer. This is wonderful advice for whatever a person does because we all have to sell ourselves and our ideas to succeed and it is certainly best to make sure you are targeting the best people or companies with your efforts. The most interesting thing about this advice is that it was also the philosophy that Pat Norton brought to La-ZBoy when he began building that company up to greatness in the early 80s and that ended up being my next career stop.

Salespeople are more important than buyers and owners Another thing the “old-timers” told me was that even though it was critical to sell the buyers/owners on flooring and promoting my products, the most important target to win over was the sales staff. They are the ones that make or break the success of a line on the selling floor. If they do not understand or like your products you will fail. If they do not trust you or your factory to deliver as promised, they will avoid presenting your line. As a result, no matter how good a value it presents to the consumer, you will never maximize your sales in the store. Therefore, providing information, communication and motivation for the salespeople was ultimately the biggest key to success. Find out what they want and make sure they get it. That along with great donuts, bagels and pastries for the sales meetings proved to be the differentiator for me at many good accounts! The moral of this story is to always find the key people that will deliver the end result you seek and make sure all your bases are covered with them. Never ignore problems, they will not go away by themselves!

As an extension of the point above, I was taught that the sale does not end when you finalize the order. Indeed, a sale is an ongoing process that does not end until everyone in the process, particularly the end consumer, is happy with the result. You must take ownership of the process and the outcome to make sure that every step is completed on time. When and if a problem or delay happens, winners communicate and then facilitate the best result possible, while losers ignore the situation as if it is not their issue. There is no better way to lose the respect of a client than to run from conflict and leave them to take care of it. This is true not only in sales but in every facet of life – be a problem solver who steps up when needed and you will be a trusted partner.

People make decisions based on what they value A common piece of advice presented at every leadership course I took or seminar I attended, dealt with the fact that it is what a person values that drives the decisions they make. Good values tend to lead to good decisions. As a leader, one of the most meaningful things you can do, is to make certain every member of your team shares the same core values and that their goals are in line with those values. Everyone in the group may have a different role, but if they share the same values, the team has a much better chance of being successful because each person will make better decisions throughout the entire process. This is also critical to being a parent. In a very real sense, your main task as your children grow from baby to toddler, then adolescent and teenager, is to instill in them the right set of values so that when they leave home and you are not there with them, they will make the right decisions and have a good life as a result. I can’t think of a more critical role that we play in life than that!

Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment This piece of advice came from cowboy philosopher, Will Rogers. I believe this statement is right on and reflects a basic fact about how people can learn and grow from mistakes. Life is full of ups and downs, good days and bad days, plus successes and failures. There are many great quotes from Edison to Einstein about picking yourself up after you fall, learning from your errors and growing as a result. What Will is specifically pointing out is that we will all make bad decisions, but out of them will come new knowledge and positive outcomes. I have used this in the signature on most of my emails since I became a consultant 15 years ago, because I think it is our role to help our clients use good judgement, so they avoid bad experiences.

If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging This is another piece of advice from Will Rogers. It is pretty self-explanatory, but I think the bigger message is to always know where you are and where you are going. Should you find you are not where you want to be, stop, look around and decide what you need to do to get going in the right direction. Do not be too stubborn to go back and start over either.

General Schwarzkopf’s Six Points of Leadership
As a special bonus, here is some great advice shared by this famous leader at a seminar on leadership I attended. This was in one of my columns a few years ago but is worth repeating!
1. Things will not improve until you admit that something is wrong.
2. Set Goals – Pick goals that everyone can understand and know their roles in achieving them.
3. Demand High Standards – Let people know what is expected from them. People will rise (or sink) to the standards you set.
4. People work to succeed – Let them know how success will be measured.
5. Recognize Success – Also accept mistakes, “Latitude to learn, NOT Freedom to fail”.
6. Power Down! – Do not tell people how to do their job. Give parameters, give standards, give authority— tell them WHAT to do, then let them do it. Weak leaders lack confidence in themselves and thus their people.
Those who are too proud to accept advice when it is offered, will never maximize their results You will never be so smart that you cannot listen and learn. A final piece of advice from yours truly.

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