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Hearth & Home December 2016

Showroom Sales

By Mark Brock

From manufacturer, to rep, to retail warehouse, to showroom floor where it’s all up to the salesperson, she or he is the only one in the chain who actually talks to a customer.

Ed. Note: The following five salespeople were selected from the list of retail store Finalists in the 2016 Apollo Awards competition. Winner in the single-store category was Village Green Home and Garden; in the multi-store category it was ABSCO Fireplace & Patio.

One of the many quirks of specialty retail sales is how your most challenging customers can turn out to be your best customers. This peculiarity was evident recently for Shannon Danforth, store director for Great Gatherings in Gainesville, Virginia.

“I had a customer who had been with me for several years and had made many purchases, but he was never truly satisfied with any purchase,” Danforth says. “There was always some piece that was just not perfectly as he imagined, or he wasn’t happy with his choice of finish. On one occasion I even made a house call; I took some furniture polish to his house and cleaned his patio set to restore the finish to its original look.

“I hadn’t heard from him for a while when I got a call. He had bought a house out west, and he wanted to make a large purchase of outdoor furniture. Even though he would have to pay additional shipping costs, he said he would rather buy from me because I had taken care of him over the years and we stood behind our products. It really blew me away how much he appreciated being well taken care of.”

Danforth is one of a group of specialty retail sales professionals that Hearth & Home reached out to recently to learn more about the day-to-day challenges and triumphs of selling in today’s highly competitive retail environment. From these conversations, insights emerged concerning 10 best practices of specialty retail sales, beginning with the importance of relationship building.

Sales Professionals Offer Insights on Best Practices

Cheryl Lindsay.

Cheryl Lindsay
ABSCO Fireplace and Patio

Before joining ABSCO 15 years ago, Lindsay worked with a company specializing in audio/visual design and installation. Her first position with ABSCO in Birmingham, Alabama, was in customer service in the wholesale division, before transitioning into her current position in retail sales.

“One of the most challenging things about this job,” she says, “is working with building contractors and interior designers. Builders certainly know all about building houses, but they don’t have the depth of knowledge that we have in fireplaces, and while interior designers know interior furniture, they may not know patio furniture. We have to gently offer our experience and expertise so that customers get the best products and the best solutions.

“In my sales career, I’ve learned never to ask closed-end questions. You don’t ask a customer, ‘Can I help you?’ because it’s easy for them to say ‘No.’ You ask them, ‘How can I help you?’ which can lead to a conversation and forming a relationship. If a customer says they’re just looking and don’t want any help, I tell them to make themselves at home and let me know how I can help. I don’t stalk them, but I check back.

“We make it a point to show customers how we can help them create ‘a special place’ just as described in our commercials. Shopping here should be a fun experience in which we help customers create an outdoor living space exactly as they imagined as their special place.

“I came into this business shortly after 9/11 when people were in a nesting mode. You had never heard the word ‘staycation’ until 9/11. We continue to emphasize to people that they don’t need to spend on expensive vacations every year. They can make one investment in their outdoor spaces and enjoy it all the time and year ’round.

“Everyone wants to make a paycheck, but you don’t want to come across as the stereo typical used-car salesman. I never want a customer to think I’m in it for the sale. I’m there to form a relationship and I don’t want to put pressure on anyone. If I can create a relationship, then I’ll not only make a sale, I’ll earn referrals as well.

“You cannot do this business successfully unless you have an instinct for people and know the right approach to take with different types of people. It’s not textbook; it’s not the same approach for every person. Your instinct has to tell you how to read people, which is true for most successful salespeople. My instinct, my gut, tells me how to approach each customer.”

Shannon Danforth.

Shannon Danforth
Great Gatherings

After attending Bowling Green University, Danforth worked in specialty retail at Inside Out, the same ownership as Great Gatherings, for 10 years prior to moving to the Washington, D.C. market and the Gainesville, Virginia, location. In his current role, he is responsible for sales, and also the recruitment and training of sales associates.

“When someone comes into the store and they haven’t been here before,” he says, “I familiarize them with our mission, which is to help our customers create inspiring spaces for throwing a great party – that’s where our name came from – Great Gatherings. We want people to know that we have a specific point of view on how we can help them create great gatherings for their friends and family. We sell a lifestyle here; we sell enjoyment. How could I not love my job when I’m helping people better enjoy time spent outdoors throwing a great party?

“Our sales team asks our customers lots of questions about how they like to entertain and the space they’re working on. We want to build a relationship and let them know that we want to be part of their project, part of their solution. You have to form a relationship before you can sell, and we want people to feel that we know their wants, needs and desires better than anyone else.

“I enjoy working with customers who come into the store with a blank canvas and say here is my space and I’m looking to you to help me. That’s the kind of customer that lets me do what I’m good at, which is wowing customers.

“Customers who don’t understand value are my least favorite customers. We’re not an inexpensive place to shop, but we do offer great value. If a customer has been to a Big Box, thinks they can buy furniture for less and are not interested in being educated about the difference, I don’t consider them a good customer.

“Being on commission allows me to celebrate a sale to a higher level. The important thing is to take care of customers first, make them happy, and that will yield more sales and more money. Instead of looking at the numbers all day, I’m looking at the customer in front of me, and I truly believe that everything will fall into line if I do a great job meeting their needs.

“To some extent the Internet has made the job easier. Customers are more educated and better prepared to make a purchase.”

Robert Alexander.

Robert Alexander
Kolo Collection

A veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Robert Alexander held management positions with some of the nation’s top jewelry retailers before joining Kolo Collection in 2015 and opening a new location at the Atlanta Design Center. His current focus is primarily on the contract market.

“My favorite type of customer on the retail side,” he says, “is someone who comes into the store and says, I need patio furniture and I have no idea what I want. You get to walk them through the showroom and you get to try new things because they are open to anything. It’s a learning process for me and for my customers. I really enjoy it when their faces light up when we find just the right pieces.

“On the other hand, my least favorite customer is someone who comes into the store and is close-minded. They may have seen a picture online and, even though they’ve never seen the piece in person, nothing else will do. We may have something that will actually work better for them in their outdoor space, but they won’t try anything else.

“When someone comes into the store, make them feel welcome, introduce yourself and learn their names so they aren’t just some ‘Jane Doe.’ This is where the relationship begins so that you get comfortable with each other. Listen to their wants and needs and then guide them to a sale. You can never push someone in a direction. You have to guide them.

“For anyone starting out in specialty retail I would say, first, learn the products. Second, look at every customer as your neighbor or family member, and treat him/her like a friend or family member. Remember that the more comfortable a customer is with you, the more likely they are to buy from you. You have to really know your products, and you have to be able to form relationships quickly.”

Todd Ott.

Todd Ott
Village Green Home and Garden

Ott earned his degree in horticulture, which is an ideal background for his career at Village Green Home and Garden located in Rockford, Illinois. The store emphasizes a full range of furnishings and plants. He has been with the company for 30 years and is involved in all aspects of the operation.

“I feel as if we are in the life enhancement business,” he says, “and I enjoy making our customers happy. We have everything they need to improve their lives by adding enjoyment to their decks and patios. Some of my customers come into the store and they put their credit cards in my pocket and an hour later they settle up. These customers come back year after year because they trust me to look out for them. I have been here so long that their kids are coming in to see me now.

“To me, comfort is one of the most important things, so I have customers sit in different chairs and see which ones are the most comfortable for them. I’ve worked enough years in patio furniture sales that I can visualize the kind of chair they will be most comfortable in given their body types. Some people would flip right out of a motion chair, so you steer them to stationary. If someone is short, you want to show them a chair in which their feet will touch the floor.

“I enjoy working with customers who have some idea of what they’re looking for. Do they want dining or conversation; do they want low maintenance or high? I can then steer them in the right direction. The customers who are most difficult to work with are the ones who come in with a price in their heads that they’ve gotten by visiting a Big Box store. I have to convince them that they’re not making an apples-to-apples comparison.

“For anyone starting out in specialty retail sales, I would advise studying the catalogs of all the companies they carry and read as many magazines in the category as you can, such as Hearth & Home. When you work with customers, be friendly but don’t be pushy. A customer may not always buy on the first visit to the store, but if you make a positive impression they will come back and they will buy from you.”

Jamie Ruscigno
Outside In Style/Greenhouse Mall

Jamie Ruscigno was a wild animal trainer for the movies, but sought out a new career after becoming concerned over the welfare of the animals she was training. By networking with a friend who was working at Outside In Style, San Antonio, she joined the company eight years ago. In her current position, she is directly involved in sales as well as recruitment and training.

“You’ve got to be a people person to be successful in this job,” she says. “I don’t know of a single person in sales who can make money without being good with people. If you’re driven by the money rather than trying to please people, you’ve already lost. There is nothing worse than when a customer senses that you’re desperate or too pushy to make a sale. Once a customer is happy with the outdoor furniture we sell them, they will be pleased for a very long time and will make referrals to us.

“My top three recommendations for salespeople are: No. 1, product knowledge; No. 2, find a way to make an instant connection with a customer; and No. 3, use your knowledge to direct the customer to the right products right away.

“When I hire a new person, I tell them that you can’t just be a nice guy and succeed in this business. You’ve got to learn every detail of every product, and it takes a lot of homework. Once they learn the products, they have so many tools they can use right off the top of their heads.

“You’ve got to learn how to work with many different types of customer personalities and adjust your approach for each one.

“There is the car dealer type who will try to beat you up on price. You have to stand your ground and focus on the value of your products.

“Then there is the engineer type who wants to know every detail right down to how the metal in the frames is formed. This is where product knowledge is essential.

“Then there is the person who cannot make a decision. That is the toughest type of customer for me. You have to show them options, but not too many options, and you just have to have lots of patience.

“I see the Internet as creating a constant battle for us to educate our customers. The Internet focuses first on price and second on quality, which is the exact opposite of what we do at specialty retail. Customers come into the store with the impression that what they see on the Internet is the same thing we have in the store, which it isn’t.

“The only way we can educate customers is to get them into the store where our job is to convince them that what we’re telling them about quality is the truth. Otherwise, they’ll buy from the Internet, the piece will break down right away and they’ll learn the hard way that we were telling the truth.”

10 Best Sales Practices for Success

1. Build Long-Lasting Customer Relationships

As Danforth’s example illustrates, relationship building with customers is essential for long-term success in specialty retail sales. Forming a lasting relationship begins the first time a customer steps into your store. From the very start, provide a warm welcome and focus on how you can form a personal connection.

Adjust your approach according to the customer’s personality, while focusing on learning as much as possible about their needs so that you can guide them to just the right solution. Whenever issues or concerns arise, address each problem quickly and with a positive attitude.

“Repeat customers are my favorite customers,” says Cheryl Lindsay, Sales professional at ABSCO in Birmingham, Alabama. “I’ve been here for 15 years, so I know the names of husbands, wives, kids and pets. That means so much to me.

“We have customers who drop by the store just to say hello or to bring us cupcakes on our birthdays. They just want to show their appreciation. Repeat customers mean repeat sales, and they mean that you earn their referrals to friends and families.”

2. Listen More than You Talk

Engaging with customers, forming relationships and identifying their true wants, needs and desires require good listening skills. Customers appreciate it when someone actively listens and when those conversations lead to solutions that indicate a sales professional did listen and understand.

“When I hire someone, I encourage them to stop and listen more,” says Shannon Danforth, of Great Gatherings. “Too many salespeople love to tell all they know and don’t stop to listen and engage with the customer enough. That’s my main thing. Spend more time truly connecting with someone by listening more and speaking less. That way you’ll lead them to just the right products they want.”

3. Focus on Solutions, Not Products

While specialty retailers sell a wide array of products, including casual furniture, umbrellas, plants, grills, outdoor kitchens and fire pits, the most successful sales professionals focus on selling solutions for how a customer can better enjoy an outdoor space. By combining access to a wide array of products along with in-depth knowledge, experience and expertise, sales professionals at specialty retail stores separate themselves from the competition, including the Internet and Big Box stores. This approach results in selling not just one product, but an entire set of products.

“Some customers may not want to open up to you right away,” says Jamie Ruscigno, Sales manager at Outside In Style/Greenhouse Mall, in San Antonio, Texas, “so you’ve got to find a way to make a personal connection and have that person like and trust you. By asking the right questions, you can create a connection and guide the customer to just the right solution for their outdoor spaces. What’s your patio like? What style of home do you have? How do you like to entertain? You can then use this information to create a unique solution for a customer.”

4. Sell Value

The products available at specialty retail are not the least expensive, but they are the best quality, and patio stores go the extra mile in customer service, from delivery and set-up through warranty adjustments. These stores employ and train their people so they not only know the products, but also how best to use them in creating memorable outdoor spaces.

These factors mean that sales professionals at specialty retail cannot compete on price alone; they must sell value in furniture and accessories that last for many years, solutions that truly transform outdoor spaces and services that form lasting relationships with customers.

“When a new customer comes in, I don’t pounce on them right away,” says Todd Ott, Sales professional at Village Green Home and Garden in Rockford, Illinois. “I let them roam around and see what catches their eye. After I see what they are gravitating toward, I start asking questions on how we can help.

“I hate high pressure sales, so I start with ‘How are you doing today, and what brings you into the store?’ I like to begin very casually. Then I lead the conversation into the value we provide in products that last for many, many years, and all of the services we offer to assure that the customer gets the best possible enjoyment from their investment with us.”

5. Know that the Internet Is Both Friend and Foe

The Internet can be both friend and foe for sales professionals at specialty retail. It can be a foe in creating unrealistic expectations concerning price, but it can be a friend in helping to educate consumers so that when they come into the store you can have a more meaningful conversation with someone who knows the basics. The Internet is a reality of retail sales today, and embracing it is a challenge at times. Yet using it as an educational tool and as a way for consumers to find your store will yield positive results.

“The Internet is good and bad,” says Todd Ott at Village Green Home and Garden. “It’s good in that people get more ideas of furniture style, and bad because they see a price out there but they have never actually seen the piece or sat in it.

“We can beat the Big Box stores every time with service. We assemble the pieces and deliver them, and we can offer replacement parts if needed. You don’t get that at a Big Box. Another big advantage we have over Big Box stores is our ability to mix and match because we carry 12 different manufacturers’ lines and we have access to special orders.”

6. Focus on the Customer, Not the Commission

Sales professionals at specialty retail are typically paid on a commission basis, so it’s impossible not to be motivated to make the sale in order to make the commission. Even in this commission-based environment, success comes when your customer’s needs are first and foremost. The focus cannot be on the amount of the commission on each sale or how your sales compare with others. If you connect with your customers, form a bond and provide solutions, the money will follow.

“Being commission-based doesn’t change anything for me,” says Robert Alexander, Sales professional at Kolo Collection in Atlanta, Georgia.

“You should never view your customer as just a sale or as an opportunity to make a commission. A salesperson with that attitude and approach may make some sales, but they will never be successful in this industry. If you build the proper relationship with customers, then all of the positive rewards will follow.”

7. Study and Know Your Products

No one likes homework assignments, but sales professionals who excel at specialty retail do their homework by reading the catalogs and visiting manufacturers’ websites. The more you know, the more likely you are to impress your customer, guide them to the appropriate solution, make the sale and gain referrals to friends and neighbors. So, buckle down and read those catalogs!

“When you’re working with a customer,” says Jamie Ruscigno of Outside In Style/Greenhouse Mall, “you basically have a 45-minute window in which to make a connection, learn what they are looking for, guide them to a solution and close the sale. People don’t have time to waste today, which is why product knowledge is so important. With a depth of knowledge, you have a powerful tool at your fingertips, and you can take someone to the right place right away.”

8. Build Relationships with Sales Reps, Manufacturers

Closely related to product knowledge is the importance of building relationships with manufacturers and their representatives. They have inside information on their full product lines and can be your ally in providing sales materials, processing special orders, solving issues and addressing complex customer needs.

“Furniture reps are a huge part of our success,” says Robert Alexander of Kolo Collection. “Without the reps, the catalogs and the manufacturers’ websites, we would be shooting in the dark. Most of our furniture reps are only a phone call away, and they encourage us to call. If the rep doesn’t have the answer, they can contact the manufacturer and get us the information we need.”

9. Approach Contract Selling in a Different Way

A growing number of specialty retailers are expanding through contract sales to restaurants, hotels, resorts and tourist attractions. There are important differences between retail and contract selling, and an appreciation of the differences is essential to success in this sphere.

“Contract sales are very different from retail sales,” says Robert Alexander of Kolo Collection. “You are typically working with a designer who has a certain vision in mind, so you don’t show them things that don’t fit that vision. For designers, the relationship with us is essential because they depend on us to provide accurate information and offer a product that will be sturdy enough and that their clients will like.

“Designers are not the final decision makers, so you have to provide them with information they can present to the decision makers, and you have to get them as excited as you are over the solution you’re proposing.”

10. Never Give Up

Those who persevere will win. As with the example at the beginning of this article, Shannon Danforth did not allow a customer’s continual nitpicking to deter him from addressing each issue and maintaining the relationship. This “never give up” attitude is essential at specialty retail, when some days you win, some days you lose and some days you get rained out.

“There are days when you have a customer who makes you want to go outside and scream words that you could never print,” says Cheryl Lindsay of ABSCO. “That’s when the backing of the company you work for and the support of your co-workers are so important. We may argue and disagree at times but we’re family, and when we get down, we’re there for each other.”

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