By Mark Brock
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
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”