Talk it out

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July 2018—

Vendor-training partnerships start with storeowners communicating their needs

It’s a quiet summer afternoon in your furniture store, and the sales team waits anxiously for their next opportunity to work with a guest. Your new sales associate, Tabitha, is keeping herself busy looking at catalogs from the various vendors while you finish proofing some ads for the weekend. You’ve spent some time with Tabitha to get her up to speed, but you need to make sure the proofing gets done before you leave for the day. As you settle into your laptop, the front door swings open and Jeff, vendor representative from ABC Sofa comes strolling in.

Super timing you think to yourself, as you really don’t have the need or desire to chat with Jeff, and Tabitha needs some training on ABC’s product. You jump up and approach Jeff with a big smile. “Perfect timing Jeff…you have a few minutes to work with a new associate?” you ask in your sweetest tone. Jeff looks a little concerned, glances at his watch and responds, “Yeah, I’ll have a little time after I look at your swatches.”

“Great!” you say. “Her name is Tabitha and she is right over there at the catalog area. Maybe take her with you to the swatch rack and tell her a little about the line.” Relieved that Tabitha is getting training, and that you don’t have to deal with Jeff this afternoon, you settle back into proofing the ads.

Sound familiar? With competing demands on store leadership and the lack of a targeted training plan for your associates, it’s inevitable that this scenario plays out over and over in most furniture stores. The reluctant vendor rep is tossed over to yet another new sales associate without any outline or plan for the interaction. Typically, these types of on-the-fly vendor training sessions focus on the nuts and bolts of the product, a little vendor information and a business card “in case you have any questions.” Unfortunately, these “training” opportunities are ineffective in many cases and detract from a real retailer-vendor partnership that’s integral to the success of a line.

Let’s look at how we can improve and build a targeted training partnership with our vendor representatives.

Create training expectations

Furniture storeowners or their buyers need to engage in a training conversation at the point a commitment is made for a frame or line. This conversation needs to include timelines for product arrival and swatch/catalog delivery as well as in-store training sessions (plans for both veteran and new associates). As retailers, it’s difficult to gather an entire sales team during business hours, not to mention how demanding it can be for the vendor rep to be called every couple of weeks to train the newest “rookie of the year” halfway across the state. It’s important to discuss with your vendor rep the number and frequency of store visits you expect, and that these visits need to be pre-confirmed so new or struggling sales associates are scheduled with the rep during their visit. Review with the vendor rep the store visit expectations and avoid asking reps to train if they’re there for other unscheduled reasons. If for some reason it’s impossible to arrive at a reasonable store visit expectation, then consider other options such as video presentations that can be used on-demand for training purposes.

Establish training times

The number one frustration of many vendor reps is the retailer not keeping appointments. Whether the appointment is in your office, or at market, vendor reps consistently experience broken or late appointments which in turn cause them to have to rearrange their schedules with other retailers. You have communicated with the rep for timely well-planned store visits which will include training. In turn, you commit to timely well-planned buying meetings to discuss product. Use part of your product meetings to review retail sales metrics for the product at the store and/or sales associate level. This is particularly important if the product is a top-10 seller for you. Rather than spending valuable training time “covering the line,” it is critical that all retail sales associates demonstrate mastery on your best-selling products. The rep can then use this information to target their training on the most important products with the people most needing the support.

Explain your retail sales process

As we know, product knowledge is just one component of selling at retail, and quite truthfully not the one the consumer cares much about. However, vendor sales training often is limited to a lot of the features, a few benefits and a sprinkling of manufacturer background. Your vendor reps may not understand what the retail sales process is like. As a result, what they’re teaching is not what the retail customer wants or needs to know. Take the time to discuss with your reps the steps of how your team sells. Discuss with them what type of questions we might want to ask a retail customer who’s looking for their product. Share with them where their product fits in your assortment, and whether it’s a step up or step down from other items. How to effectively sell an item is just as important as its features. Encourage role playing to practice what’s been learned.

Understand performance gaps

There’s a lot of information in our industry regarding the myriad sales metrics that can measure sales performance. All Key Performance Indicators (KPI) do a good job telling us there’s a performance success/opportunity, but they do very little to identify the knowledge or behaviors that are driving the KPI. Sales associates have much to learn to be proficient, and it’s eye-opening to measure their level of understanding. It’s extremely important that we test our associates to understand their proficiency, especially on the top-10 products in major categories. You can use the old-fashioned paper test or, for techie types, use a free Survey Monkey or similar app to build a quiz. What do associates need to know about the top 10? What are the finish options? What are the configurations? What’s the step up or step down? Does it come as a sleeper? A sectional? A full size? Is it in stock, and if not when? What’s the lead time? What does the internet say about it? Who is your competition?

Besides top-10 product knowledge, you also want to understand the most productive sales behaviors on your top 10. Ask all the associates to take a moment to role play a sales presentation with you or other associates. Is your sales associate stumbling when trying to get you to lay down on a bed? Did she fail to open the butterfly leaf on your best-selling dining table? Did she demonstrate a lifestyle base when she discussed mattresses? Did she open the seat cushion? Did she ask enough provocative questions to understand what you’re looking for? I promise you will be enlightened with the results. It’s only with testing both the knowledge and behaviors that we truly can measure the gap and develop a training plan. Your next conversation with the rep should look like, “When you contact the Main Street store prior to your next visit, ask that Sarah, Rob and Jan come in to work with you. We’ve discovered that they could really use some help with how to bring up mattresses and how to get folks to lay down on them. If you could spend 45 minutes on that with those three it would really be beneficial to both of us.” The rep can prepare a relevant session on the most important areas with the right people. To truly ensure success and consistency, you may have the vendor rep send you the training objectives and materials prior to the visit.

Both the retailer and the vendor representative have a common goal of driving sales at retail. Understanding the performance gaps, and creating plans with your vendor rep, allow for their expertise to be realized. The rep is afforded the opportunity to prepare a training session, and together you’re training on the most important areas, to the most important people on the most important items on your floor.

About the Author

Jackie Massey-Hughes
Jackie Massey-Hughes is the founder of FurnitureTrainer, LLC., an online and instructor-led performance improvement provider for the furniture industry. Jackie can be reached at jhughes@furnituretrainer.com.