Turning your store into a classroom

Chalkboard with chalk writing of headline

It’s Thursday, which means it’s payroll day for Bordona’s Furniture & Appliance in Oakdale, Calif., but that’s not all because the warehouse is a mess and there’s seven deliveries that need to be made today and the copier is on the blink again – wasn’t it serviced just last month or was that the fax machine? – and a truck just showed up with 16 new sofas that need a home on the floor in time for the weekend, but first there’s seven display lights out and oh, by the way, there’s a customer on line one and two more in the store who want to know if they buy that living room set today can they have it in time for their party Friday night and …

Sometimes Home Furnishings Association member Ron Bordona’s life can be a run-on sentence.

“There’s always something going on, something pulling at you and taking you away from what really needs to be done,” says Bordona. “When you’re juggling so many small things every day, sometimes the more important things on your list get pushed to the side.”

At the top of that ignored to-do list, Bordona says, is perhaps the most important task of all: Sales training.

“I wish we had more time to just sit down and look at how we are doing things and where we can improve,” says Bordona. “I suppose that’s part of life as a small business – finding the time to make improving our sales approach better.”

Ron Bordona
HFA member Ron Bordona knows sales training is important. Squeezing the training into his store’s busy schedule is the problem.

If Bordona sounds frustrated, he can take comfort in knowing his store is not alone. A 2018 survey by the National Retail Federation found that nearly four out of every five small business retailers described their in-store sales training as either inadequate, outdated or (gulp) nonexistent. And yet in that same survey, those very same retailers listed sales training as a top priority for 2019.

What gives?

Bob Phibbs says lack of sales training is an all-too-familiar lament of retailers, but he’s not buying their excuses. Phibbs is chief executive of the Retail Doctor, a New York-based consulting firm that works with retailers big and small. He says furniture retailers are looking at sales in hand when they should be looking at the potential sales lost.

“The question retailers should be asking is how many sales you deserved to make today but didn’t because the customer walked out the door empty-handed,” says Phibbs.

Rick-Howard
HFA member Rick Howard says in-store sales training will keep more customers from buying furniture online.

Phibbs says furniture retailers are in a unique position with many consumers, and he throws out the old online vs. in-store chestnut. “Furniture is hard to buy online because people want to feel it, touch it, get a sense of how comfortable it is,” he says. “The business is yours to lose, so if you’re not training your salespeople, you’re losing that business to another furniture store or maybe even online.”

But finding the time? Ah, there’s the rub. Phibbs and HFA members offer a laundry list of reasons for not holding in-store training sessions – chief among them carving out 30 or 45 minutes a week with staff members who are already swamped – but those reasons are just excuses.

Doesn’t matter, says Phibbs. “Look, if you had a delivery problem at your store, you’d take care of it because you’d be hearing from customers who are complaining. You’re not going to hear from folks who aren’t buying your furniture because they’re already out the door, in their cars and driving to your competition. Nobody ever hears about a lost sale, but the problem is real. It’s happening every day and it’s something you can control or at least reduce.”

HFA member Rick Howard of Sklar Furnishings in Boca Raton, Fla., says today’s retail environment and the ease with which customers can buy online makes it imperative for brick-and-mortar furniture stores to give their sales staff the best possible training. “You have to be thorough with your training,” says Howard. “It’s too easy to just sit at home, hit a button and order a sofa. We can’t give them another excuse for not coming to our store.”

All Sklar’s new designers are trained on product knowledge from the start. Howard, one of the HFA’s Retailers of the Year in 2018, says his store deals in so much special order that “customers only see a fraction of what we can provide, so our people better know what’s in the catalog.”

He estimates it takes a new employee almost three weeks to become fully immersed in the Sklar way of meeting and working with customers. This includes not just product knowledge but how to engage and interact with the customer. “That’s where the rubber hits the road,” he says.

Saturday mornings are reserved for meetings with staff to go over product and sales philosophy for the day – Sklar’s biggest day of the week – and for the week to come.

Howard is the first to tell you it wasn’t easy setting up the training. “Let’s face it, there are a lot of other fires retailers could be putting out, but once we started to get into a routine it became part of our weekly schedule,” he says. “Now people expect those sales meetings – they want them.”

Phibbs says sales associates can sometimes be put off by training because it’s new and they are being kept from doing what they do naturally – selling furniture.

“It’s not uncommon for a lot of small- and medium-sized furniture stores to have salespeople who haven’t undergone new training in years,” he says. “I’m talking five or 10 years. If you’re telling me things haven’t changed in that amount of time, you’re fooling yourself.”

HFA member RC Willey started its own in-house sales training about five years ago. The company bases its teachings on the philosophy of Bill Child, one of RC Willey’s early leaders. In 1954, Rufus C. Willey, the owner of a Hotpoint Appliance store in Syracuse, Utah, died, leaving the store in the hands of his son-in-law Child. Over the next four decades, Child expanded the store to make it a dominant player in the home furnishings industry before the company was sold to billionaire Warren Buffett in 1995.

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HFA member Rick Murdock says every new RC Willey sales associate receives in-store training from the company. “We think it’s important to give our sales team the tools to succeed,” he said.

Riley wrote a book in 2009, “How to Build a Business Warren Buffett Would Buy.” That book, and another, Ron Willingham’s “Integrity Selling for The 21st Century,” have shaped RC Willey’s sales training for all new sales associates.

Both books emphasize the need for honesty and integrity in the sales process as well as understanding the customer’s needs and wants.

“We think it’s important to give our sales team the tools to succeed,” says Rick Murdock, the company’s corporate training manager. “When you’ve established a trust with the shopper, when you’re looking out for them and you know what they need, you’re going to have success in sales here.”

RC Willey’s training revolves around five points: character, sales skills, a drive to succeed, product knowledge and engaging with people. Each point is designed to build toward the next point, says Murdock.

If there’s a common thread among the many in-store sales-training programs, it’s the need to establish trust.

Willingham, who’s written several books on sales and leadership, says he’s observed several hundred salespeople who were taught to use deceptive practices like “bait and switch” and encouraged to play negotiation games with customers. On the other hand, says Willingham, “I’ve observed countless people who had been taught to sell with high integrity. Ironically, their customer satisfaction, profit margins and salesperson retention were significantly higher.”

Of course, there are numerous sales-training methods available to HFA members. Gene DeMeerleer of Furniture Center in Moscow, Idaho, relies on manufacturing reps to help his small staff with product knowledge and new selling strategies. “I’m never one to think we’re comfortable where we are,” he says. “We can always do better when it comes to sales.”

Phibbs runs sales-training sessions for some of the world’s biggest retailers. His online sales-training program, Sales RX, offers retailers bite-sized lessons that don’t overwhelm and can be perfected through role playing.

The program has been successful for many small retailers, says Phibbs, but he adds there are other programs that are just as effective. “The key is actually putting one in place with regularity,” he says. “Build it in to everyone’s schedule. Make it fun. Buy some doughnuts or scones and your staff will actually start to look forward to going back to school.”

Phibbs says furniture retailers might be surprised at the difference a little in-house sales training makes. “You think you’re doing well now, but what if you could be doing better?” he asks. “What if you’re settling for crumbs when you could have a whole slice of the pie?”

“Think about the people who walk into your furniture store,” Phibbs urges. “They’re not Bitter Betty. They’re not buying a car and dreading the back and forth with the salesman. They’re not buying something from a hardware store they know they’re going to have to install when they get home. They’re coming in with hope! They’re asking themselves, ‘What am I going to buy to make my home more enjoyable?’ They’re already in a good mood. Your sales team needs to build on that hope.”

About the Author

Robert Bell
Robert Bell is Content Editor for the Home Furnishings Association. Email or call him with any news about your store, including expansion, personnel, successful initiatives—anything of interest to HFA members. He can be reached at rbell@myhfa.org or 916-757-1169.