Back in 2008 the American economy was reeling from financial crisis. Major manufacturers, many in the home furnishings business, were closing. Customers who no longer had incomes obviously were deferring their purchases of big ticket items. This caused many in the industry to suffer from retailers going out of business. None more impacted than the independent sales rep who could not make enough money to pay for their gas. It was at this point in my career that I discovered IHFRA, the International Home Furnishings Representative’s Association. Somewhere I saw a request for participation. Though I had no designs on long term involvement, I did contact them to see if I could help with their marketing message. After two phone calls they made me the newest Board member and I soon found out why. This 70 year old rep association was feeling the real brunt of the recession. With their membership in decline they were heavily eating into cash reserves as their rep members were dropping their memberships to save money. My first Board meeting was somewhat contentious as to what strategy to deploy with most advocating cutting back on services because membership was down to around 1000 paying members. But a lot of times fresh eyes and an outsider can look at things in a new way and suggest different paths. Instead of cutting back we went full steam ahead realizing we had to pro-vide value for our customer base, the independent travelling furniture rep or there was no reason for him or her to stay a member. We went after members by telling them what benefits they would miss by not staying involved. Our mantra was more benefits equals more members. And we sold our story wherever we could. Gradually over the next couple of years our member-ship grew. We were excited to again be paying the bills. At some point in my tenure the NHFA retailer association went out of existence replaced by HFA. Our partnership with NHFA included sponsoring in unison a Furniture Industry Awards Gala (FIAG) the Monday of April market. So with the decline of NHFA we had a decision to make if IHFRA wanted to host this dinner solo. The dinner put on since 1976 had been an ongoing tribute to manufacturers, retailers and distinguished sales reps. We decided that this was too important a dinner to not at least try. Our first IHFRA sponsored dinner was an overwhelming success with an increase in attendance of over 50% to 600 people. Success breeds success. During my six years on the rep Board, half of the time as either President or Chairman, we realized that we were achieving a higher purpose of being an industry voice for the guys and gals that are so often overlooked in the furniture distribution pattern… the sales rep. I left the Board two years ago , but could not be more proud of what we accomplished while I was involved. The organization is very vibrant, doing good thing to help the rep do his job better. IHFRA is involved with many organizations in our industry continuing to give reps a voice for what we do. We were aggressive when times were bleak and grew in spite of that. Two other companies also looked at the challenging environment back in 2008 and doubled down for future growth. Ashley Furniture, was quite aggressive with both stores and deals to major retailers. Nebraska Furniture ambitiously began planning the largest home furnishings store in Texas. Both these companies are far bigger and more influential now than they were back in 2008 (though they both were still major forces back then.) At this year’s FIAG I am honored and blessed to be on the same stage as Kerry Lebensburger, President of Ashley, & Irv Blumkin, President of Nebraska Furniture Mart. Kerry will receive the highest manufacturer’s award, The Pillar of the Industry. Irv will receive the Retailer of the Year. I am to be honored with the highest rep award, the Distinguished Service Award. This award is not about me. I rose to the attention because of my service to IHFRA. But without my wonderful staff especially working with Emmet and Jay, and without you my tremendous customers, I would never have been able to accomplish what I have. So this award is as much about you as it is me. Thank you so much for all your support over the years.
Your goal as a professional sales associate, should you choose to accept it, is to secure a meeting with a buyer and present your product as the best option among all others a buyer has to choose from. That is a tall task in this hyper-competitive market.
It requires a good product that matches what the end consumer is looking for, good communication of benefits, and an understanding of the retailer’s needs. In order for those all to match up it requires effort on the part of the sales professional to apply basic sales skills used in any industry and apply it specifically your products and services. So how do you take all these elements to prepare for a buyer meeting? The following four considerations will give you what you need to best 90% of the competition.
1. I am going to assume that you have the basic sales skills needed to present product and get an order. How often do you refine this skill? You probably read books by Tom Hopkins, Jeffrey Gitomer, Nido Qubein, Brian Tracy or other sales professionals to get started. If not, look them up and get some of their materials. But even if you did learn from them at the start of your career, have you updated your knowledge base as your career has gone forward. If not, study the new ways of selling and communicating and it may give you an edge. I am a big learner in my car. My wife and kids call my car the “knowledge capsule” because they don’t ever get into it without some kind of book on CD or my new favorite app “Audible” playing over the audio system. If you don’t have a comfort level with basic sales techniques invest in yourself and your career with sales books or better yet books on CD or MP3 so you can listen and learn as you travel between stops.
2. In blog post 3 in this series I discussed basic furniture sales techniques to position your product in the marketplace that all come into play when preparing to meet the buyer. I discussed the need for you to know your product better than anything else, to know your competitors product, and to know your customer. Review that blog post as it pertains directly to meeting with the buyer. You have successfully positioned your product in the marketplace and now you have to take it to the next step of being specific with one account and one buyer. Take into account specifically the need to understand features and benefits of your products in relation to all other options.
3. Walk the floor with an eye to how you will be able to help the buyer with your product offerings. Think as you go up and down the aisles of a store what products in your bag will sell in that environment and why. This will need to be communicated to the buyer because they are not looking at the products like you do. Is it a better offering because of price, features, delivery (If competitor item marked out of stock)? Maybe you find a competitors offering that is superior to what you have (It happens). Don’t waste the buyer’s time by showing them your option. In other words, know the sales floor in your category before going in to buyer’s office (or seeing them at market). That way you can talk intelligently about what you saw and how your offerings may pose a better alternative for some of the items the buyer currently runs. It amazes me when I salesperson shows up without ever having walked a retailer’s floor. Don’t be that guy!
4. Finally, look out to what the retailer is trying to accomplish with his merchandising mix. Are they about advertising name brands or house brands? Do they want instant delivery or custom order? Are they about advertised price or image? Whatever their assortment and strategy is, your product needs to fit. If it doesn’t then don’t waste your time. But if it does fit, then present clearly why this is something that can be successful to help them reach the customer they want to reach.
That’s it. Not too difficult but it requires some thought before walking in to the buyer’s office and blindly showing pictures in hopes of a sale. It’s a week until market. Walk a retailer’s floor or two before then so you can talk to the retailer about what you saw and how your new offerings will be an advancement over what they have currently. Good luck and have a great market. As always, feel free to leave your positive responses below.
Prospecting for new customers is tough. They don’t know you and you have no idea how they work. There are all kinds of hurdles sales professionals have to jump before getting that first sale. Many times it comes down to persistence and a deep understanding of how you can help the retailer make more sales. A successful sales person looks at it from the point of view of the buyer and not from the self interested side of trying to sell whatever he or she can.
Recently I saw an email exchange between a buyer and a prospecting sales rep. Since I was not involved I could look at the conversation trail very dispassionately from both sides.
On the sales representative’s side of the conversation I saw ET – email throw up. The email listed everything that was in the rep’s bag with links to a company website to find more info about the product. Why on earth would an overworked, busy retailer spend half of a minute to do anything other than hit the delete button? It wasn’t that the email was bad — in fact it was well crafted linguistically. The big mistake was the email showed no personalization whatsoever to the retailer or why the product that was offered would be important to the retailer.
Additionally I sensed a bit of attitude like let’s just put it all out there and maybe get lucky. It’s like fishing with everything you can find in the refrigerator. There may be some right bait in there that will attract the fish you want to catch but there also is a lot of garbage that fish do not want to weed through. Consequently, all the garbage scares the fish away.
Of course the retailer’s response was curt and to the point of basically don’t waste my time. He gets lots of other reps presenting product all the time. Many do the same thing of saying I have a product and you should buy it. But some reps actually go into his store and tailor a message of a product that he is missing and why he could use it to advance his sales. They do not present everything but go in with their best shot and communicate specifically why it will work for that retailer.
The professional sales rep may also go to a competitor across the street to sell his or her wares. But the presentation for that retailer will be entirely different based on customization for that retailer. It may be a different product line altogether with no mention of the product presented to the first retailer across the street because that does not fit the format of the second retailer.
If you have something like fabric protection then one size fits all. Otherwise the presentations need to be customized to the individual retailers so they know you understand their customer and offer an actual solution that will work.
Get started with a retailer is the most important thing you can do. Everything in your future with that account is based on getting started. You can’t have the second sale or tenth sale without the first sale. Spend time and effort figuring out how you can get started with a customer. What’s your best shot to get in the door? Focus on that and see where it takes you.
As always feel free to leave positive comments below.
PS. Less than three weeks before market. Hopefully you are getting all your appointments locked down. One event that should be on your schedule is the IHFRA rep event. The Furniture Industry Awards Gala is almost sold out so if you don’t have your ticket, send a request for information to email@example.com.
In 1996 “Jerry Maguire” burst onto the movie scene starring Tom Cruise in the lead role as sports agent and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as his client. A shouted phone call exchange between these two lead characters is memorable even to this day, with Gooding’s character repeatedly saying “Show Me the Money”!
Recently one of my new associates and I had a similar discussion. Only this is the furniture business and the money is not quite the same as the star athletes. My associate is new traveling on the road and has some concerns, rightly so, about making enough money to survive travel costs.
To his credit, he looked at the various lines represented and what the potential for each was over a year’s time. He estimated how many clients he thought he could gather. He estimated how a customer would be worth on an average monthly basis. Finally, he took those two numbers and multiplied them by his estimated average commission. This yielded a guesstimated average monthly check.
On reflection I thought this was a very smart strategy for new and seasoned reps to go through occasionally. A new rep needs to know what it will take to survive, and a seasoned rep needs to know what it looks like to get to the next level. If you consider how much a customer is worth, or how much a factory commission is worth to your business, then you have a measuring stick.
What gets measured gets improved.
You set your goals and revisit from time to time to see if you are on track or not. I do it every quarter reviewing customer performance along with factory performance. Best done with previous year experience if possible. Why is it down? What can we do to improve? Where does this compare to my budget, and what did I calculate wrongly?
Sometimes things seem to be going great if looking at gross commission dollars, but then you realize one customer is way up and three others are down. Figure out why those three dealers are down, correct for it and your business will be the better for it.
If you go out day after day without a financial objective or plan, how will you know if you are digging yourself into a hole or achieving your maximum productivity? Just a little time and effort upfront will Show You The Money!
As always feel free to leave your positive comments below. Thanks
There’s a very old sales joke about two sales reps attending one of their fellow sales rep’s funeral. While discussing their friend, one rep says to the other “Wasn’t that terrible about Joe?” The other rep says “what did he have?” His friend answers “North and South Dakota”.
Yes, I have North and South Dakota as well as a few other more populous states. In those states along with several other “Flyover” states, there are many opportunities to pick up furniture lines. There are not enough retailers and definitely not enough reps to give service for every factory. Someone is always looking for a rep in non-populous states. Marginal factories are usually looking for a rep in populous and non-populous states.
That doesn’t mean a sales rep in those states or any other for that matter should try and represent everything that is thrown their way. This undermines a rep’s effectiveness in a couple of ways.
First, if you have product from high to low, you will have to call on every single customer in the territory. Talking to a designer is different than working with a dirty window store. I am not saying you can’t do both but it takes a special kind of rep to understand the nuances of each. There are different demands and expectations from both retailers. Even though they both are in the furniture industry, one store wants the furniture delivered in two weeks so he can make a “tax money” sale while another has no idea what tax money has to do with furniture and why anyone should expect furniture in less than 12 weeks special ordered.
Second, a retailer that buys your high end special order eight way hand tied sofa is not going to turn around and buy your $199 promotional bunkbed line. It just won’t happen unless they have massive showrooms with clearance centers, and those stores are few and far between.
Third, a retailer expects you to know your product, and why they should be interested. The more lines you carry the less you can know about each. I remember years ago when I was a retailer, a seasoned rep walked our showroom floor with me looking at various bedroom offerings. We got to one vignette and he commented on how nice the group was. I told him I’m glad he liked it since his company had sold it to me at market.
Here’s a few thoughts on deciding what’s in your bag:
1. Have a mix of product that is synergistic. Mrs. B is famous for saying “Sell to the masses and live with the classes.” My dad taught me that at an early age and we have always sold product on the low to medium price side of the spectrum. However, I know several excellent reps that have done a tremendous job with higher end lines selling to designers and design centers. I don’t know many that are successful selling both.
2. Another solution for some is to become a specialist on a type of product. For example, there are accent and accessory only salespeople. They can concentrate on just selling to one type of buyer. I have also seen this with a successful case goods sales rep who can’t or won’t sell upholstery (and vice versa).
3. Become a specialist on a certain type of customer. Reps have geographic territories so this begins to narrow the customer base. But you should narrow further to the type of retailer your product serves best. We concentrate on Top 100 customers. Our associates concentrate on mom and pop independents. My son concentrates on internet accounts. Sometimes the same lines but many times different lines for different customers.
4. Only put things in your bag that you can represent with enthusiasm. If you cannot get excited about the product how in the world are you going to get someone else excited about selling the product. If you are just selling a product because it comes with a dealer base, you will be disillusioned over time.
Furniture is an awesome product that makes people’s lives better. Don’t just put something in your bag because you can. Make sure it is right for your retail customer base, make sure it is synergistic with everything else you sell, and most importantly make sure you are excited about selling the product. If you can accomplish all of that you will be successful.
Going into market, make the decision to reexamine all the lines you represent. If the potential is not good, if things have changed for the worse, or if you aren’t interested in the products, make the personal decision to look at market on how you can change your package for the better going forward. As always feel free to leave your positive comments below.
Adapt to a mobile world to keep online sales booming. Consumers increasingly browse and buy on their phones or tablets. Soon, if not already, many retailers will get more web traffic from mobile devices than from PCs.
Updating store websites to display well on phones will be vital. If you don’t want your business to be left behind, in the shift to mobile, make your site mobile ready. Buyers using phones, as opposed to PC users, are more likely to abandon an order if a product is hard to view or payment method is cumbersome on their device.
Monitor mobile traffic using a free tool called Google Analytics. Low cost services, that cater to small businesses such as Weebly, Squarespace, etc. to help make mobile-friendly upgrades.