How to out-service and out-sell the competition.
"A merica is in a customer service crisis" say the experts. "Not in my company" say many furniture giants. The illusion of being superior can sink a dominant store in the same way a small leak can sink a great ship.
Who is setting your service standards? Your ego, because all your vendors praise your market position? Your industry, which is barely growing at about a three percent rate annually? Or your customers, who are the most difficult to please in history? The popular industry view is that "we are in the furniture business" and conventional wisdom says our job is to push goods with better ads and better selling. Yet, the core of service marketing begins with your service. Harry Beckwith writes in his best-selling book: SELLING THE INVISIBLE: "Service quality has sunk so low that if no one complains about your service, you shouldn't feel good. Most people have given up complaining."
I am not referring to solving customer complaints, as important as these are (It is six times harder to get a new customer than it is to keep an old one). I am addressing the moans and groans of furniture retailers who wring their hands and claim they have no chance against the big local giants and national chains. I can tell you that young-thinking, hungry independents are taking market share from big, dominant competitors through superlative customer service. Other young-thinking furniture merchants are consolidating their markets against the invasion of big chains by teaching, modeling, and rewarding new service ideas.
Some furniture merchants imagine that customer service means satisfying an unhappy customer. But the idea that: "if things go wrong, we will make it right" is no longer good enough. That concept was true in the fifties, but a more modern definition involves serving the customer by doing it right the first time.
There's No Tomorrow
Furniture merchants can learn how to dominate their market from a great local tuxedo rental company in Phoenix known as Tux N' Tails. This independent company went from five percent of market share to over fifty percent in less than ten years.This company dominates the Phoenix market. The owner, Herb Sperber, explains the basis for his ideas on customer service in a way that the furniture merchant should consider:
"Most women begin to plan their weddings when they are about six years old. We appreciate this. If we fail to get their order right and do it perfectly and on time, we will spoil their wedding. A woman will never forgive this. For us, there's no tomorrow. We can't make it right. She will tell everyone she knows how terrible we are. So we do it right the first time, period. Then she will tell everyone how wonderful we are."
Stop and think about it. Most women also begin to dream about and plan their homes when they are children. Buying furniture is always a mega-event. Unlike a wedding however, buying furniture is a continuous process, a series of mega-events. We should never forget that everyone is offering "one year same as cash." That's table stakes today. Everyone has a price guarantee. Furniture values are the greatest in history, and everyone is very competitive. So what can you offer that others cannot? Confidence. The owner of Tux N' Tails learned that the first thing he needs his sales people to instill in a customer is confidence. First, he learned a woman's three basic fears about her wedding, and then addressed them. These three fears can be translated easily into furniture buying, as we shall see. Once he defined the fears, Herb taught his sales people to address them immediately. He did this by teaching his salespeople a magic phrase. This phrase was required. It had to be made in minutes to every couple who came in his stores. Then Herb made absolutely sure he backed it up. He told me that the key reason he won the Phoenix market was that, for ten years, virtually every customer heard this phrase within minutes of coming into one of his stores. Of, course the phrase was not an empty promise. Herb makes sure everyone in his organization is dedicated to making the promise of the magic phrase come true.
Address Customer's Greatest Fears
You can teach salespeople dozens and dozens of methods and techniques, but addressing a woman's three greatest fears about furniture shopping immediately will pay off more than anything else you can teach. These fears will not usually be directly revealed in focus groups, because the right questions are not always asked. The three deepest fears about shopping for furniture has nothing directly to do with price, selection, delivery or quality guarantees. These fears are related to an intangible, the invisible ingredient of the sales experience: the service factor. These fears are:
- She will make a buying mistake.
- A pushy salesperson will convince her to buy something she does not really want.
- Everyone will look at her furniture purchase for years to come, and know she made a mistake.
Here is Herb's magic phrase, adjusted for the furniture customer:
"Believe me, I am trained to help you find exactly the (living room furniture) you want and I will not let you make a mistake. And, trust me, you will be proud whenever any guest comes into your home."
This phrase works because it is simple, and salespeople can understand and execute it. It is so important that it is done well because there is no way to guarantee it. Service is really like that. People know they are at your mercy when it comes to service. Selling service is selling the invisible, and you are in the service business. Trust is critical. But, once you give that customer the gift of confidence, you have added value to your products that nothing else can come close to. Next day delivery, one year same as cash, price guarantees and all the other table stakes are for the close. Building confidence is for the opening of the sales sequence and the shopping experience. If the opening is not right... if it isn't better than your competitor's... you will never get to the close. Next to building confidence, guaranteeing the product is the next most important invisible service you sell.
What to guarantee
Its good to have price guarantees, and 90-day "sleep-on-it" guarantees for mattresses, and reasonable exchange policies. But all of these guarantees can be confusing. And, a large amount of small type with a bunch of stipulations after a guarantee ruins it. I always recommend an umbrella phrase that assures the customer of what it is they want: Satisfaction. It goes about like this:
The [Store Name] Promise:
In Price. In Quality. In Service. In Every Way.
No Ifs. No Ands. No Buts. No Small Print.
What about customers who will use this broad promise to take advantage of you? Let them. Never establish a guarantee based upon protecting you from the lowest common denominator. Base it on honest, normal customers. Can you execute such a broad promise successfully? Yes. Just remember the principle: Agree with your disgruntled customers quickly. The very first associate in your company who talks to them should use this magic phrase: "We want you to be satisfied. We will do what it takes. I promise you that." What about the rare nutcase customer who can't be satisfied no matter what? YOU deal with it, case by case.
When things do go wrong
Train all of your associates to agree with your disgruntled customer quickly. Why? Because if your associates hem and haw, the customer will get madder. And then the next manager hems and haws. And so on. In the end, no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, do you know what that customer will tell all of her 200 or so friends? That you made her happy? No. She will say: "They tried to tell me they only guarantee a price for thirty days, but I started raising hell and finally got some action." The end result is (even if you saved a few bucks), it cost you 200 negative sales messages. If that customer had been given the assurance immediately that you will satisfy her, you would have gotten 200 of the most powerful third person positive sales messages that money cannot buy.
What about the furious, ranting, unreasonable customer. Agree with your disgruntled customer quickly. Train your associates in the simple, long forgotten department store technique: Talk 'em tired. This is Tai Ch'i; pure non-resistance; listen to where they are going and follow them. When an angry customer begins to talk, listen. Don't try to cool them off. When they are ranting, don't try to sooth them, ask them if there is anything else they are unhappy about. Keep doing this until they are worn out. Then say: "We want you to be satisfied. We will do what it takes. I promise you that." Then add the second magic phrase: "What can we do to satisfy you?" When it comes to a dissatisfied customer, like the "BORG" resistance is futile.
The bottom line
We began this series with a promise to reveal the "Lost Secrets Of Successful Furniture Promotions." A few people who have followed these articles for the last year have asked me recently (in effect): "OK. Show me. Tell me about a great promotion run by an independent recently in which they put all these ideas together. All the so-called lost secrets."
Well, I hoped you saved all of these FURNITURE WORLD articles. Because, in the next issue, we will show you how a great young furniture man put all these ideas together in two moderate-sized furniture markets. The results were successful beyond his expectations. This is not the story of a furniture promotion; you don't need just another furniture promotion. You need a program. This is the story of a program. It is the story of an integral part of an annual strategy that will result in big market share increases, happier motivated associates, a lot of fun and of course: record sales and profits.
Larry Mullins, President of UltraSales, Inc., has 30+ years experience in the front lines of retail furniture marketing. Larry's mainstream executive experience, his creative work for "promoter-specialists," and study of advertising principles has enabled him to continually develop new High-Impact strategies for independent furniture retailers that are sound, complete, and innovative. Inquiries can be sent to Larry care of FURNITURE WORLD at firstname.lastname@example.org.