Editor's Note: This month we jump back to the December 1988 issue of Draperies & Window Coverings to land on a topic as important and fresh as any today: professionalism in sales and what it means to the success of any retail operation. It was written by Richard T. Strunc, then vice president, sales, for Profile Corp., Pompano Beach, FL, a manufacturer of vertical blinds, tracks, solid and perforated vinyl vertical vanes, as well as macramé and fabric louvers.
As part of D&WC's 20th anniversary celebration, each month we will return to early issues of the magazine to revisit interviews, advice and columns providing interesting, pertinent and fun historical perspectives on our industry.
A successful sales professional assumes the responsibility for ensuring customer satisfaction. I like to regard sales as a profession. I agree with Webster that a profession is "a calling requiring specialized knowledge and . . . intensive . . . preparation." I especially agree with one definition of professional, which is "participation as a livelihood in a field of endeavor also engaged in by amateurs."
A professional learns his products and the field they compete in, prepares himself to practice in that field and sells with the goal of succeeding while too many others go about it as a means of getting along.
Let's face it. Some of us sell. Others take orders.
An order-taker is a salesperson who does nothing but show the product, recite the options and the price list, and take the order. This type of employee is rapidly being replaced by catalogs—and for good reason.
The other extreme in sales personalities is the pushy foot-in-the-door, high-pressure salesperson whose memory still tarnishes all of us in the sales profession. Fortunately, that's a nearly extinct species.
I have five keys to sales professionalism and sales success.
1.A professional knows his products. People go shopping for information before they go for products. The purchase of a product may be the end result, but that comes after they secure a good bit of information about what products are in the marketplace, what will best serve their needs and, often, what they can afford.
To many salespeople "shopping" and "shopper" are dirty words. They want buyers, not shoppers. They are ignoring their role in their customers' lives and violating the first rule of sales professionalism.
To be a good salesperson, you must be a good source of reliable information. To be a good source of information, you must know your field, the products in it and their comparative advantages. You must be able to deliver the information that will help the customer make a buying decision, hopefully in your favor.
There are three levels of shoppers. The first is just shopping, exploring what is available in his area of need. He doesn't know what it is, so he's researching the field and the products in it.
In our field, that customer is shopping for window coverings—not draperies, not blinds, not shutters, but window coverings in the broadest sense. He is as open to suggestion as he will ever get.
Your job is to help him compare the various window coverings while trying to learn what he really wants and needs his window coverings to do. Only then, and only based on the information he provides, can you begin to lead him toward a specific product.
The second level of custom is shopping for as specific type of window covering. He is looking for the information that will help him decide between several types of coverings available. At this stage, the customer is still open to suggestion, but only within the limits he has set. Your job with this customer is to compare the relative advantages of the various window coverings.
The third customer knows exactly what he's looking for. For example, he has vertical blinds already and wants to replace them, or he has seen verticals and wants to try them. This is a live prospect; your job is to sell him on your brand of verticals against the others, and to sell yourself and your business as the place to buy them.
This customer wants to compare features and prices and make a decision from among the available brands. Your job is to know the features and benefits so you can help him make that decision—preferably to buy your product from you.
Leading a customer through the broad subject of window coverings, convincing him that he should buy verticals instead of minis—or vice versa—and then persuading him to buy your brand from your business is what selling is all about. It should be a pleasurable experience for both of you. If you deliver, it should leave you with a sale and leave the customer with a good feeling about his purchase.
2.A professional establishes a relationship with the customer. You get to know your customers by talking to them, in a controlled conversation with the goal of getting them to tell you the classic answers: who they are, what they want, why they want it and how they expect it to perform for them.
The conversation has to be short to avoid wasting the customer's time. It has to be controlled to keep it on the subject. And it has to be directed toward learning what the customer wants. (The conversation can start with any greeting except one: "Can I help you?" That's not a question, that's a challenge. Of course you can help him, that's why he came in. "Can I help you?" should be struck from every salesperson's vocabulary. Practice useful closing lines like, "Shall we make them in the beige or the tan?" instead.)
I have found it best to start with a brief but controlled chat that begins on a broad base, then narrows as you gain information and finally focuses on a customer's individual needs. The best and quickest way to do that is to ask a question, shut up and listen, ask another question, and so on.
3.A professional fills the customer's needs There is a right product and price for every shopper, and a professional will know what the customer wants, or at least should want, after a short conversation.
People don't buy products, features, services or price. People buy benefits.
People don't buy window coverings to cover windows. They buy window coverings to get the benefits of beauty, privacy, utility, energy efficiency, long life, low maintenance and perhaps to convey a message about their status. Those are benefits. Products, features, service and price are only factors in deciding what benefits they are going to enjoy.
If Americans bought price only, there would be six Yugos on the street for every Mercedes. Both cars do what they're supposed to do. Yet a Mercedes costs eight to 10 times as much as a Yugo and at least twice as much to operate and insure. Yet Mercedes outnumber Yugos on the street 20- or 30-to-one.
The reason, of course, is that the Mercedes offers benefits the Yugo does not. Twenty or 30 people are willing to pay thousands of dollars to get those benefits for every one person who is willing to forego them and drive a Yugo.
Fortunately, the kind of people who buy vertical blinds tend to be the kind of people who recognize performance and value and are willing to pay a bit more to enjoy greater benefits.
4.A professional is accountable to his customers. The sale isn't over until the customer is satisfied. Once he's made the sale, a professional makes sure the product is delivered on schedule, makes sure it gets installed properly, and makes sure that if there's anything wrong, it gets fixed promptly.
Do all this, and the customer will be your customer for life.
5.A professional maintains a professional attitude. What you do as a window coverings professional isn't brain surgery or getting an innocent man off death row, but it's very important to the lifestyles of your customers. As such, it deserves to be done to the best of your ability. A professional maintains an attitude that what he does is important, and seeks constantly to do it better as a result.
On the major intersection nearest my home, there were two big supermarkets. One was part of a huge national chain that spends millions of dollars advertising low prices; the other was part of a regional chain that spends its ad money on the theme, "Where Shopping Is A Pleasure." They both carried the same basic groceries, although the regional branch carried a somewhat better grade of some kinds of merchandise and asked somewhat more for them, and may have charged one or two percent more across the board.
At the first supermarket, the aisles were never really clean, the merchandise never neatly stacked on the shelves, the carts were a little rusty and crooked and the employees were harried and not very helpful. The other was always spotless, shelves were stocked with near-military precision, there was a man in the backroom who cleaned and repaired carts, and it was staffed with people whose friendly and helpful attitudes could only have been inspired by good training, good hands-on management and job satisfaction.
You can be a professional at stocking shelves, cutting meat, running a cash register or carrying out groceries, too. Guess which supermarket is closed now and which one is expanding to meet the new demand?
Know your product, get to know your customer, fill his needs, be accountable for his satisfaction and maintain a professional attitude and you will succeed in sales in any field. Amateurs and order-takers are intimidated by those responsibilities; professionals welcome them and succeed. SUCCEEDING IN VERTICAL BLIND SALES
After many years in vertical blind sales, I'm still as astonished at how many window coverings shoppers have never operated a vertical blind. People see verticals in shelter and decorating magazines, they see them in banks and hotels, but they never touch them. And since they see them in costly homes and commercial settings, they tend to think verticals are expensive.
I have found that the most powerful selling tactic is to simply take a vertical through its paces for them. Demonstrate that verticals draw and pull like draperies, open and close like mini-blinds, close as tightly as shades or shutters, insure privacy as well as any window covering, and look and work great every step of the way. You do have a full size demo, don't you?
If you'll pardon a little vertical blind chauvinism, no matter what kind of window covering a customer is thinking about, you can demonstrate that verticals can do the same things, and often better.
There are few objections to the idea of verticals; your main point of resistance is likely to be price. Verticals may be the best way to cover a window, but they aren't the cheapest.
In today's discount-oriented consumer society, it's easy to convince yourself that price is everything and fall into the trap of selling price above everything else. But you can't sell verticals on price. You have to sell them on the benefits they deliver.