Using Training as a Defining Differentiator

A customer walked into a large home center in search of granite countertops. It was Saturday around 2:30 p.m. A first-time visitor, the customer was overwhelmed by the selection in every department.

He eventually wandered to the countertop section, where a single customer service representative was on duty trying her best to answer the multitude of questions coming her way. In front of her was a yellow legal pad with a page and a half of names on it. When the customer asked for assistance, the sales representative said that he would have to leave his name on the list and that the one other sales associate that was on duty would help as soon as he was available.

"How long will that be?" the customer questioned.

"Probably an hour and a half to two hours," was the response.

More and more customers bombarded the sales associate with questions until finally, she gave up, apologizing to the assembled crowd that she could not answer any questions. She had started two weeks ago and did not know anything about countertops.

Certainly, this true story is an extreme example, but it begs the question: "How often have we thrown green staff into the lion's den, only to see them fail?" Many decorative plumbing and hardware showrooms differentiate themselves by offering superior service and exclusive or semi-exclusive product lines. Staff professionals who understand and can explain the technical and design sophistication of the products featured in our showrooms create a competitive edge. But, product and technical knowledge alone does not make successful sales professionals.

Increasingly, showroom operators are realizing that their staff needs to possess sales skills, as well.

An experienced, knowledgeable, professional and personable showroom staff does not grow on trees. These employees must be trained and developed. The entire industry is waking up to the need for formalized training programs.

In the past, we could get away with spending a day or two with a new hire, rely on reps to teach them product knowledge and then have them shadow a more experienced staff member for on-the-job training. That approach no longer works if you want to distinguish yourself from the competition and provide superior service.

The time has come to stop procrastinating. Claiming that you don't have enough time to dedicate to training is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Training Programs
Developing an effective training program is not easy. It's time consuming and requires expertise that may not be readily available.

Training is a specialized discipline. For that reason, our showrooms in Houston hired a consultant who [serves as a member of our staff and] is responsible for developing and implementing our training program. He conducts weekly training sessions addressing product knowledge, trends and experience sharing. In addition, our program features off-site training dedicated exclusively to salesmanship for one-half a day per month. Topics addressed range from overcoming customer objections to techniques for making off-site sales calls.

The reason we created a training program is to enhance our professionalism. How you think of yourself is how you will project yourself to the customer. When members of our sales team view themselves as professionals, they project the image of being professionals. A formalized training program is the breeding ground for professionalism that has permeated the entire fabric of our organization.

Jeff Burton also recognizes the need for formal training at The Bath and Beyond in San Francisco. Twice a week, he assembles his sales staff to discuss sales techniques ranging from how to sell add-ons to recognizing closing opportunities. The second session is dedicated to product knowledge, trends, showroom performance and pricing.

Burton said, "We have spent considerable resources teaching product knowledge, which is needed. However, until recently, we never taught people how to sell. That's changing at our showroom and in others around the country, because the competitive demands of the marketplace make it a necessity."

Another showroom that has developed a formalized training program at its three Southern California showrooms is Snyder Diamond. According to Russ Diamond, "In developing our program, we recognized the need to go beyond product knowledge. Our approach incorporates product knowledge with a selling curriculum." Snyder Diamond used programs developed for other high-end retailers as its benchmark.

"An early lesson that we learned is that product lines are not the driving force to effective sales," Diamond said. "Equally, if not more important, is the atmosphere that sales professionals create. The human resource quotient is the defining difference in the success and failure of our business."

Snyder Diamond's eight-week training program begins with a history of the company and the industry. "The goal of the initial session is to relate our corporate culture," Diamond said. The second element teaches sales techniques, such as how to open a sale and meet and greet customers. A third component focuses on techniques to probe customers to help determine needs, preferences, budgets and possible objections. The fourth component is called demonstration. Sales professionals are taught to explain the features and benefits of specific products and product lines with the end goal of creating interest and desire. It's also a time to start the closing process and determine possible objections. The final
component of the sales training process teaches when and how to close.

Diamond claims two keys to the success of his training program are extensive role playing and performance tracking. The company charts daily sales, how many customers each salesperson talks to, average daily sales and number of times add-ons are included in a sale, among other things. The data is used to set performance goals that are clearly understood and measurable. If sales professionals don't meet goals, managers meet one-on-one with sales staff to provide coaching. If members of the sales staff exceed goals, they are recognized and rewarded.

Diamond said, "We view our showrooms as product theater. Our sales professionals are trained to dispense information and make sales in a way that entertains and excites our customers. It takes a fair amount of patience and dedication to make this happen."

Training tools
Few successful programs are easy to develop and implement. The good news for the industry is that there are tools available to help start the process.

For example, the Decorative Plumbing & Hardware Association recently released the first five modules of its Education Program. Each module focuses on a specific product line such as shower systems, baths, faucets, water closets and bidets. Baseline product information that enables showroom staff and others to quickly become familiar with basic operating requirements, materials, terminology and common problems is presented. In addition to technical and operating information, each chapter offers sales guidance. Suggested questions that sales professionals should ask to help establish rapport and determine needs, preferences and budgets are presented.

Each module also contains a review that includes a series of multiple-choice questions, matching questions and critical thinking questions that principals can use to evaluate the knowledge base and training needs of their staffs. The DPHA Education Program is a starting point, providing reference data for showrooms to use as part of an overall training effort.

The time has come. The need exists. Customers are far more sophisticated and knowledgeable. There are many nuances to the products sold in showrooms. Creating an effective training program makes our sales staffs the professionals that our clientele expect and deserve.

Marilyn Hermance is chief executive officer and chairman of Westheimer Plumbing & Hardware in Houston, Texas, where she oversees the operation of two 3,500-square-foot showrooms. She also serves as vice chair of the DPHA Education Committee responsible for producing the DPHA Education Program, and is a member of the DPHA Board of Directors.