Trying the 'Team Approach' to Sales

In the years of recession and depression following World War I, the unemployed many with good educations stood in bread lines waiting for food to be distributed. For those of us who lived in those times, the thought that employers would one day be the ones lining up to hire talented people never even occurred to us.

However, with many states now reporting unemployment rates of less than 3%, the emphasis in the kitchen and bath industry is on recruiting competent personnel to staff existing and newly opened satellite showrooms. The sad fact is, though, that many of the people who are unemployed today don't have the education, personality or talent to attract employers.

The kitchen and bath industry operated for many years on the theory that the responsibilities of the "salesperson" included selling, designing and supervising installations. However, as in my own case, many of those who could sell effectively were less than gifted when it came to making presentation drawings. Moreover, the detail work of drawing, pricing and supervision of installations limited salespeople's volume and income. The more conscientious sales/designers performed some of these collateral functions at home during their hours away from the business often detracting from family life and resulting in burnout.

Years ago, employers felt that customers preferred buying their kitchens and baths from one individual who would be involved in every aspect of the sale. However, in today's radically different environment, dealers and distributors alike are learning that this presumption was more in the minds of employers than customers.

I remember my childhood when we called "Dr. Roberto" for every ailment from measles to appendicitis. He was the neighborhood physician who made himself available day or night. It never occurred to us that Dr. Roberto may not have had the skills of a surgeon or the training to diagnose rare diseases.

In medicine, the change to specialization came more at the behest of the overworked general practioner than as a result of patients' dissatisfaction. As a result, the home life of today's doctors is much like that of the rest of society. They generally sleep through the night, uninterrupted, while patients now demand a specialist for surgery or to treat most diseases.

Era of specialists
In similar fashion, the age of "specialization" is impacting the kitchen and bath industry, through a "team approach" to sales.

If you're having trouble recruiting additional salespeople, you might give this "team approach" a try. In fact, according to distributors who've adopted the team approach to cabinet sales, customers are quite happy knowing that specialists have been utilized in the various phases of their purchase. After all, the final result is what counts. The purchase of a kitchen is not a social event. It's a project that must be completed in a professional manner at a competitive price.

The team approach to kitchen and bath sales does not increase the cost to the customer. Salespeople with support from a designer can actually make substantially more sales and income even though their commission rate is lower than when they did all the detail work themselves. In fact, from reports I've received from both salespeople and business owners, salespeople are often initially reluctant to try the team approach, but find they can increase their sales by 50% or more, while working with good support people (designers who also price, and installation managers who coordinate, schedule, supervise and order materials).

Rate strengths
Moving to this sort of sales model starts by analyzing your sales force and rating their competencies. Traditionally, effective salespeople aren't necessarily gifted in producing attractive and accurate presentation drawings whether by hand or by computer. There are exceptions to this, of course, but they're rare. On the flip side, some designers relate well to customers, and become future prospects for sales positions. Think of the advantages of moving qualified designers into sales, rather than hiring new sales employees who may or may not fit well into your mode of operation.

Keep in mind, too, that all of this is not meant to suggest that your salespeople do not need to have the training to plan a kitchen or bath to meet their customers' needs and desires. In reality, though, they generally are already involved in measuring and making a plan view layout that they discuss with their customer prior to turning this information over to the designer to prepare a presentation drawing and produce pricing.

Home Depot's new EXPO Design Centers now actively selling high-end kitchens and baths have pursued the team approach to selling, and apparently have found this policy quite satisfactory.

They must feel confident in the direction they've taken, since they're projecting 200 EXPO showrooms in the U.S. over the next few years.

Those firms who use the team approach successfully take pride in their degree of specialization, rather than apologizing for it. They certainly should be proud of their efforts on a pure business level: The "do it all" salesperson, selling to homeowners, does well to sell $700,000 per year; under the team approach, $1,250,000 is attainable with far less burnout.

Don't be surprised if you meet resistance when you propose the team approach to your sales organization. People tend to be wary of change, feeling that if the change is good for the employer, it must be unfavorable to employees.

One successful distributor told me that he met resistance to the team approach, so he made it optional. Within six months, the non-participating sales/designers asked to switch. Their rationale:

Those in the program were making rnore money in fewer hours.

Try the team approach to sales on a limited basis if you have reservations about it. However, just like the industry's slowly accepted move to computer-aided design, I'm willing to bet it becomes a common way of doing business in the not-too-distant future.

Allan Dresner, CKDe, is a Washington, DC-based marketing consultant with a broad background in kitchen and bath sales and distribution. A member of the National Kitchen & Bath Association "Hall of Fame," he serves as a consultant to firms at all levels of the industry, and conducts seminars for distributors and dealers.