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Thirteen Fatal Sales Errors

Furniture World Magazine


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Errors salespeople make and how to fix them.

An astute sales manager once sent me a copy of "13 Fatal Errors Managers Make and How You Can Avoid Them" by W. Steven Brown. This excellent book examines ways to avoid management pitfalls and get the best results with people. Since managers are not the only people who make mistakes, I put together a similar list of errors for retail sales people to help us avoid wasting valuable talent.

To believe in and sell yourself

In a marketing survey, consumers were asked the question, "In making a recent, major purchase, what influenced you to buy from one particular sales person over another?"

The responses of the participants fell into three categories:

  • His or her confidence level.
  • His or her communication skills.
  • His or her product knowledge.

The majority responded that the sales person's confidence level was the single most important factor to influence their buying decision. The implication was that the way the sales person looked and carried himself sent a more important message than what he said, how he said it, and what he knew.

Many sales people are afraid to take the next "up" because they lack confidence or a fear rejection. Those who struggle with confidence should put together a monologue explaining to a customer in "I", "me", and "my" terms how they can benefit the customer as a future client; and deliver this new monologue using positive body language and eye contact. This practice "drill" offers the sales person a reassurance that product knowledge alone cannot offer.

Failure to "replay the tape"

Sales people who rationalize their sales floor failures should "rewind and replay the tape" to review their encounter with each customer. In this way they can begin to understand, first, what went well, and second, what could have been improved. A good sales manager will challenge sales team members to "replay the tape" for him and have a discussion about each "up" from the 'recorded' information. A discussion of each event can lead to the discovery of individual training opportunities.

To use empathy with customers

Customers' fears need easing with sincere and genuine sensitivity. Customers often say under their breath, "Gosh, I need everything!" What they're really saying is, "Help me! I have no idea what to do here! I'm overwhelmed." An effort to understand that customers have fears and to offer them sincere empathy can position the salesperson as a friend and ally.

Failure to explain the rules

Have you ever been invited to a friend's home for a party and once there witnessed everyone playing a game that you didn't understand? Our customers, similarly, do not know how the game is played in our stores. Sales people could eliminate many unpleasant surprises by providing a simple explanation.

Sales associates must always forecast what is going to happen next to the customer. This avoids surprises (your new furniture will be delivered on Friday, C.O.D.) and positions the sales person as someone who can be trusted. This discipline pays big dividends in future client development.

Develop a personal business plan

I often ask sales people the question, "What's your plan for today?" Initially, their answer is something like, "Well, it depends on what kind of "ups" I get, I guess." This reactive approach leaves everything to chance. To encourage a more proactive response, sit down with each sales team member and develop a work plan by reviewing or creating a pending business master list. If there is no pending business then too little effort is being made toward client development and follow up. Having a daily plan leads to more activity and a busier work environment. Creating a plan also prevents that final week-of-the-month panic during a poor month.

A sales person must take responsibility for developing his or her own business strategy instead of waiting for the next "up" to arrive. Sales and design team members can develop a network of builders and realtors to generate referrals, solicit speaking engagements with community organizations, and develop in-store seminars to build a client base.

Failure to acknowledge the importance of new learning

Many sales people tend to underrate the significance of sales training and education... a chore to be endured for a few weeks and then forgotten. These short sighted approaches strand many talented performers short of achieving their potential worth in the rapidly changing field of selling. It is much better for retailers to emphasize training by creating a significant monthly allowance to promote the idea that learning never ends.

Failure to communicate the importance of planning

Our customers would never think of building a new home without blueprints, yet they purchase home furnishings one item at a time, hoping that their home will turn out the way they envisioned it. Having a purchasing plan for home furnishings makes good sense, yet most consumers have never considered this idea.

Sales people should mention the idea of developing a purchasing plan early and often to prospects. That way customers can achieve both the benefits that having a well constructed plan, and that having professional assistance can provide.

To use planned selling scripts

The top percentile of sales professionals in the country utilized memorized or planned selling messages in their sale presentations, yet many home furnishings' sales people shun the preparation of messages that would inevitably assist them in articulating their thoughts in the clearest form. "I don't want to sound canned," is one usual objection, or "We'll all sound alike," is another response, but leaving important selling messages to chance can lead to disaster.

In responding to a customer's question, "Can you come out to my home?", most sales people will come up with something like, "Yes, we offer a service here at Store Name that allows us to come out to your home and help give you some ideas if you are a purchasing customer." In contrast, a little preparation might yield something like, "I've found that working with my customers in their homes produces the best results because furnishing a home can be challenging. I like to work with my customers' ideas and any existing pieces they may have to create a total plan that saves them time, money, and energy. With a plan developed, you can buy as much or as little as you like now or in the future, yet always be working toward your planned goal. Doesn't it make sense to work this way?"

Failure to actively listen

We've all seen sales people talk themselves out of a sale. Studies have demonstrated that many sales people spend more time talking about products and services then they spend asking customers probing questions and listening for responses.

The realization that listening is a skill and deserves attention is the first step towards improvement. Look through your local paper to find an interesting, medium length article and read it at your next sales meeting; then, give your sales team a twenty question quiz on some of the key points and let them grade themselves. Give some prizes for those who get the highest score.

The "just looking" customer

Sales people tend to release a customer who is "just looking" too quickly. The assumption made by many sales people is that most customers have to be released into the showroom to look first, forcing sales people to rely on a re-approach. We encourage sales people to respond to people who are "just browsing" by first assuring the customers "We love browsers here at Store Name", and second, by hanging in there a little longer when a customer says "Just looking" by giving them a brief background of the store and asking what room they're working on.

If the customer still wants to browse, sales people simply ask permission to re-approach. These subtle changes in greeting technique allow sales people to better handle "just looking" customers.

Handle customer objections

Another common fault is that sales people release their customers too quickly after hearing objections.

Objections can be divided into legitimate and "ghost" categories. "Ghost" objections are those that cannot be easily defined, such as, "I need to think about it." A legitimate concern, is an honest attempt on the customer's part to explain why the product or service does not match their requirements. Usually, a legitimate objection is a request for additional information because the sales person has not given the customer enough information to make a comfortable buying decision.

Another error sales people make when presented with an objection is to argue with the customer using the word "but". This approach leads nowhere and dissolves any trust built to that point.

Take a two step approach to handling customer concerns. First, welcome legitimate concerns, "Thanks for sharing that with me." Then clarify any "ghost" objections to try to smoke out the real one, "Sounds as if you have a concern. Is it the furniture we've looked at?" Second, phrase a response in the context of Feel, Felt, Found. "I understand how you feel. Many of my customers have felt the same way, and from experience I've found that investing in quality furniture pays big dividends. Would you mind if I explain why?"

Failure to know where you
stand relative to goals

Although you can have a month with some extenuating circumstances and unusual obstacles -- results are what really counts. Complaining about store working conditions is only an excuse.

As managers, you must take the initiative to work with each sales person to create challenging goals, plan a road map for reaching them, and tell them how they are progressing. Goal development is the key to challenging team members to move to the next level.

The final component of this is to be sure each sales person is aware of how they stand relative to their goal at any given point in time.

Failure to feel like part of a team

Sales people pride themselves on their devotion to clients, and their use of product knowledge to solve problems; however, external customer service alone does not complete the total picture of the professional. A true professional earns his title by also remembering that it's the team that wins the game.

A sales person must demonstrate a sense of responsibility to his fellow employees, as well as to external customers. He must keep his actions focused on being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. To help focus attention on the team, establish a company culture and a mission statement for all departments that emphasizes that the importance of internal and external customer service is critical.


Scott Derrick is a sales training consultant for Shepherd Management Group specializing in changing the selling culture of furniture stores from merchandise-driven to customer-driven using a process of consulting, training, and mentoring. For more information about the topics in this article contact FURNITURE WORLD Magazine at editorial@furninfo.com.

Furniture World is the oldest, continuously published trade publication in the United States. It is published for the benefit of furniture retail executives. Print circulation of 20,000 is directed primarily to furniture retailers in the US and Canada.  In 1970, the magazine established and endowed the Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library (www.furniturelibrary.com) in High Point, NC, now a public foundation containing more than 5,000 books on furniture and design dating from 1620. For more information contact editor@furninfo.com.