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Disconnected From Your Custumers?

Furniture World Magazine


Move from a product orientation to a customer orientation and watch sales soar!

What do consumers want? The answer to that question probably represents the most valuable business information a retailer can possess – what really motivates consumers to leave their homes and come to the store to shop? In furniture retailing, the answer is usually far more complicated and psychologically significant than many retailers believe it to be. There is an old anecdote about the man who goes out to buy a drill. Is it a drill he wants, or holes?

We believe that the real reasons customers shop for furniture are rooted in needs they have in their homes and that there is one common, underlying need behind all furniture shopping and buying; the need that customers have to create beautiful home environments.

This may seem rather simplistic and obvious, but the actions of most retailers and salespeople show clearly that this view is not the one that drives our customer interactions. Certainly, when one examines the preponderance of merchandise-driven activity in our industry, it is obvious that the fundamental belief among manufacturers and retailers is that what customers want are products – and specific products at that. If we turn this arm this way and add a seam here and a tuck there, we will meet the exact need of some customer. If you don't believe this, just walk through the recliner department of any large furniture store.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it produces a flood of merchandise options that are virtually indistinguishable and that cause retail buyers and salespeople to believe that this is how customers buy things. This argument sounds good and, unfortunately, has worked often enough to make it plausible. That is, it has worked for some consumers enough times for the industry to keep doing it. But recent studies show startlingly different outcomes. We know from studying hundreds of furniture stores that real close ratios (conversion of shoppers to buyers) for full-line stores range from as low as 15% to as high as 35%, with exceptions at both extremes. This means that 65% to as many as 85% of customers can't find one thing to buy among all the hundreds or thousands of options offered by the typical store.

Moreover, a recent study told us that about 40% of all furniture shoppers never made the purchase they set out to make – they actually dropped out of the furniture marketplace without buying a thing. Given all this information, does that mean that consumers are turned off by the products we're offering? Is it possible that there are some furniture items that customers want and need that we don't know about and haven't, therefore, produced? Is everything too expensive? What are people buying instead?

For almost three decades we have witnessed a continuing dialog within the industry bemoaning the customer's disenchantment with furniture as a category and asking how we can work together to recover their interest and investment. Experience has taught us that the answer does not lie in our products or prices or promotions, but in changing our mistaken view of what the customer wants.

The customer doesn't come to us for any specific thing, and she doesn't come to our store because of the sale we're having or the credit promotion we run. There first has to be a need and that need will often be based in the customer's psychological desire to enhance her quality of life by improving the beauty of her home. If there exits no need, all the promotion and advertising in the world won't bring a customer into your store. What the customer wants from us – from our industry – is help. She wants us, as experts, to help her through the confusing maze of too many options and too little information. Mostly, she wants us to understand her need and to not spend so much of her shopping time telling her about us, our stores, and our products. She wants us to focus on her and her needs.

How many times have you heard a salesperson ask a customer "Are you looking for anything in particular?" or "Do you have a particular style in mind?" and "Do you have a particular color in mind?" Think about this; aren't these the kinds of things a customer would ask a salesperson? "Show me some styles", "Show me some new, fashionable colors" – is it any wonder that your salespeople hear the words "I'm just looking" more than any others?

George Carlin tells us we are all diseased. I am telling you that you are all disconnected. You and your salespeople are disconnected from what the customer really wants from you. And, so many stores are so disconnected that the result has been a decades-long erosion of consumer interest – not in your products, but in dealing with you at the retail level. Until now your customers haven't had any choice. They either went to furniture stores or they couldn't buy furniture. Even those consumers who dealt with the dreaded 800-number retailers had to have some knowledge of what they wanted, which they gathered from a visit to your store. Then, several years ago, the great mail-order companies began showing furniture in their fashionable catalogs. Now, there are several web sites devoted to furniture and things have become even more interesting – and dangerous for you.

Ask yourself the questions in the box on page 23. Your ability or inability to answer all of these questions is a measure of how connected or disconnected you are from your customers and their needs. So, how do you change things? How do you get closer to your customer's needs and get better at giving her what she wants? Some suggestions are listed in the inset on this page.

Change the focus of your work – at least put a sales manager in charge of focusing only on customer things. You are living in the information age... whether or not you choose to acknowledge it. Every time a customer makes a purchase, that person shares a boatload of information with you. If you don't use that information to forge stronger relationships with your customers, someone else will.


"When we take the time to discover their true needs, we usually find out they are looking for much more than just a sofa." -Doug Guizlo Sales Manager

Stores that manage to turn the tables and focus on customers' needs rather than their own needs to sell products will usually sell more products to more people

That's the ironic truth that Bartlett Home Furnishings has discovered in two years since implementing Shepherd's Customer Driven Selling in its Memphis, Tenn, store.

"It's the only way to sell furniture," says Doug Guizlo, sales manager of this mid-priced and high-end store. "It's what the customer wants. They don't always realize it's what they want, but when we take the time to discover their true needs, we usually find out they are looking for much more than just a sofa."

Although shoppers may start the dialog with a sales person asking for a specific item, Guizlo says these people usually want to do more than just replace one mistake with another."They've been conditioned by sales people and stores to go in and ask for the sofa because they don't know what else to ask for," he says. "And because of their past experiences, they think we're barely capable of that – let alone handling an entire room project." However, Guizlo believes shoppers will respond positively when the sales person first takes the time to understand the problem. "Everybody likes to talk about themselves," he explains. "There's a certain segment who resist, but the majority are happy to talk about their room."

While Guizlo is entirely convinced that this is the best method for earning the right to present a complete room solution, he acknowledges that sales people do not always come around to this view right away. "It's hard to get them to see the benefits of moving away from item selling," he says. Over time, though, they come to recognize how the customer driven approach usually leads to higher close rates and increases in average sale. "Once they see the benefit of it, they're willing to change."