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Sales Behaviors: How Do You Stack Up?

Furniture World Magazine


New survey of how well retail sales associates greet and engage customers sheds light on need for improvement.

Retail Topics by Richard Fenton & Andrea Waltz

Let’s face it, consultants and trainers tend to spit out numbers the way kids spit out watermelon seeds at the fourth of July; 80% of all customers do this, 25% of sales people do that, etc., etc., etc. We’ve been guilty of the same thing. The problem is that some of these numbers are nothing more than generalizations of things we think we know to be true. But sometimes we’re all just flat-out wrong.

So, last fall we decided, enough with the generalizations. Let’s get some hard data! As a result we set out on a road trip designed to test the sales and service behaviors of America’s retailers. Originally this trip was going to be like a vacation, but our Retail Service Across America tour soon morphed into a 10,000 mile, 37-day, 987 store full-fledged research odyssey that yielded enough information to generate 100 pages of data.

30 Specific Performance Behaviors

Thirty specific behaviors or “performance factors” were measured. These are things that happen (or should happen) during every customer/associate sales interaction, starting from the moment customers enter a store until they pay, and the associate says good-bye. After gathering the data, our information was sorted into 19 different industry categories, one of which was Home Furnishings.

So, the big question is: How did Home Furnishings retailers fare? Sixty-one “shops” were conducted in the Home Furnishings category (49 weekday and 12 weekend). Presented here are some of the more interesting statistics and descriptions of how home furnishings retailers fared compared to retailers in general.

Customer to Associate Ratio

One item measured was the ratio of customers to sales floor staff. For retailers overall, the C/AR was 2.71/1.00; almost 3 customers shopping for every sales associate on the floor. On weekends this number grew to 3.84/1.00. For Home Furnishings the numbers were similar; overall the C/AR was 3.02/1.00, with weekends moving up to 4.63/1.

What should the ideal Customer to Associate Ratio be? That’s hard to say without doing extensive research and consulting. But one thing is for sure – the higher the number, the worse the service. To illustrate this, let’s look at another number.

Customers That Go Un-Greeted

One of the behaviors measured was the percentage of customers who were verbally greeted by an associate during a store visit. For all retailers, the percentage of un-greeted customers turned out to be 47%. Sadly, the number for home furnishings was worse: over half of the customers (51%) entering home furnishings stores went un-acknowledged by an associate during their visit.

Here’s where Customer to Associate Ratios start to show their impact. We found that when the customer to associate ratio in home furnishing stores was 1 to 1 or less (during “slow” traffic periods) the percentage of customers greeted within 3 minutes shot up to 87%! But on weekends, when the C/AR was nearly 5 to 1, the percentage of customers greeted by an associate dropped to a measly 9%. The message is clear: when furniture stores get busy, sales associates are not greeting customers. And since any retailer’s intercept rate (greeting and approaching) translates into sales, then lack of intercepting customers equals lost sales opportunities.

The two big questions that store managers must ask themselves are: Who is to blame? And how do we fix it?

In terms of blame there are what we call the four “S” factors that should be considered; staffing, salespeople, supervisors, and systems.

Staffing. The first area for blame is obvious; staffing (or, to be more precise, understaffing). Yes, there were times during this study when understaffing was an issue and clearly affected a store’s ability to greet and approach customers. But there were also numerous instances when we observed 3-4 salespeople standing behind the cash wrap chatting while we entered. Salespeople continued to socialize while we browsed for 5+ minutes, and exited the store without making any contact whatsoever. So to blame staffing and let it go at that would be a mistake.

Salespeople. The next logical step in the blame game is to point a finger at your salespeople and say, Those lazy salespeople, they’re the problem! But remember: Whenever you point a finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at you! True, lack of motivation and focus on the part of salespeople is an issue, but this is nothing new and only serves to bring us to the third “S”… supervision.

Supervision. When it comes to store performance, sales supervision (or in many cases, the lack of it) is the primary factor that determines the level of sales and service performance. Period. Countless times during our tour, low traffic situations were witnessed where customers were neither greeted nor approached. In contrast, there were also high-traffic situations where customer to associate ratios were off-the-chart… but every customer was greeted and approached. The difference? It was competence of the floor manager on duty, plain and simple. In stores with great supervision, customers get taken care of; in stores without it, they don’t.

Systems. Of course no conversation about greeting and approaching of customers would be complete without addressing the final “S”… systems. More specifically, the “ups” system. One of the excuses for not greeting and approaching customers, held out on a regular basis by salespeople and supervisors alike, is the ups system. “Not my up, not my problem!” is a common refrain among commissioned retail salespeople. This sad situation begs us to ask the question: When a system, by its very nature, almost guarantees that some customers will go un-greeted and un-approached, maybe the system itself needs to be reconsidered? So, whose problem is it? It’s everyone’s.

Without addressing all four “S” factors, sales and service performance is bound to suffer.

Percentage That Greeted Other Customers While Busy

Associates in the general sample greeted other customers when busy only 29% of the time. For home furnishings retailers this ratio was even lower: 21%. This helps explain why the percentage of customers being greeted by an associate is so low. Quite simply, when associates are tied up with a customer, they are not scanning the horizon for other customers entering the store. This is not a unique phenomenon. We see this tendency in behavior across the board.

Sales people too often feel the need to combine the greeting and approach into one step; they are either available to greet and approach, or they are not. And if they are not, they simply don’t greet.

The issue, of course, is that a greeting – any greeting, even the merest of “hellos” – increases the likelihood that a customer will browse longer and wait for assistance because they are aware that a store employee knows that they’re there. Without a greeting, customers feel overlooked and will usually walk out within 3 minutes of entry.

Time From Entry To Greeting

The average number of seconds (for all stores) from entry to greeting was 32 seconds. Home furnishings stores performed slightly better than the average, at 30 seconds. This number was determined by starting the clock (a stop watch held in our pockets) when a customer crossed the entry threshold and stopped when the first words of acknowledgement were offered by an associate. A time limit for the greeting was set at 3 minutes – after that it was simply counted as a “no”. The reality is, after 3 minutes, the opportunity to impress a customer has been lost.

Of course, any greeting is better than nothing.
There is room for improvement here and retail managers can improve their customer’s attitudes and average time spent in the store simply by encouraging sales associates to greet customers even if they can’t approach them. Associates need to learn that they can break away even for a few seconds to greet another customer and immediately return to their current customer.

Percentage Of Customers Who Were Not Approached

72% of all customers entering retail establishments are never “approached” by an associate. Unbelievable? Hold onto your socks, because the number in home furnishing stores came in at 81%. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that there was not an interaction between a customer and associate, or even a sale – it has to do with who initiated it.

The heart of truly excellent service lies in a retailer’s ability to be proactive… to go to the customer. This data is so shocking because it points to the fact that in many stores, customers are charged with the responsibility of tracking down salespeople to assist them. During the tour numerous instances were observed where customers simply self-served their way to the register. But this is not selling, and it certainly isn’t service either.

Asked, "May I Help You?"

“May I help you?” (or something similar) was used 40% of the time. And in home furnishing retailers it was only 26%! Quite frankly, we were thrilled to see that this tired old phrase has finally worn out its welcome (literally) probably as a result of years of retail training professionals denouncing the ineffectiveness of this approach and preaching alternative ways to engage customers in conversation.

Customers Offered Unsolicited Information

“Unsolicited” information offered to customers only 25% of the time. Was home furnishings any better? Sorry. Only 22% of the customers entering home furnishings stores were offered “unsolicited” information by an associate. This statistic is particularly important not only from a service standpoint (don’t all customers deserve to know what’s new, on sale, how the merchandise is organized, etc.?) but also from a conversion standpoint. Customers are walking in, maybe being greeted, but not being further engaged. If they are approached, it is at this moment that the customer responds with the dreaded, “no thanks, I’m just looking.” At this point what we witnessed was sales associates turning away and quickly abandoning the customer. If we do not at least briefly connect with the customer, then it will become a self fulfilling prophecy – they will have indeed been proven to be just looking.

When a customer first enters a store it’s the perfect time to deliver what we call a 30-second Edu-mercial (an “educational commercial” so to speak). Associates should be keeping the “just looking” customer engaged for at least 15 seconds – and not more than 30 – with important information about the company, store, events, specials, or merchandise to make the shopping experience easier, smarter and more enjoyable.

Asked Questions To Determine Needs

Associates asked questions to determine needs only 36% of the time. While home furnishing fared slightly better at 38%, this extremely low number illustrates a serious issue in terms of how most retail associates perceive their role. Selling is like the game, Jeopardy. Customers have all the answers; all we need to do to win is to ask the right questions!

The question is; why is the skill of asking questions to determine needs so rarely developed by associates within the retail industry today? Perhaps it’s simply a lack of understanding regarding the importance of questions and their impact on making large sales and on creating customers for life.

Of the 36% of associates who asked questions, 47% of their questions were merchandise oriented, 53% customer oriented. In home furnishings stores, the numbers were significantly better. A full 73% of the questions asked by home furnishings associates were focused around the customer and the customer’s lifestyle. This is a huge win! Questions that revolve around the merchandise tell us nothing about the customer’s wants and needs, nor do they provide us with information needed to present additional merchandise.

Gave Feature/Benefit Presentations

Retail associates across all store types made some form of feature/benefit presentation 63% of the time they engaged a customer and physically took them to merchandise. On the surface this number sounds okay, but when you consider that 47% of all customers went ungreeted, and 72% went unapproached, this means that only 18% of all customers entering retail stores are getting a complete feature/benefit presentation by a sales associate.

In home furnishings, sales associates fared somewhat better, making a feature/benefit presentation 76% of the time they got customers to merchandise. Compare this to jewelry stores and "high-end" specialty retailers who did the best on this metric - both coming in at 87% - and the opportunity for improvement becomes obvious.

Focused On Price Before Being Asked

Price enters most merchandise presentations because of a sales associate’s concern; not a customer’s. And the numbers proved this out. 43% of the presentations focused on price… even when the customer didn’t ask about it! The good news is that this number was only 32% in home furnishing stores, a clear win.

Associates should focus on making the best product recommendations possible based on what the customer needs, not on how much the merchandise costs. What we found is that many sales associates “sell from their own wallets” (making recommendations based on what they themselves can afford or believe is worthwhile). Price should enter a presentation only if the customer has expressed a price concern or indicates a price range for the merchandise being looked at.

Asked For A Buying Decision

Associates across all retail stores asked for a buying decision only 28% of the time. Unfortunately, home furnishing stores did worse than the average with associates attempting to solicit a buying decision just 23% of the time.

And for this measurement any attempt to get a decision was counted – no matter how overt or subtle. Yet we were shocked how often, at the moment where the customer seemed ready to make a decision, the associate would drift off to dust or do stock work. Getting the customer to make a decision, even if it is a “no” is always better than not getting a decision from the customer.

Associates must be impressed with the importance and trained in the process of getting a decision from their customer, even if it is a “no.” If the sales associate gets a “no”, then at least they can continue to ask questions and show alternate options.

So, the handwriting is on the wall – there’s a lot of room for improvement. But, where should you start? At the beginning, of course! The early moments of the sale are always the most critical to any retailer’s ability to deliver service, make sales and drive profit. In fact, of the 30 performance factors analyzed, 17 of them happened before the associate physically took the customer to the merchandise!

In other words, if you want to “close” more sales, focus on opening them better. By focusing on the “opening of the sale” the closing doesn’t become some colossal event; it becomes the natural by-product of every other step that preceded it.
Who knows, maybe we’ll see you out on our next tour.

Richard Fenton and Andrea Waltz are recognized as two of the leading experts in sales, customer service and management within the retail industry. Since launching FentonWaltz Retail Training & Consulting in 1997 they have written four books specifically for retailers and have had over 100 articles published in retail trade journals, magazines, newspapers, and Internet based publications. As a member of the National Speakers Association, Fenton has spoken to over 40,000 retail associates, managers and executives over the last eight years. Questions can be emailed to fentonwalz@furninfo.com.

You can also order a copy of the Retail Service Across America Report, by contacting fentonwalz@furninfo.com.