Several years ago I had the pleasure of visiting with Ron and Tim Deets at Deets Furniture in Norfolk, Nebraska. I remember three things most clearly about that trip. First, their fanatic love of Traeger smokers. Second, my decision to refuel my rental car somewhere on the way back to Omaha, not realizing that within the vast expanses of corn and cattle in our nation’s grain belt, that might not be a possibility.
But, most striking was a comment the brothers made to me regarding service. They said that they view service calls as a good thing. I was dumbstruck by that opinion, and of course I disagreed, replying that service, in my opinion, was a failure. After all, if the delivery didn’t go right, how is that a good thing? They insisted it was, that it gave them the opportunity to prove to their customers that they stand behind their reputation and resolve each concern at a high level. Poppycock, I thought.
It wasn’t until years later—recently, in fact—that the gravity of their statement finally made sense to me. Having been brought up in our industry in North Carolina in the 1990s, where forty-eight-state delivery was the norm, there was no margin for error. The delivery either stuck, or the costs associated with backpedaling and satisfying the customer in far-flung places like Fresno and Fargo seriously deteriorated any profit we had made on the sale. So to say service was a good thing, made absolutely no sense to me.
Joni Mitchell sang, “I look at life from both sides now,” and I understand how that applies as I get older. After I left life on the road I settled into a quality management position in the mid-South in a heavily military community. Soldiers and their families come and go quite frequently, and it’s the norm to have service people in fatigues pick up their furniture in our will call area. We make service calls on post, with Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters flying right overhead. And it became clear when I got here that service means exactly what Ron and Tim told me it did: An opportunity to keep our word.
FINDING THE RIGHT SERVICE PEOPLE
If you want to have a chance of keeping your word to every customer, you must have a truly successful service department. That necessarily begins with hiring the right service people. What does that mean, anyway, the right people? Let me ask you to consider service as not so much a function of the warehouse, as it is a function of sales.
Excellent Service Managers: An excellent service department manager must be a skilled negotiator. He or she is:
- Charged with calling someone who is not happy with what they bought, who has an issue, a complaint, a concern.
- Is responsible for maintaining a sale. Refunds are not even on the table.
- Has to convince a customer who is already upset, that he will have to bring the piece back to the shop for repairs. Repairs? Parts??
- Has to be able to convince the customer that the work will solve the issues, without mentioning that a discount or allowance isn’t a possibility.
- Must be firm and yet empathetic, kind but unyielding, savvy but compassionate, calculating but seemingly liberal.
Essentially, the bottom line is, We have your money and we are not giving it back, but I personally guarantee you will be pleased with the results.
When owners recruit people for sales, they scrutinize their credentials, looking for those who can get people to buy. This requires talents, many of which were mentioned at the end of the last paragraph. So why is service never given the same consideration? A service manager or representative has to have a personality that makes people feel comfortable and safe. Here are a few ways to make that possible.
- Don’t address customers by their last name, as Mr. Smith or Mrs. Jones. Call them Michael and Jennifer.
- Talk colloquially, as if you’ve known each other before, in a friendly tone, to disarm the otherwise confrontational stance they’re expecting.
- Always listen to their concerns first, and always have a solution to their problem ready before the conversation starts.
Of course customers have their own agenda, so here are some truisms to consider before making each and every call:
- Customers know you’re out to save the sale.
- They are not interested in multiple trips to their homes.
- They know that refunds are a long shot but, given the opportunity to request them, they will give it a try anyway.
- They are aware that social media is like a loaded gun pointed right at the retailer, and that the service manager or service technician has the capacity to pull the trigger on themselves.
- Most customers simply want someone to listen to their concerns, and solve their problems.
Preparation is a Must: Service managers who are the best at solving customer’s problems, gather as much information as they can about each case before calling about a service issue, including:
- According to information on hand, what is the real problem likely to be?
- How long have they had this issue?
- What is the likelihood of success if Option A, B or C is presented?
There’s nothing worse than asking a customer to take time off from work to wait for service to arrive, only to find out that the problem could have been solved with a new part. A skilled and knowledgeable service manager makes decisions that minimize inconvenience for the customer, retains the customer’s loyalty, and minimizes expense for the company.
TROUBLE WITH TECHS
A troubling truth that makes it difficult for retailers to keep their service promises, is that most find it difficult to recruit, or even find, service technicians. In the old days (pre-2000), domestic producers issued authorizations for repair allowances, expecting retailers to solve the problems themselves. They would also issue return authorizations (RA’s), for items that exceeded the talents of most repair techs to fix. No more! These days, parts can be ordered with relative ease, and chucking furniture in the trash in exchange for full credit is common. The problem is that this made people like me—dyed in the wool, classically trained repair professionals—virtually obsolete. Those with other talents migrated to management positions, or opened their own shops, or gave up altogether. Why pay a tech $20 an hour to work on furniture whose value is less than the time it takes to fix it? A vicious cycle ensues, and retailers find themselves conscripting people into repair positions who are wholly unqualified, or who are capable, but must learn without guidance or training. Figure it out, I’ve heard many, many techs tell me of their training experiences. That, to me, is a travesty and sets individuals up for failure.
I used to recruit people who showed unusual characteristics: Artistic, sarcastic, quirky, inked, peripheral, highly intelligent, underachievers. Exhibit any of these personality traits around me and I start asking questions. Are you interested in repair? Has anyone ever told you that you have artistic talent? The funny thing is, the people I usually end up working with are those with one foot out the door because “they’re not working out.” Of course not! They have a need to express themselves, and furniture repair is as much an art form as oil painting or pencils: Each involves color, a medium to apply the color, and a canvas, be it a piece of watercolor paper or a drawer with a rub-through. And furniture repair isn’t something you learn in a week or a month or a year, it is a skill, a genuine skill like jewelry-making or dance or husbandry or boatmaking. To assume otherwise puts undue pressure on the student and dramatically increases the chances of failure.
Repair, in my opinion, is a respected but underappreciated aspect of our business, one that requires highly-paid people to staff it, and fairly expensive materials and tools. But it’s a necessary evil that any furniture retailer must have, much like an auto dealer has a garage to service the cars he sells. Like cars, furniture does not come out of the box in pristine condition. To prevent exchanges and dissatisfied customers, deluxers and service techs routinely have to:
- Touch up glue and gesso smears under the finish, which are light spots that stand out;
- Relacquer tops due to packing marks (this is difficult when it’s a no-rub dining table finished with catalyzed lacquer and all you have with which to fix it with are spray cans).
- Repair finishes that are expressly irreparable, particularly printed finishes that incorporate a slip component that prevents lacquer from sticking.
- Re-attach peeling veneer, particularly on drawer edges, which can be sharp.
- Correctly stuff back pillows that show up with one sagging corner and one stuffed one.
…and so on ad infinitum. Not having these trained individuals puts limits on a furniture retailer’s ability to satisfy customers and causes clearance centers to literally burst at the seams.
Sadly, there are few avenues for retailers to choose from when it comes to training technicians. Some forward-thinking manufacturers have repair programs, and there are touch-up suppliers that offer two and three-day cram sessions on repair. One excellent resource available to anyone is, “Understanding Wood Finishing” by Bob Flexner; the most recent edition has been expanded to provide twice the material of the earlier editions.
WHAT COULD OUR INDUSTRY DO?
I long ago felt that large retail chains would be wise to establish repair “universities” at their corporate offices to not only establish norms and benchmark techniques and tools, but to provide a universal methodology for repairing product specific to their showrooms. Traveling repair professionals could visit stores regionally for continuing education, so to speak, or to address difficulties that technicians were facing. This would also allow for valuable feedback to buyers so they can better address repeat problems such as failing fabrics or cracking joints. They could also offer real-time help through a web portal.
Further, I firmly believe that furniture manufacturers, domestic and international, would benefit immensely from feedback from the stores to whom they sell their furniture. Now, let me qualify this by saying, I do not believe that every retailer should be allowed to do this. There are those in my trade who like to complain about every little thing that causes them work, and there are those who are gifted at what they do, who can see patterns, analyze problems, and offer solutions. Large manufacturers with involved, attentive representatives actively encourage feedback from dealers, and analyze metrics from their parts request department to identify trouble areas. One step further would be to input these trends electronically, directly to plant executives who can decide for themselves which issues are valid concerns from a manufacturing standpoint. If information is power, then this data would be immensely useful in correcting production issues in their infancy before they become full-blown crises.
Service must be taken as seriously as sales if we are to succeed long-term as an industry. It is imprudent to assume that people will always need furniture and as an industry, we can dumb down standards and continue to dispose of defective product as a way to deal with manufacturing issues. We’re forgetting one critical component of all this: The customer. If you feel that consumers are not as discerning when it comes to low-end goods as they are with high-end goods, I can absolutely assure you that you are dead wrong! And, if you assign more importance to large tickets than small tickets, or expensive products than more affordable products, you are making a colossal mistake. I have a saying when it comes to meeting people, wherever that is, whoever they are: You never know who you’re talking to. The guy in the suit might be a bum, and the woman in flipflops and a sun visor might own her own firm. Look at customers the same way. Each one should be treated as a friend, someone who you want to help, to make comfortable with your good intentions. You can make them feel as though your entire day was begun simply to talk to them and resolve their worries. It’s not hard. You just have to hire the best service managers and repair techs so that all your service calls will be an opportunity to keep your word.
Peter Schlosser is a backend furniture consultant based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His focus is repair, quality control, exceptional customer service, and all things operational. He is a contributing editor to Furniture World. To see all his articles
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