We had an opportunity to talk with Tom Jennings, vice president of professional development, World Floor Covering Association, about some of the elements of good retail service. Tom was born into the retail flooring business and operated a store for decades before it was sold. He has since conducted classes on service and a host of other topics.  

TF: You visit independent retailers all the time. What is your take on the knowledge level of a typical salesperson in this industry as it relates to knowledge about installation? 

Jennings: It’s usually in direct correlation with how much emphasis the operation puts on installation as a whole. The reason I say that is if installation is an afterthought of sorts to the operation, a necessary evil. Sometimes it’s not done in-house and it’s a third-party relationship. Then the knowledge of most sales people just inherently does not seem to be very good to me. For those dealers who embrace installation and see it as key to the operation, I find their knowledge level is generally much higher. 

TF: That doesn’t surprise me. There is an awful lot of pressure put on independent retailers from big specialty stores and big box players and it seems to me if they don’t really concentrate on service, and specifically installation, they’re in for tough times ahead. 

Jennings: I always look at services as being the real DNA of a particular business. I liken it to restaurants and to groceries coming into their backdoor. The groceries don’t know if they are being delivered to the best restaurant in town or a mediocre restaurant, they are all the same as far as the groceries are concerned. The difference then becomes what we do with them. With the restaurant, it becomes the recipes they use and the abilities of the chefs, as well as the demands of their clientele. That becomes the DNA of that restaurant. I tend to make the same comparison with floor covering stores because when that box of tile is unloaded at the back dock, it’s an inanimate object; by itself, it won’t do anything. So, how it’s marketed and sold and installed becomes the DNA of that retail flooring business. 

TF: Why should sales people be trained to know about installation? 

Jennings: I think it’s important that a salesperson knows the basics of installation. No, we’re not going to teach them to be installers. That’s not realistic. It’s not even necessary. A parallel would be, if I’m selling automobiles, I don’t have to know how to overhaul a transmission. But I do need to know what the function of a transmissions is. I need to know how many speeds the particular transmissions I’m selling have as well as what their features and benefits are over the brand being sold across the street. The function of the transmission is completely different from the mechanics of it. And I sometimes think we tend to think of installation as the mechanics of the job. When we’re selling a particular product, we need to understand its function, remembering everything we say has to come from the customer’s perspective, from the customer’s viewpoint. To attempt to educate the customer on how we do things is not effective. That approach generally makes the customer glaze over. What we have to do is constantly ask ourselves the question, “Why is this important to you?" The customer has to have everything explained to them in terms of the benefit to them. 

I always say when training salespeople, forget flooring for a day and just think how you spend your money. We will all willingly pay more for good service. We will not willingly pay more for a product itself. Who wants to pay too much for a 12 pack of Coca-Cola? We know where we buy is irrelevant and what’s in the can is all the same. But we were completely willing to pay more than minimum for a haircut, for service on our automobile, for work on your house, or hundreds of other things. 

Many times when I’m teaching a class, I’ll ask for examples of a business that people in the class will go out of their way to support, and the examples are usually many. I hear answers like my nail technician, my beautician, and a number of other examples. They really don’t care what is being offered across the street. They gladly pay more for quality service, and it’s easy to build value in the service. But retailers have trouble building value into why their tile is different from the tile up the street. So as far as trading extra profit dollars for certain customers, I think this is our opportunity.

TF: Tom, I have the idea from talking to many retailersand almost every one tells me that service is their thing, it’s where they really shine, but the more I question them the more I don’t see them registering in the high percentile on the service meterIt seems to me that service is the prime element for distinguishing oneself in the whole independent floor covering retail business.  

Jennings: I ask independent retailers all the time what their advantage is over the big-box store down the street, and many times they tell me that they are much more convenient to do business with. I usually ask them about their hours—what time they open in the morning, and what time they close at night. From the customer’s perspective, many just can’t take time off from their work to do business with you, the retailer who closes at five or six o’clock and opens at ten o’clock. Many customers just can’t make it to their stores unless they make a special attempt.

Being able to shop when the customer is available and when she chooses to shop is a real convenience. It’s the same way with service. I hear people say, “we have good service." And many times, they are talking about the mechanics of the operation: their warehouse may function well, or they get their installers out of the door on time every morning. But that, using the restaurant example again, is like someone saying, “our kitchen flows smoothly, we have a really good system in our kitchen." I need to know how that affects me. What has that got to do with what’s on my plate? And so many times, I think when a dealer says they have good service, it’s often from their perspective, but they need to jump on the other side of the desk and see if from the customer’s eyes. 

TF: It seems to me that if I were talking to a retail salesperson that had a good working knowledge of installation, I would have more confidence in that salesperson as well as the retail establishment in general.

Jennings: The real important thing is that you would have a more confident salesperson because they control your attitude. If a salesperson I’m talking to acts like the product is a good deal and it’s a benefit to me, I get a little excited about it. Being a walking/talking encyclopedia of product knowledge doesn’t necessarily excite me. Many times, the customers take their attitude from the salesperson. The more confident the salesperson is, the more often that attitude will rub off on the customer.

TF: Many salespeople are involved in the measuring process, but many are not. Understanding the installation process would seem to help the customer prepare and reduce surprises. 

Jennings: Getting a good handle on the real condition of the jobsite in advance is a good way of avoiding chasing mistakes, and it’s also a way to prevent lost opportunities. Often, if the measure person knows what they’re looking at, there is additional work in the home and a number of potential add-ons and upgrade sales. If the job is installing a backsplash in the kitchen, it’s a good idea to ask to see the showers because they will need to be regrouted or recaulked. There  is usually any number of add-on projects that can be sold in the home if the person in the home knows what they are looking at.

Having accurate knowledge of the job is an opportunity to make money. You don’t necessarily have to charge more to make more; sometimes more money can be made by the accuracies of the information gathered early on and avoiding duplicity of movement. If a retailer is really going to hang their hat on service, if that’s what they are known for and is the real differentiator between that retailer and the national brands, then the in-home assessment is key because that is not key in the way the big box players function. They got big because they have done a lot of things right, so I’m not being critical, but most of these jobsite assessment functions are handed off to third-party firms, and there is not a great deal of personal input there.