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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Tom Jennings - Installation is Not a Dirty Word

I first encountered Tom Jennings during Lis Calandrino's 2007 Surfaces panel discussion on Tips From The Trade. He was fascinatingly full of wisdom then -- and even more so this Surfaces as he addressed "Installation is Not a Dirty Word."

Tom has a soft-spoken low key presentation style. Don't let that deter you from absorbing some of the most relevant business and customer service advice available. I hope all retailers heed his words.

Here follows my take on his presentation.

+ Product won't sufficiently differentiate you from your competition. "Your staff is the only truly unique offering that your company has to sell." The way you sell, install and follow-up are true differentiators. Only by delivering a superior service experience can your store distinguish itself from competitors. "Each store's staff collectively make up its 'fingerprints'." [Isn't that a great image?] No two are alike, but together they create a significant differentiator assuming they all cooperate. "What is your store's unique selling proposition? If not service or installation, you are vulnerable. Product or price are not sufficient."

Were you aware of the following? According to research from WFCA, consumers now shop fewer than 2 stores -- compared to 3.5 stores 10 years ago and 5 stores 20 years ago. Consumers actively use the Internet to explore options ahead of time. If a consumer walks through your store doors, she has essentially pre-selected you. Are you ready?

+ Carpet and flooring aren't completely sold until they are installed in the consumer's home. [In fact, Kim Gavin in her 11/5/2007 FCW editorial titled "The solution: Take responsibility" says "Manufacturers, distributors and retailers all think they are in the floor covering business. Wrong. They sell floors and until it get installed properly, it isn't worth a thing."] So why does installation gets relegated to areas farthest from the selling floor? In the sales process, it is treated as an after-thought. What a mistake! Installation is an opportunity. It represents a service experience -- bundled with product -- and major differentiator! What is your attitude regarding installation and service? Your attitude will affect your team's attitude. If you don't project a strong appreciation for both, no one else will.

+ Don't ever become complacent with your service experience. Know that you will always receive the results that you are willing to accept. What are you willing to accept? Can you do better? Can you expect more? Can you improve your systems, provide better training, or anticipate for the future? Jennings urges to "Inspect what you expect." Have high standards.

+ To be in control, take control. Quality is never an accident: it is planned for. Great companies never expect their staff members to self train. Do you test for knowledge or simply accept someone's word? What are you new installation procedures? How do you inculcate knowledge? Slow down and get it right the first time. Reward improved performance: good attitudes are contagious. Pass on compliments; say thank you for doing something right. Focus on what matters to customers.

+ Sales is a relay race. It starts with the salesperson, then moves on to measurement and installation. Everyone [i.e., each collective fingerprint] plays a role in ensuring that the exchange or hand off takes place smoothly. If one handoff fails, the whole experience breaks apart.

+ Do you tell customers what you do well? Forget about telling them that you match the competition. What is unique about you, your staff members and your experience? Does your staff know? Marketing -- everything you do via your store, salespeople and how they sell, brochures, website, installation experience -- matters in delivering a consistent experience every time. Customers will pay for peace of mind. They are allowing you [and your installation crew] into their house. Don't you think they want to count on and trust that all will go as expected?

+ Customers will pay to have something done their way. Specialized installation services cost more, but return more. Customization is a point of differentiation. Are you prepared? Do you have vignettes that demonstrate your capabilities? You had better. More often than not, installation related services will generate more than the goods themselves. Product is not enough and if you look at other industries [e.g., Jiffy Lube grew out of customer dissatisfaction with the experience car dealerships offered for oil changes], any time consumers aren't able to build relationships, they go elsewhere. Think where the loyalties lie - with with the person you can trust. So, be that person. Offer great experiences and build customer loyalty. That loyalty leads to repeat orders which are more profitable than initial orders. People will talk. What are they saying about you?

+ Do you have a first class installation staff? What image does that staff project to customers? Do they look professional? Do they act professionally? Complaints cost the average flooring store 2-4% of annual revenues because the industry tends to embrace a "fix-it-if-they-complain" attitude toward installation. That strategy offers no long term benefit. Better to properly train and support your installation staff. Be proactive and spend that money on training, on inspectors. [Tom says he averaged 1/2 of 1% in complaints.]

+ How welcoming are you of complaints? Jennings tracked complaints and found that 5 out of 6 customer service calls were a function of poor communication, rather than sub par installation. Complaints are usually concerns that aren't initially well handled, and expectations aren't met. Thank customers for calling. Complaints also come from people purchasing the wrong product and not being happy with the end result. Learn more about each customer; don't rush to show product. Rather, adopt a consultative approach.

+ First impressions leave lasting images. What impression are you creating? Think of the level of assurance that comes from the FedEx or UPS brands. Impress your customers. Call them to let them know you will be on time, and what you are driving. This creates a high level of confidence.

+ Look sharp. Feel sharp. As a society , we respect crisp uniforms. Act and look like you know what you're doing. We perform to a higher level when we are perceived to be more capable. Remember that it's the customer's initial impression that matters!

[Kim Gavin further says: "Full-service retailers should employ their installers. Period. I understand that supply and demand variations require the use of subcontractors sometimes, but if I were in the retail business, the people serving my customers would wear my uniforms, put the product down like I tell them to and clean up after themselves -- making sure they leave a happy customer. I would, of course, have to charge more. But you know what? I would get it and have more business than I knew what to do with."]

+ Artists always sign their work. How is your staff making their exit from a job? Installers should always leave a business card upon completion. It makes them accountable. Be sure to do a walk-through with the customer. Address any problems on site: have a plan, explain full details, time expectations. That's part of the final handoff. Sales personnel should always followup with customers within 24 hours of completion, giving them enough time to experience the job. When you call, use a positive tone; say "I trust we did" [vs. I hope]. Ask for referrals.

So there you have it. Invaluable pearls of wisdom, relevant to any customer experience, particularly one where satisfying the customer involves more than just a product transaction.

Too many flooring retailers focus solely on product. Try going beyond that product transaction. Offer an unforgettable customer retail experience where all of the steps smoothly connect, and where installation - rather than being a bad word - represents the culmination of the experience. You can bet that it will lead to many profitable relationships.

Kim ends her editorial with the following: "Most consumers are making a huge investment in their floors. The floor covering is only part of it. They want the whole package and are willing to pay for a quality job. It's time this industry stops treating installation like an afterthought and recognize that it's the final and most important step in the process of satisfying our customer."

In my opinion, anyone who doesn't take installation seriously, who doesn't consider it an integral part of the overall retail experience, shouldn't be in business. If it matters to our consumer, it matters to us!

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