Industry leaders share insights; strategies to jumpstart partnerships
BY GERRY MORRIS
Retail sales associate: “Thanks for the doughnuts.”
Vendor representative: “Sure. How about that game last night?
RSA: “Didn’t see it; had to work.”
Vendor rep: “Oh yeah. Well, is there anything I can do for you?
RSA: “Do you have any pens or tape measures?”
Vendor rep: “Sure. Here you go. Well, I’ll see you next month.”
While this parody may be a bit exaggerated, it points out the potential missed opportunities between mattress vendors and retail sales associates to maximize profits and customer service. Familiarity may not always build contempt, but it certainly can lead to complacency.
This cover story examines what may be the most important relationship in our industry—from RSAs and vendors to management, owners and chief executive officers. It also offers ideas and suggestions to help make the most of that relationship with the goal of benefiting the end user—the mattress consumer.
RSAs are on the front line daily. All the efforts of vendors and retailers are for naught if RSAs are not prepared to deal with today’s emboldened mattress shoppers. Vendors have the opportunity to equip RSAs, but only if the retailer allows and encourages it. Those who do will more likely flourish, while those that don’t—well, you know the answer.
For mattress vendors, maximizing the relationship with RSAs may be the single greatest selling tool of all.
The first step of maximizing this relationship is to understand and appreciate its unique importance. More than any other category of home furnishings, mattress RSAs are dependent on support from their vendors. When it comes to selling mattresses, it really does “take a village.”
Home furnishing shoppers often buy items for the emotional response they evoke, even if their RSA is less than prepared. On the other hand, mattress shoppers are on a mission to find value on a product with hidden features and benefits, and they expect accurate information and answers. RSAs must be up to the task of demonstrating value and providing information in a meaningful manner.
One thing’s for sure—with word of mouth traveling at light speed through social media, retailers can ill afford to field poorly equipped RSAs. I call it, social media Darwinism: “survival of the fittest in the marketplace, accelerated by technology.”
Shoppers who encounter unprepared mattress RSAs can quickly turn into “just lookers” or “be backs” who are out the door and on their way to buy elsewhere—and share their experiences with their BFFs and peeps.
It’s the process of equipping and preparing that is the key element in the relationship between vendor and RSA.
The following are examples of how to maximize the vendor-RSA relationship from the point of view of various people in the bedding industry.
Retail sales associate
Tim Hammonds, Ashley Furniture HomeStore
Key: Synergy—the interaction of multiple elements in a system to produce an effect greater than the sum of their individual effects.
“We are so inextricably connected to our brands, they are an extension of our company. We all sell the same way,” says Tim Hammonds, a sleep specialist at Ashley Furniture HomeStore in Bryant, Ark., and one of the best in the business. In addition to direct selling, he manages the mattress program and manages about 25 RSAs. (See “A shared culture” on Page xx.)
Hammonds says his vendors, and especially their representatives, are integral to his mattress business success, beginning with intense orientation for new hires, as well as ongoing training and support for the entire staff. Even him, with his vast knowledge and skills, depends on his reps to keep him and his staff up-to-date and prepared to serve customers.
In addition, Hammonds relies on his vendors not only to create special traffic-building events, but also to provide comprehensive support to make them effective, including merchandising, point-of-sale materials, pre-event training and assistance during the event itself.
The proof is in the pudding. Hammonds’ store ranks among the top in the nation, and his percentage of mattress sales to overall sales is more than double the national average.
Phil Clark, Serta
Key: Availability—qualified and willing to serve or assist.
If RSAs are the touch point on the retail side, vendor representatives are their equivalent on the manufacturing side.
Phil Clark, a veteran key account rep for Serta in Austin, Texas, says that a wonderful aspect being a mattress rep is to “go around and make friends with lots of people.” But he cautions that friendship is just the foundation. As the opening parody illustrates, there is a tendency to take each other for granted. “The real task of a vendor rep is to help make RSAs successful,” he says.
Of all the duties reps have, Clark believes being available during sleep-shop business hours is the most critical. Most products are sold when shoppers are off work, during evenings weekends and holidays. “If RSAs know that they can reach me at any given time, guess who they will call?” he says.
In addition to regular and frequent visits, as well as scheduled sales meetings, Clark believes it’s crucial to work sales and promotions for his dealers. Obviously, he can’t be everywhere at once, but he does phone stores and RSAs to check in and show his support on high-traffic events and holidays. He often sends food in to show his appreciation.
In spite of the challenging business climate over the last several years, Clark’s dealers are producing record-setting sales.
Retail sales management
Steve Kyger, Innovative Mattress Solutions
Key: Return on investment—the earning power of assets (RSAs).
Steve Kyger doesn’t encourage giveaways and lunches as a means to motivate. Instead, he believes in the adage, “Give someone a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach someone to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.” Kyger is region vice president of retail operations for Innovative Mattress Solutions, headquartered in Winfield, W.Va., and has spent his career encouraging vendor reps to “ get out on the sales floor and work side by side with our RSAs.
“Everyone, including experienced professionals, needs a coach to identify areas of opportunity for improvement,” Kyger says. “The passionate reps are the best because their enthusiasm is infectious. They earn the respect of RSAs and, consequently, RSAs are more receptive to what they have to say.”
While Kyger may seem demanding, there is a payoff for those who do the work.
Each year, his company recognizes and awards outstanding vendor reps based on votes from RSAs.
Reciprocally, his manufacturers, Octaspring, Sealy and Tempur-Pedic, award outstanding RSAs based on performance with trips to their factories.
The best news is that everyone gets a return on investment. Sales and profits go up as a result of a more competent sales staff. And customers choose to buy better quality mattresses.
Vendor sales management
Chris Lamm, Tempur Sealy International
Key: Presence—the state or fact of being present; in
The role of the vendor sales manager has changed. Instead of spending the majority of time in the office, more and more are traveling with their reps
like ambassadors for their brands.
Chris Lamm, director of sales for Tempur Sealy International, based in Lexington, Ky., spends five days a week visiting dealers across five states. “Sales management is now a contact sport,” he says. “It’s important to get in front of ‘all three of my customers’—the decision makers, the sales associates and the consumers.” It’s that one-on-one that enables him to identify first hand the needs of his reps and their customers are and how he can help his company be of service to them. But as he points out, you have to have a willing partner.
From that insight, Lamm works (most often at night in his hotel room) to create individualized events and programs for dealers to help them “stand out in their market place.”
Lamm says for his reps, the Saturday sales meetings, along with one-on-one visits with as many RSAs as possible, is still the best way to transfer the enthusiasm they have for the company and products. That enthusiasm then is “reflected to the shopper,” he adds.
But with each rep calling on up to 100 doors, physical presence has to be prioritized. What helps fill the void is Sealy’s University of Sleep and EPK (Electronic Product Knowledge) training. It is an efficient and effective training tool for orienting new hires, as well as helping veterans stay current and increase their sales.
Dirk Smith, Boyd Specialty Sleep
Key: Fundamentals—forming a necessary base or core; of central importance.
Dirk Smith, regional vice president at St. Louis-based Boyd Specialty Sleep, prioritizes the fundamentals of selling. If the basics are not in place, there is nothing to build on. He stresses the importance of providing his dealers with the essential tools that facilitate the sales process and POS materials, such as cutaways, demonstration books, educational signs and mattress content materials, foams, fibers, etc.
He is adamant that RSAs be fully equipped with the product knowledge and selling skills needed to demonstrate the features and benefits of their products to today’s savvy and discriminating shoppers.
Smith says that providing these tools and the education for how to use them helps shoppers to better understand the benefits and consequently choose to step up to better quality models.
The Bed Store
Key: Fair competition—competition between businesses that is based on things such as price, quality and service.
Roger Cunningham, owner The Bed Store, a 10-store chain based in Knoxville, Tenn., wants all his vendors to be successful. “Reputable dealers don’t pit one vendor against another but do allow them to participate in their business,” he says. He keeps “an even playing field, not allowing one to gain advantage over another with spiffs or contests.” Each vendor can offer promotions, special products and events whenever they choose. Vendor reps can invest as much time and effort working with the RSAs as they want. This environment creates a healthy competition among his vendors, which raises the bar for everyone.
Even though Cunningham’s RSAs are taught not to give preferential treatment to one brand over another, it’s the hard-working vendor reps who better equip RSAs, and they can see the fruits of their labor. If an RSA is more knowledgeable and, conse
quently, more confident presenting certain brands or products, it makes sense that she’s likely sell more. That motivates the other reps to do the same.
While sales have softened a little, Roger reports same-store sales up 25% through June. Average ticket increased. Best RSAs out performed last year. Weaker ones fell behind.
Key: Profitability—the quality of affording gain, benefit or profit.
Gerry Borreggine, chief executive officer of Therapedic International, with headquarters in Princeton, N.J., doesn’t mince words: “The goal is to help all our dealers grow their profits. That means investing time working directly with RSAs and supporting them. It’s the best way to achieve that goal.”
While visiting stores and working with RSAs are his “favorite things to do,” he doesn’t comment on what he thinks is working and what needs improving without his licensee’s permission.
Borreggine says that successful vendor-RSA relationships have a protocol. “RSA support must come from every level, but it’s vital that that support go through the proper channel so as not to undermine valuable relationships.”
According to Borreggine, the principle behind Therapedic’s approach to RSA training is to “cut through the clutter and simplify the process of communicating with the customer by teaching them what to say about their products and suggestions on how to say it.”
Therapedic provides RSAs with a quick reference, easy-to-use reminder pamphlet to help them assimilate that information into their sales presentations.
Rick Robinson, Spring Air
Key: Communication—the exchange of thoughts,
messages or information.
A seismic shift in mattress retailing over the past decade has been the incorporation of technology. Rick Robinson, president of Spring Air International in Boston, plans to take its growing use to the next level, saying it’s front and center in his company’s relationship with RSAs. Spring Air is embracing all aspects of social media
including Facebook and Twitter.
Many of the licensee’s sales reps tweet daily to keep in communication. Through Twitter and texting, reps direct RSAs to industry news, product information, promotions, training support and selling tips.
Robinson hopes in the near future to enable his reps to record their sales meetings and post them a special YouTube Channel for each dealer.
Lights, camera, action!
Sales associates are like actors—a metaphor illustrating that both are “in the spotlight” and the focal point of a given audience with a largely hidden support crew enabling them to perform their respective roles. As seasoned actor William Shatner explains, “The actor is in the hands of a lot of other people, over which he has no control.”
Shatner’s point applies to RSAs in that they’re on the bottom of the hierarchy based on authority. But the model for mattress retail is an inverted hierarchy. The role of management from both the retailer and vendor is to support RSAs and to remove the obstacles that hinder them in satisfying their customers’ needs. Thus, the “more senior” people are actually “lower” in the hierarchy, as they have more people to support.
For everyone in the process of selling mattresses, inverting the hierarchy is the foundational step in maximizing the relationship between vendor and RSA.
Quick response team
Ron Passaglia gets it. “Our company’s No. 1 asset is its relationship with RSAs, and we make supporting them a priority,” says the chief executive of Restonic Mattress Corp. and industry veteran.
While support comes in many forms, Passaglia says one of the most important deliverables is the frequency of rep store visits. RSAs have a choice of what to sell. “The more face time our reps have with them, the more they can sell our brand,” he says. But also of tremendous benefit to RSAs is the question-and-answer platform on the Restonic website. “All RSAs can submit any type question they want,” he says.
The national office can handle generic questions about national promotions, features and benefits, and selling skills almost immediately. For issues such as specifications, pricing, delivery, customer service issues and special orders, the requests immediately are forwarded to the respective licensee. RSAs can expect a “quick response.”
‘A shared culture’
Tim Hammonds, a sleep specialist at Ashley Furniture HomeStore in Bryant, Ark., says his relationship with Sealy goes well beyond a partnership.
He describes it as a “shared culture.” He and Blake Stansbery, a territory manager for Sealy, have formed close bonds, and together have created a culture around selling sleep.
“Because we all sleep on the products and believe in them, we have become the brand, in a sense, and we want to share that with as many people as possible. When we are selling, we are talking about the story of our lives and that is the part I love,” Hammonds says.
Stansbery shares that passion for selling. He says he “loves to work big events and promotions side by side with RSAs, interacting with shoppers and turning them into satisfied customers.”
Stansbery visits Hammonds’ store weekly, going over his RSAs’ performance reports. From there, they work to find areas they can help each RSA improve by using customizable training modules, as well as one-on-one training. It’s an ongoing process.
Hammonds’ relationship with Sealy goes all the way up through the ranks to the to the top. Chris Lamm, Tempur Sealy director of sales in Lexington, Ky., is a frequent visitor and works behind the scenes, equipping Stansbery with the products and promotions he needs to keep Hammonds’ business humming. A couple of times each year, Lam brings in guest speakers to further enhance the already effective training program.
And while he always works through the proper channels, Hammon has spoken with Sealy CEO Larry Rogers on several occasions and knows that he could reach him most any time. This multilevel support gives Hammonds and his crew the confidence they need to serve their customers in a most effective manner.
Talk about maximizing the relationship between vendor and RSA? This is a casebook study.
Tips for maximizing the vendor-RSA partnership
Here are seven ways to maximize relationships between vendors and RSAs.
- Partnerships. Retailers and vendors should create partnerships built on trust. This enables vendors to participate in the business. Having transparency allows the sharing of sales reports and evaluations of RSAs that can then be used to create customized training for each one.
- Time management and preparation. Time is especially precious for RSAs and vendor reps. That time can be maximized by preparation. RSAs should keep a notebook of questions and issues that are sure to emerge between rep visits. Reps always should have an agenda for each RSA to help him stay on a pathway to improvement.
- Sales meetings. Regular sales meetings for product knowledge and selling skills are a must. This is especially true when new products are introduced, before promotions or high-traffic events. Use scenario-based training to go over actual selling encounters and find solutions for failed attempts and to share successful ones. (See “Scenario-based training in real time” on Page xx.)
- Customer service. Nothing undermines a relationship like unresolved issues. Angry customers blame their RSA. Make customer-service issues a team effort. Vendor reps need to take the lead in working with customer service, handling special issues, delivery, special orders, warranty complaints and returns. RSAs must be kept in the loop to keep the customer informed.
- Promotions and traffic-building events. RSAs need shoppers. Vendors should work with every retailer to create a calendar of planned events and promotions to keep their business viable. RSAs must be oriented and prepared for each event, and all supporting elements must be in place.
- Environment. Vendors can play a major role in merchandising and display. Having a showroom that puts the best foot forward is essential to creating great experiences for customers. Well-tailored, fresh floor models along with supplementary POS materials help RSAs take pride and sell with confidence.
- Communication. RSAs must have available vendor contacts to stay informed on every aspect of their business—from inventory and delivery to specifications and pricing, features and benefits, customer-service issues, competition and industry news, promotions, etc.
Gerry Morris is an author, consultant and training coach with more than 20 years of experience in the mattress industry. Morris’ Inner Spring train-ing company recently formed a strategic partnership with The Furniture Training Co. to offer a premium online training course, “Sell More Mattresses with Gerry Morris.” To view the course, visit www.furnituretrainingcompany.com.