Dealing proactively and effectively with negative reviews is an all too common problem among home furnishings retailers. This point was reinforced at the recent Contemporary Design Group Annual Conference. For those who aren’t familiar with CDG, it is a networking and buying group where independent furniture retailers and manufacturers and suppliers to the contemporary home furnishings market come together to share ideas, explore opportunities and work as partners to solve challenges.
Howard Haimsohn, owner of Lawrance Furniture and founder of the CDG, says, “Our event is one of the bright spots in our industry, allowing retailers and manufacturers to work together in a non-selling environment. We are able to recognize many of the challenges that we both face. And, we are able to recognize many of the opportunities that we have, especially when we can work collaboratively.”
The chief challenges CDG members face are typical of independent furniture retailers in general. These are, how to drive traffic to the store and attract the next generation of affluent customers, which requires robust Internet and social media marketing strategies. A recent presentation I gave at the CDG revolved around those issues.
Every professional speaker knows when a particular topic hits a nerve for their audience. They sit up, lean forward and take more notes. That’s what happened when I got around to the subject of reviews. Everyone knows that YELP and Google reviews exert a powerful influence on drawing customers into their stores. Bad reviews, of which there seem to be all too many, kill traffic and take stores out of the running for customers who are looking for insight into the kinds of experiences they can expect when they make an in-store visit.
Negative reviews are grouped around three key problem areas:
- Poor quality furniture;
- Poor quality service on the sales floor;
- Long delays in furniture delivery.
Let’s take each of these customer pain points apart and look at what furniture retailers can do about them.
Broken Furniture = Broken Relationships
Customers expect quality when they buy furniture. Even “cheap-chic” IKEA knows this as they have stepped up their game to improve the quality and durability of their offerings. “Customers expect us to do more (on quality). And nowadays you can’t really make products that are throwaway: when you buy a sofa table it needs to be built to last,” said IKEA Group Chief Executive Peter Agnefjall in an interview with Reuters.
How much more in terms of quality do customers who shop at stores that charge premium prices for higher-end furniture expect? A lot more. My survey of reviews for higher-end CDG group members and similar furniture retailers revealed that the following YELP reviews are fairly typical.
- “I bought a house worth of furniture last year after the purchase of my home. As I view furniture as an investment, I was am shocked and in horror that it is all now falling apart.”
- “I purchased over $5,000 in furniture and all of it came damaged. On multiple occasions they called me to come inspect the new furniture myself [before delivery] and on both occasions the furniture they asked me to come inspect to replace my existing damaged furniture already in my home was damaged itself.”
- “We were inspecting the furniture and noticed that our coffee table leg was broken, called the store the next day to tell them about it and they gave us the run around. We got this stuff in November and the leg to the coffee table is still broken and it’s February! And the other day I was sitting on the couch and someone else went to sit down and the back of the couch just snapped in two! Needless to say this furniture is a piece of junk and the customer service is not very good. Pretty sure they will not be getting our business again!!!”
The issues surrounding furniture quality complaints are complex and from the point of view of furniture retailers, there are plenty of fingers to point at including manufacturing defects, poor packaging, damage in transit and unrealistic customer expectations. But at the end of the day, customers only blame the retailer and expect them to make good and make good fast when quality problems arise.
There is no excuse for retailers to carry product lines that don’t live up to their customers’ quality expectations. If you carry a low-end line, or even worse a high-end line that fails in the quality department, get it off the floor and out of your store!
Some furniture retailers believe that it makes financial sense to live with low first time perfect delivery rates, but they rarely factor in the costs of resulting poor online reviews. Opening boxes, checking parts before delivery, and hiring/staffing professional repair departments are expensive, but make financial sense, especially at the higher end. But if a good quality vendor delivers poor quality merchandise, careful documentation and follow up is called for to resolve the issue rather then just demanding charge-backs. In the CDG discussion groups, furniture suppliers all said they were ready, willing and able to help retailers directly with these quality-related issues.
No retailer gets every delivery right the first time, so when a customer calls with a service related issue, make sure your customer service people have been trained to keep the complaint from escalating into the online world. Never respond defensively to callers or to negative reviews on YELP. If you are responsive, or better yet, empathetic to customers when they first call, most bad reviews will likely be avoided. Customer frustration sends them online to write a negative review.
Are Your Front-Line Sales Staff Up For Top-Line Service?
Problems on the sales floor highlighted in online reviews center around one issue. Retail sales associates and retail customers see their roles in sales interactions completely differently. Sales associates think they are there to sell people furniture. Customers think the sales staff is there to serve them, not sell to them. This disconnect gives rise to bad reviews.
To sell or to serve, that is the question! And in today’s economy, there is only one answer: serve.
Here is what customers are writing about on YELP:
- “They’re stuck in a time warp, stuck in a time when commission only or low salary and high commission sales jobs were commonplace in furniture stores.”
- “The minute you walk in, someone greats you with, “Can I help you find anything?” It’s too eager, bordering on somewhat desperate. Compare this experience with Room & Board, West Elm, Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware where the sales team is there when you need them, there’s no pressure tactics.”
- “We were ignored by some of the seemingly ‘experienced’ salespeople working the entrance. I suppose we didn’t look the part to them…We saw them flock to others, and I was perplexed that they would just pass us up like that, but in hindsight, it was probably for the best. If they just did their job, they would have learned that we’re new home owners, and we have over 4,000 sq. ft. that we need to fill with stuff! Some of the salespeople are either stuck in the 80’s, or they just don’t need the business.”
Let’s just say there is no excuse for any of these reviews. But the fault doesn’t lie with the sales staff. It rests squarely on management’s shoulders. Some people are cut out to provide service; others are not. If you have those that are not, and all too many retailers do, then get them off it fast. Online reviews can be the ‘canary in the coal mine’ that warns you of toxic gas on your sales floor.
But for those service staff with a cheerful, helpful disposition who are quick with a smile and eager, truly eager, to please, avoiding negative reviews is a question of training done effectively and regularly. Customer sales and service training is never once and done. Even natural-born salespeople need to be refreshed, reinvigorated, and retrained on a regular basis.
And they need training not just on sales and service tactics, but they also need a boat load of product expertise as well. In the CDG discussion groups, the furniture manufacturers all said how ready, eager and willing they are to provide such training. Use it because that can also avoid quality-related issues down the line.
Turn Delays Into Delight For Customers
Another customer pain point and driver for negative YELP reviews is extended delivery delays.
- “I ordered furniture almost three months ago and I still have not received my entire order. When I spend $3000 on a couch I expect a lot more from the store I purchased it from.”
- “I found a sofa set that I liked and decided to buy it right away because the salesperson told me I could have it within 4/5 weeks. A couple of days after I received a phone call from the same person. She was telling me that she made a mistake and the waiting would be between 10/12 weeks. At this point I was really disappointed but I had already signed the contract. Around the 10th week, I decided to make a phone call to the store to see when was the estimated arrival of my sofas. The manager laughed at me. She told me I had to wait another 8/9 weeks. At this point I was more than disappointed. I will never go back to that store!”
- “Walked in store, checked out a desk, placed order at the end of June, was told ‘6-8 weeks.’ July and August roll on by. In September, I email and call, and both times it takes several days for any information; I’m told that it’s coming within a week or two. Then three weeks pass by, and I guess I wouldn’t be so irritated if it weren’t for the fact that I was the one who had to follow-up on my own orders for status.”
People expect some delays in furniture delivery, especially for custom orders, but how long is too long? Reviews indicate that too long is when the delivery extends beyond the time when the delivery is promised. People will accept delays when they are given fair warning. They won’t be so forgiving when delays are extended beyond the time frame promised.
Who is at fault? One would suspect that the sales person fails to manage expectations by making close-in promised delivery dates in order to get the sale. In the CDG discussion group, the furniture vendors present said that they were more than willing to take the heat when furniture delivery delays extended beyond the promised time frame promised.
But so many of the YELP reviews indicate that retailers are simply dropping the ball by waiting for customers to call and complain rather than staying on top of delivery dates promised and missed. There is an easy fix to this that can head off negative YELP reviews at the pass: make a practice of calling every customer waiting on an order at least every week or two to touch base and show attention and concern.
I realize that retailers don’t make such calls because they don’t have the answers or no new information. But providing updated information about an order is ultimately less important than showing that you care. As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
It’s the feelings that count, not the days or weeks on the calendar, so make it standard operating procedure for every sales person to keep in regular contact with all the customers who’ve placed an order with them.
What to Do…
Given the plethora of bad reviews on YELP and Google and other sites, retailers may be gun shy to ask people to give them a review. Mistake! Reviews are a numbers game. Five one-and-two star reviews can be canceled by 50 that have five-stars.
The power of good reviews to drive business today can’t be underestimated. “Certainly, one of the challenges many retailers have is the ease in which an unhappy consumer can tell thousands of people about an unsatisfactory shopping experience through social media and on-line reviews,” Haimsohn says. “However, many stores in our industry do a great job of providing service to their customers. It is a powerful benefit when our customers write positive things about us online. We all need to continue to work to make their shopping experience one that they want to speak positively about.”
Ask For Reviews At Delivery
So, furniture retailers need to ask for those reviews when customers are happiest. And customers are happiest when they walk out the door with their purchases in hand or when their furniture is finally delivered to their homes. That means including a card in the customers’ package asking for a YELP or Google review and including instructions and links how to go about it. And make sure your delivery personnel hands out these cards too.
In closing, you need to put your best foot forward in every customer interaction. One way you can measure success is with YELP reviews. Work to get them because YELP, Google and other review sites powerfully influence potential customers.
When bad reviews do happen, respond positively, not defensively. And rather than ask the unhappy customer to call the store, which too many furniture retailers do, track down the order, pick up the phone and call immediately.
YELP reviews give you a window into the world of your customer. Use them, learn from them and most importantly, respond to them professionally with empathy and true feeling. Customers today can smell an indifferent, unfeeling, uncaring retailer. Trust matters most in the retailer-customer relationship. Use YELP, Google and other review sites to help build that trust before customers even get to your door.
Old-Fashioned Customer Service Never Goes Out Of Style
“Training, like marketing, lubricates sales,” says Christopher Ramey, president of The Home Trust International, a network of designers and brands that serve the luxury home market and my partner in Retail Rescue, serving independent retailers with strategies to drive retail sales and profits.
“Most luxury hotels train their employees every day, but my experience with furniture retailers is they train every year,” Ramey says. “The disconnect is obvious.”
To that point, Apple, the most modern of modern retailers, has adapted luxury hotelier Ritz-Carlton’s Steps of Service guidelines for its retail store personnel, creating an acronym that appropriately spells A-P-P-L-E:
A. Approach customers with a personalized warm welcome.
P. Probe politely to understand customers’ needs.
P. Present a solution for the customer to take home today.
L. Listen for and resolve any issues or concerns.
E. End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return.
And Ramey notes that today, retailers need to develop a script for salespeople that is drilled repeatedly and followed religiously. “In sales we’ve gone from a period of ‘method acting’ when managers allowed improvisation to a ‘Shakespeare’ period where a deviation from the narrative is a firing offense. Communications are powerful and today there can be little latitude for the salesperson to be flexible with words.”