Experience isn’t everything

KBB retail consultant, Paul Da Silva, looks back on his early experiences with MFI when he discovered how much easier it is to teach someone product knowledge, rather than how to sell.

Many years ago, when I was in my twenties, I was approached by the Alliance and Leicester building society about becoming a branch manager. It was around the time that financial institutions began offering extra add-on products, such as insurance and different savings accounts.

When I pointed out to them that I had no financial background whatsoever, their words were, ‘that doesn’t matter, we can teach you the banking industry. What we can’t do is teach a bank manager how to sell’.

At around the same time, MFI was trialling concession kitchen showrooms inside Currys stores. I was one of several area managers taken on by MFI to push the business forward and that included recruiting sales colleagues to work in the branches. But there was one issue — trying to get an experienced salesperson to come and work for us proved very difficult. We were a new project and many kitchen salespeople were settled within the main MFI stores, and the Howdens machine was really starting to pick up pace.

This meant taking a gamble. We took on a lot of salespeople who had no kitchen or design experience, who we had to train on the product. We struck gold and found ourselves with a lot of keen salespeople with fresh ideas and no ‘historical thinking’.

Nothing highlighted this more than our first December — traditionally MFI’s quiet period. Everyone knew the Boxing Day sales were coming and salespeople and managers were either on leave, or were on wind-down to Christmas, in preparation for the manic three weeks after the break. But not at the Hygena concession showroom at Currys, where sales continued to grow. As each day passed, we expected sales to start slowing down, but the speed maintained. Many conversations were had around the coffee machine at head office as to why we were so busy, yet the rest of the company was doing next to no business.

I went to visit my branch in Hanger Lane, west London, to have a chat with the staff. There were two young salespeople there, one straight out of college and one ex-car salesperson. Both were getting excellent results, especially for December. When I asked how their sales figures were so impressive when the rest of the business was twiddling their thumbs until the new year, I was met by puzzled expressions. “Oh, I’m sorry, it’s just that nobody told us we shouldn’t be selling in December”, was the response I got.

And they were absolutely right, nobody had told these guys that December is quiet, so stop selling. And they didn’t have the muscle memory that December was traditionally slow so they should be putting the brakes on.

And this is a major benefit of recruiting people from outside of the industry. There is absolutely a case for an experienced kitchen or bathroom designer who can close 95% of their business and put a million pounds in the till. But sometimes I think we get lost looking for this ideal candidate who doesn’t come around very often. What we are missing is some hungry, driven salespeople who just don’t know what our sector can offer them.

There is a massive opportunity at the moment to recruit people into sales roles in our industry, where they have the skills, but just need the knowledge. However, we need to play our part for this to work. Proper onboarding and inductions need to be better. At the very start, each new recruit should receive a welcome pack explaining everything about the company, and a detailed plan for their next 12 months within the business. Other things to include could be a list of contacts, some company merchandise, and even a few sweets!

The retention rate of most companies is very much dependent on their induction programme. The longer and more detailed the programme, the more committed members of staff you will get. People need to feel supported and want to be developed. There are so many ways to progress in the world of KBB, but we need to harness the talents we take on and build on the skills they have already.

I see many people on LinkedIn whom I have worked with previously, who now work away from the sector. When I speak to them it’s always the same, they loved the industry, but didn’t like the company they were with. Rarely is their role the reason that they left. There is gold out there, we just need to be prepared to dig.  

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