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Do Salespeople Own Your Customers Or Do Customers Own Your Salespeople?

Furniture World Magazine


One of the most controversial topics in retail sales today.

Do salespeople own customers or do customers own salespeople? This is one of the most controversial issues in retail sales today.

Few situations evoke more emotion on the retail sales floor than when one salesperson says to another; "That was my customer!" The typical response is, "Well, she didn't ask for you." This situation usually leads to a confrontation in which the owner or sales manager becomes involved. The result is often a cold war on the floor.

All of this happens because the complaining salesperson believes that the customer in question is his based on some previous interaction. I have actually seen salespeople and even managers telephone a customer to determine whether that customer had in fact worked with the accusing salesperson. Some have even asked the customer which items each salesperson showed them! The situation is almost never resolved to anyone's satisfaction. Worst of all, the biggest losers are the customers. They become the focus of obvious fights over which salesperson they belong to and who is entitled to the commissions from their purchases.

Many owners and managers, tired of attempting unsuccessfully to do the fair thing one incident at a time, simply tell their salespeople to "work it out amongst themselves." The result is that the salesperson with the most "power" seems to win most of the day-to-day skirmishes. This "power" is acquired from many sources. He or she could be the top writer or have been on the floor for so many years that he or she seems to recollect having worked with virtually everyone entering the store. Power is also acquired by simply being the most intimidating member of the selling staff.

To make matters worse, in many stores, the same scenario is replayed over and over again with no permanent resolution. Arguments over the ownership of customers so divide a sales floor that camps develop causing major rifts in the staff which go on for years. This often becomes so serious that the owner finds it difficult to retain newly hired salespeople. It is one thing to learn the procedures and skills of a new job. It is quite another to learn how to get along in a group which is divided by years of customer ownership quarrels and accept the fact that battles over customers and commissions are part of the day-to-day job.

These situations do not exist in stores where the official policy is that customers own salespeople. Of course, the only way a customer can declare her ownership is by asking for HER salesperson when she enters the store. While salespeople argue that many customers aren't loyal and will never ask for them under any circumstances (some customers never choose to own salespeople), many will in fact request a specific salesperson. In just about every store, there are always salespeople who have more customers ask for them than anyone else.

In stores where salespeople believe they own the customers the salespeople have usually developed elaborate systems for determining just who owns the next customer. These systems are devised to maintain relations between salespeople but do little for the customer. These systems can and do have the unwanted effect of driving customers from the store.

The most common system used by salespeople is to qualify customers as they enter the store. This generally starts innocently by asking the customer if she has been in before. If the answer is "No," the greeting salesperson then has the "right of way" to work with her on selection and purchase. If, however, she answers "Yes," the next question is typically "Who have you been working with?" or "Was there someone assisting you?" If the customer can name or describe her previous salesperson, she is passed over to that individual (even though the customer may have had no intention of asking for that salesperson). This process is executed with the understanding that the original salesperson will reciprocate with other customers (i.e. if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours).

On the surface, this seems like a reasonable way for salespeople to work together and to keep peace on the floor. The problem, however, is that this system focuses on the salesperson, not the customer. When shoppers are asked if they had been working with someone (no matter how polite), the message they receive is, "Before I waste any of my precious time on you, are you a new, unhampered sales opportunity or has someone else already laid claim on you?" In other words, "Which one of us owns you?"

In stores where the salespeople do not believe in or do not have clear rules regarding split sales, the situation can become even worse. If a customer admits to having worked with another salesperson who is not in the store at the time, she is given active assistance only as long as there are no other full commission opportunities in the store.

This is not to say that salespeople judge every moment or action spent with customers based on their own commissions. My experience is that most salespeople do not, although many in our industry do. It is understandable that even the most customer driven salesperson, when given the option of working with one customer at no commission (due to the fact that that customer belongs to someone else), or another at full, will naturally gravitate to the customer who represents income. Not every "no commission" customer notices that she is being given lower priority, but many do. Virtually all customers know on some level, that they are being given a lower priority. This may not produce a lost or outwardly angry customer every time, but the general result is poor service. Poor service always leads to lost sales.

salespeople will argue aggressively that manipulating customers back to their original salesperson is somehow in the customer's interest. Unfortunately, they fail to provide any convincing evidence to support this argument. salespeople most commonly claim that it saves customers time. Supposedly, unless customers deal with the original salesperson who helped them through much of the selection process, it will be necessary to start the entire process over again. This seems to make sense and many owners I speak with have accepted this justification.

Countless research studies prove that today's consumers do, in fact, have less time than ever before to spend in the shopping process. These studies seem to validate the salesperson's claims until you take one thing into consideration. By showing that they are willing to begin the entire sales process over again with a different salesperson - in the same store - customers are openly voicing discontent with (or at least a lack of enthusiasm for) their previous salesperson. Most owners have been contacted at some time by a customer requesting not to work with a particular salesperson.

Unfortunately, most customers who feel uncomfortable with a salesperson "who owns them" feel trapped, and take the easy way out... they shop elsewhere.

Here's another common example of a store in which salespeople own customers. A salesperson who is second or third on the UP list notices a customer entering the store with whom they have worked in the recent past. Instead of waiting to see if that customer actually requests to work with him, the salesperson simply announces (as he walks past the salespeople ahead of them) that this is his customer and moves to greet her as she enters the showroom. The justification for this action is that the customer "would have asked for him anyway, so why waste the greeting salesperson's time?" The truth is that the customer has been striped of her right to work with the salesperson of her choice - even if she chooses not to choose anyone in particular.

It is also interesting to note that the stores where salespeople believe they own their customers invariably belong to owners who tell me they can't get their staff to do the difficult things that build clientele (for example: send thank you notes, make post delivery telephone calls, etc.). This should not be surprising. Why should salespeople do the difficult things to create genuine loyalty when they have elaborate systems in place which make it easy to create false loyalty?

The best customer driven stores believe that customers should own their salespeople and will declare their ownership by asking for the salesperson of their choice when they enter the store. If a customer does not ask for anyone, they are not qualified further. If a salesperson notices a customer he may have worked with in the past with another salesperson, he does not approach them during the sale or protest afterward. He simply accepts that the customer, for whatever reason, chose not to own him. He must then reflect on what he could do in the future to cause his customers to ask for him instead.

Ted Shepherd is the founder and CEO of Shepherd Management Group. The company specializes in changing the selling culture of furniture stores from merchandise-driven to customer-driven using an intensive hands-on process of consulting, training, and mentoring. For more information on the topics in this article contact tshepherd@furninfo.com.