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Managing Change: Eight Reasons Why Change Initiatives Fail

Furniture World Magazine


This article is based on the work of John P. Kotter, Professor of Management Science at the Harvard Business School. I’ve been following Kotter’s work for over two decades, and I hope this provides some good food for thought around how you can bring substantive changes to your company and break the bonds of organizational inertia for everyone’s benefit.

Having worked with dozens of client companies from very small, single-store family businesses, to the largest retailers in our industry to implement strategic selling system changes, I believe that every one of the following eight points are right on target.

There are eight main reasons why companies, large and small, fail at bringing new ideas to their businesses. Traditionally, about 90% of all change initiatives fail to accomplish their stated goals. Going forward, however, furniture retailers are in a unique position to succeed because of recent changes in the economic environment.

Eight Mistakes That Derail Retail Change

Here are the 8 mistakes most business owners make when attempting to implement any new business practice:

1. Failure to Overcome Complacent Behavior. This is the one we all know well. You tell people what you want, and they shake their heads, and then go back to doing what they always have done. Just think of sales training. How many training courses have you provided to your salespeople only to have most of them change little or nothing about the way they work? This is a pattern experienced by most retailers. The solution to the issue of employee complacency is to show a high-level sense of urgency to whatever strategic changes you determine are needed.

It’s necessary to tell everyone what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Tell them what you expect the outcome to be, and that you trust them to do everything they can to help make it happen. Tell them you’ll report to them regularly with progress reports, and be specific where numerical measurements are concerned. Give it all to them in writing.

2. Fail to Develop a Powerful Guiding Coalition. Who belongs to the guiding coalition in your company? This guiding coalition talks-the-talk and walks-the-walk all day, every day, with no exceptions. They have to live and breathe whatever new initiatives you develop and initiate. When you train on selling skills, your store managers have to become fanatics about observing changes in every salesperson’s behavior. And, they must use highly honed coaching skills instead of “forcing.” Likewise, you, the boss, has to be a fanatic about them, too. This is part of the challenge you face. The next mistake explains how this usually becomes a problem.

3. Underestimate the Power of Vision. Your vision is personal to you, but defines your “perfect” company. Your mission statement is presented for the consumption of the people who work for and with you. It’s something for them to live up to, and is far more important than most owners know. I suggest you consider not saying anything in your mission statement that any other retail furniture company can say – like “being the best” or “selling high quality products.” If you want to enhance the overall economic well-being and quality of life for your family and employees, perhaps the best way to accomplish this goal is to improve the quality of life for customers by helping them to learn how to use your products to enhance the beauty and comfort of their homes. This includes helping them create more beautiful, comfortable and functional rooms using your products. So, state those things.

4. Under-Communicate Your Vision. Kotter believes that most leaders under-communicate their vision by a power of 10 times, 100 times, or 1,000 times. That’s what is meant by talking-the-talk and walking-the-walk. Your vision, and by extension your mission, has to be a living thing in everyone’s daily work. Think of it like many people think about the writings in the Bible – or any religious text. The “word” has been preached for thousands of years, and has been pretty consistent over all that time. The point is; the “vision” has provided the basis for human action for millions of people for thousands of years because it’s well communicated.

5. Permit Obstacles to Block the Vision. Obstacles can include anything from a dysfunctional computer system, to weak back-end performance, to poor customer service. You’ll have to be very aware of what’s not right in your organization, and address these issues or they will become obstacles to your action on the selling side.

The typical thinking of the salespeople is; “Why are they picking on us when everything else is screwed up?”

6. Fail to Create Short-Term Wins. You have to carefully develop early expectations and closely manage details down at the salesperson/customer level, and celebrate (really celebrate) each small victory. Then, you have to leverage these wins, keep them coming, and communicate great results to everyone. Then, you have to continue to talk-the-talk and walk-the-walk.

7. Declare Victory Too Soon. Many new initiatives take longer than you think they should to take hold. I’ve been down this road many times with many furniture retailers who believed that when training ended, the project was over. Nothing you can do will kill all hope of truly changing things than this mistake, and the next one. This is also why you should make every attempt to quantify the project using analytics to put a value on the changes you want to make. It’s important to inject a sense of urgency and patience at the same time.

8. Neglect to Anchor the Changes in the Company Culture. This is part of the declaring victory too soon syndrome. I know from having had many long-term, multi-year projects over the last 35 years, that some of these changes will take as long as a year to truly become “the way we do things here.” That is the ultimate goal for all such projects – to effect permanent, changes that become part of your company culture to improve everyone’s performance forever.

Important Take Away: Professor Cotter has, in recent years, renamed the last two elements, but the descriptions remain fundamentally unchanged, and the message is still applicable to our industry and types of businesses.

In my view, the single most important take away from this is that most furniture store owners, leaders, and managers have not adopted a strategic approach to selling that lies on the customer side of the process. It is the side of the process that accounts for what our customers are thinking and trying to achieve. We are generally good at developing merchandise strategies, display strategies, advertising strategies – and implementing them across time. We are generally terrible at developing customer engagement strategies, defining them, and implementing them. The truth is in the execution, not the development or the training process.

Customers are “moving” targets, shifting needs, likes and dislikes, timing, and decision making. When a salesperson is doing poorly, there is almost never a documented strategic selling process that everyone knows and understands; one that begins and ends in the customer’s home where final satisfaction actually takes place. There usually is no observation during the customer engagement process to be compared to an established model of how things should be done. Professional sports teams coach “in-the-game” – live coaching immediately following every play, reflecting on the game-plan. It’s this kind of sales management that defines strategic selling. You need to have a defined customer engagement process that allows for flexibility, but follows a common thread from Hello to Goodbye.

Joe Capillo is a 41 year career veteran, experienced in managing and consulting with furniture retail operations. He is also a contributing editor for Furniture World Magazine. He is a contributing editor to FURNITURE WORLD and a frequent speaker at industry functions. See all of Joe’s articles on the furninfo.com website.