The Last Four Feet

by Kevin Harrington, dealer training manager, Sony UK.

Sony Sales Training provides workshops and courses to increase dealers’ product knowledge and to develop their selling skills. Kevin Harrington explains why and how.

‘Train for a trade’ was the headline of an RAF recruitment avert I noticed recently. No one thinks twice about the sense in training people to be aircraft fitters or jet fighter pilots. In many other professions – banking, accountancy, engineering etc – training and qualifications are the recognised way to the top.

Accepting retailing as a skill; one can learn, practice and improve, it is surprising so few people make use of sales training to increase their staff’s efficiency and productivity.

Let’s put the job of the retail salesperson into perspective. As a manufacturer, we spend time and money researching and developing new products such as Video 8. We distribute the, around the world and deliver them to our dealers. We spend a lot of money on advertising and promoting products to increase awareness and build consumer interest and desire. This gets products on dealers’ shelves and helps build store traffic but it all has to be done before the consumer buys anything.

Meanwhile, dealers invest a great deal of money in prime site shops. They incur many of the same costs as manufacturers – rent, rates, electricity, telephone, service facilities, shopfitting and of course their own advertising.

And all this before the customer enters the shop. When he does, nothing is certain: we cannot guarantee the outcome. But an opportunity exists to male a sale and therefore complete the journey of the product.

The Last Four Feet

This last phase of the product’s journey is what we call the Last Four Feet. It is where the customer and the salesperson meet.

Anyone can work out their own ‘close-ratio’ or percentage chance of a sale being closed. Our purpose with Retail Sales Training is to increase that percentage and therefore reduce the lost opportunity cost. If every salesperson increased their sales by just ten per cent – ie by selling 33 Walkman instead of the usual 30, or 11 CTVs instead of the usual ten – an increase in profits of 100 per cent is not unrealistic.

It was with these thoughts in mind, realising the vital importance of the salesperson to our industry, that in March 1985 we redefined the objectives of our Sales Training Department.

Last year we ran a programme of one day courses got our dealers covering a combination of selling skills and product knowledge. The feedback we received was very encouraging and proved to us we were heading in the right direction with an important new support service for our dealers.

Our 1985 programme consisted of around 170 courses within a six month training period. We took 2,010 delegates, some choosing to come more than once. Venues were as far apart as Glasgow, Dublin and Exeter.

We keep the total delegate number to around ten or 12 on each course to ensure they all get a chance to gain ‘hands-on’ experience with products and to contribute their own view and experiences. Sometimes it is difficult to contain the numbers but we have carried this policy forward into our 1986 programme. We now offer a range of course covering selling skills, product knowledge and also, at Sony Centres, retail management, – recruitment, training, motivation, advertising, display etc.

If a store manager/proprietor regularly hears customers saying, ‘No thanks, I’m just looking,’ or, ‘You’ve been very helpful, I’ll have to go away and think about it,’ then he should ask whether his sales team is being totally successful.

I would always agree product knowledge is important in any form of retailing – customers expect and deserve it.

Time and time again we’ve discovered that product knowledge coupled with the ability and skills to use it successfully is what our delegates are seeking. So it’s not surprising our most popular courses are the ones that include selling skills and a practical approach to product knowledge. One of these courses, ‘Selling Sony Products – Stage Two’ includes around two hours of video examples. We commissioned the video in November 1985 and it shows examples of both good and bad selling techniques.

The training officer running the course carefully selects the right sequences for the group and they then become the basis for exercises and discussion leading on to skills practices.

Our industry has many excellent salespeople and I am pleased to say we’ve seen many of them on our courses. Our feedback and research shows us even high performers benefit from the right training course.

Managers’ too

Yet sending people on training courses is not the complete answer. If a company wants to improve its efficiency and profitability the lead must come from the top. Why should the most junior member of staff make more effort if everyone around him is continuing as usual? Training should become a regular component part of increasing professionalism rather than just a shot in the arm.

That’s why many of our courses are preceded by a session exclusively for their managers. In the long term, this ensures maximum effectiveness of resources, constantly improving training programmes and involvement of the manager in the commitment.

The managers’ sessions vary depending on the company we’re working with, but they share a common theme: increasing business by reducing the number of lost opportunities. An overview of the training their salespeople receive is included along with ideas on how best to coach their staff in the new skills. This logic of this is, of course, obvious – the manager is the best-placed person to control the development of his own sales team.

Half-hour morning training sessions and evening presentations are regularly requested of us. They can be a valuable opportunity for a manufacturer and a dealer to learn more about each other – but with three sales training officers, it is clearly not cost-effective to send one of them to, say, Cardiff for just a half-hour session. Generally, our field sales force will help with these requests – they are ideal opportunities to update our leaders on new product launches, advertising campaigns and promotion.

For product and skills training another consideration has to be: how effective are half-hour or evening sessions? If someone wants to really learn about a product we believe a combination of discussion, demonstration, and – most importantly – ‘hands-on’ experience is essential. How will people gain in confidence and understanding of products and increase their ability to close sales after just 30 minutes of training or a presentation at a hotel one evening?

Consequently, our product knowledge workshops have changed dramatically in the last two years.

We are currently running a programme of one-day workshops for a national multiple covering our complete Video 8 range. The objective set was to train one person from each of the 120 selected branches. The delegates are then to their own colleagues at branch level. At these workshops, we have at least one camcorder per person. This enables us to set outdoor video projects for the delegates.

One delegate’s feedback form read, ‘At last, a manufacturer who knows what training means!’

Our long term objective, which will start to take effect in 1987, is to further customise our training programmes. That means not just publishing a general calendar of courses at the beginning of the year, but devoting more time to working with individual accounts and helping them develop their Sony business. This, in turn, achieves our aim to increase our sales. What better way to increase our business than to increase consumer offtake by making retail salespeople more effective?

I believe our department’s successes are due to having the right team. We have all worked in retailing and management experience. In fact, this was a requirement for joining the department. Our backgrounds are varied and include independents, national multiples and rental companies.

Continually improving programmes is vital for our future success in helping dealers develop their businesses.

All our dealers have different needs. Our aim is, and will remain, to match them with the right support for our mutual benefit. Every time a customer and salesperson part company without making a sale, an opportunity has been lost. We all want to see these lost opportunities reduced. That is the root of our commitment.

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See also Sony Attack on Shop Assistants