13 April 2024, 23:08
By Furniture News May 14, 2013

Dawn Llewellyn-Jones discusses interior design at Leekes

No retailer questions the importance of customer service, but few go as far as Leekes to deliver it. The robust growth of the business – demonstrated most recently by the opening of its 180,000 sq ft flagship store in Coventry – is underpinned by an intelligent service philosophy, which manifests most clearly in its in-house interior design service, led by Dawn Llewellyn-Jones. Late last year, Furniture News editor Paul Farley visited Leekes in Llantrisant, South Wales, to learn how service sells …

When Dawn Llewellyn-Jones began working at Leekes 17 years ago, she hated the job. She looked around at a sales floor populated by commission-hungry salesmen, and wondered what kind of contribution she could possibly make.

Fortunately for Dawn – and for Leekes – she took a proactive approach. At first, she closely shadowed the retailer’s lead salesman, famed in-store for hitting an annual sales total of £1m. “It turned out he was just an order-taker,” says Dawn. “He’d simply wait by the entrance and make sure he was the first to engage customers when they came through the door.”

Dawn is not disputing that the salesman was very good at his job – but her own remit, handed down personally by owner Gerald Leeke – was to ensure that customers saw Leekes as a one-stop-shop.

Although that term is thrown around fairly liberally these days, Leekes delivers on the promise: “We can build a house from here,” confirms Dawn, “put the turf down in the garden, deliver the furniture, and put the knives and forks down on the table. As part of our complete service, we deliver, set up furniture  … even tailor the bedlinen and make the beds.”

Gerald’s aim was to create the perfect cross-selling environment, in which every customer is made aware of the range of home products available from Leekes. Central to this was the creation of an in-store design studio, intended to be the first point of contact for customers seeking advice or looking for interior design inspiration and assistance – and the task of managing this fell to Dawn.

The concept was simple – provide an extra level of service in the form of a free in-house design consultancy, while making the sales of high-end and bespoke furnishings more viable. At that time Leekes already employed designers to sell bespoke curtains and throws, but Dawn’s main objective was to ‘link sell’.

“Once we establish what’s been bought, we’re normally able to link it to another sale. For example, if someone buys a new sofa, have they been asked whether they need any new carpet, lighting or art? If someone has bought a new bed, is it not likely they’d upgrade their bedding too?”

The studio concept, and its physical form, have become an integral part of Leekes’ customer-facing operation. For Dawn, her role now – interior design sales and operations manager – is a far cry from that first dispiriting week. “I’m lucky,” she says. “I’ve got the best job in the business.”

The often short-term, sales-driven mentality of Leekes’ floor staff soon gave way to this new approach – at first, the studio was seen as a threat by some of them, yet they quickly came to appreciate how much the extra level of service could help them sell. The studio naturally became a centre for customer service and resolving potential issues, presenting the design team with further opportunities to work closely with  customers.

“I want people to buy into our service,” says Dawn, “and for it to be known by our clients that we do look after people. The more they spend time with us, the more they buy into what we do here – most importantly, we become friends.”

The studio concept reflected a new way of thinking at Leekes, whose management identified early on that its key customer demographic was becoming predominantly female. Gerald Leeke’s daughter Emma, now MD of Leekes’ retail business, was instrumental in steering the company to meet changing demand, and Dawn attributes much of the studio’s success to the realisation that furniture retail was no longer solely a man’s world.

Dawn asks: “If a woman walked in with a piece of carpet, how many sales staff would be able to offer advice about finding matching furniture pieces for her home? Having the studio allows us to go one step further, and take the sting out of buying – most women work nowadays, so they haven’t got the time to invest in a serious home redesign.”

The flagship design studio, located in Leekes’ Llantrisant store – which will enjoy a long-overdue relocation to a new site nearby within the next two years – is a glass-fronted room that functions as both reception area and soft furnishings library. “We agonised over the design of this ‘pod’,” says Dawn, with some affection. “We were concerned that the studio might intimidate people and people might think they can’t afford what we were offering.”

In fact, the welcoming mixture of smiles and swatches is both welcoming and sophisticated – the perfect business setting for Dawn’s requirements.

Replete with products from the likes of Sanderson, Nina Campbell, Romo, Zoffany, Harlequin, Osborne & Little and Designers Guild, the studio opens out onto Leekes Lllantrisant’s expansive furniture floor, which features collections from the likes of Duresta, G Plan, Ercol and Ekornes.

“I think lots of companies, like us, can boast the strong brand names,” says Dawn, “but in this day and age it’s all about level of service – and we get so many positive comments about ours.”

In addition to Dawn, the Llantrisant studio is staffed by interior designer Bev Berry, assisted by new interior design co-ordinator Kirsty Bone. After spending time initially within a ‘cash’ department, making straight sales from the floor to develop a better knowledge of the business, new design staff are often seconded to other stores around the country to hone their approach, and to help Dawn assess the staffing demands of each.

Indeed, Dawn herself spends a great deal of her time away from Llantrisant – either supervising studio roll-out in new stores or visiting homes and new developments as part of larger design projects. Home and site visits are crucial to any good interior design operation, and, to Dawn, are simply an extension of the in-store service.

During our meeting, a pressing issue is brought to Dawn’s attention – a high-end refit has just been completed, and there is a potential problem. Dawn is anxious that the matter is addressed immediately, that the source of the problem is dealt with, and that the customer walks away happy.

For her, it’s a chance for the company to react positively and quickly, reminding the client that while hiccups can occur, it is the way in which they are resolved that is a measure of the business. “We started off as an interior design department,” says Dawn, “but because of what we do and how we do it we’ve become more of a project management team.”

Going out on location demands a specific set of approaches. Leekes charges £75 for a home visit or moodboard creation, which is refunded if the client ends up spending £500 or more. Of course, this initial fee tends to be waived in the case of long-standing customers and contract projects, at Dawn’s discretion.

However, the opportunities presented during a visit are boundless. “Whenever you go out on a visit, you’ve got to be looking around the house for anything needed,” says Dawn. “You might be there to advise on replacement blinds, but you can capture so much more if you listen to the customer and keep your eyes open. Once you get over the threshold, the sell is on!

“In my experience, the crucial part of working like this is to show empathy towards clients in difficult situations.” Leekes’ flexible approach has won business from some of the most unexpected places, simply because its staff have found inventive ways around specification and supply issues.

“Whenever you go out on a visit, you’ve got to be looking around the house for anything needed. You might be there to advise on replacement blinds, but you can capture so much more if you listen to the customer and keep your eyes open”

Yet there is a caveat. “You have to be very, very careful when going into people’s homes,” says Dawn. “Privacy and confidence are big issues, and in a place like Cardiff, which is like a big village – everybody knows everything and everyone, so you have to be very discreet. We get people trying to keep up with the Jones’, asking about their neighbours’ curtains – if we gave away that sort of private information, we wouldn’t get away with it for long!”

While discretion is essential, it always pays to listen. Being aware of upcoming new builds and contracts – particularly in a region which is experiencing high growth such as South Wales – can prove incredibly lucrative to a business with Leekes’ capabilities, and leads derived from such contact often turn into store demand.

It helps that the retailer’s internal communication systems are so strong. Leekes’ IT system undergoes continual development and improvement, and is essential to the ‘link-sell’ philosophy – in particular the lead manager function, which allows departments to alert one another to potential follow-up sales.

“Every sale we’ve got on the system is a potential lead,” says Dawn. “Once we establish what’s been bought, we’re normally able to link it to another sale. For example, if someone buys a new sofa, have they been asked whether they need any new carpet, lighting or art? If someone has bought a new bed, is it not likely they’d upgrade their bedding too?” The system means that there is always a lead to follow up – often posted directly by Gerald or Emma Leeke.

With the potential of such a high level of personal commitment to each customer, how does her team possibly find the time to do it all?
"We love what we do, and are all motivated to ensure we offer the customer the best options for them,” says Dawn, “and, obviously, people's budgets matter – but you can never judge a customer by his/her cover!”

I wonder whether their enthusiasm could ever be misconstrued. “You can be too pushy with a customer,” says Dawn, “and there’s no need. You can’t tell a client what to buy, but you can influence them. We just try to make customers know that they are important, and make them feel at ease here – I don’t like the hard sell, as I don’t think it creates long-term custom.

“The main element is having someone listen and guide – someone who knows what they’re talking about, and are connected to enough parts of the industry to make things happen. The staff are all experts in their areas, and there’s lots of long-term employees here, which is a good sign in the furniture industry!

“At other retailers, purchases can go through up to five stages before they’re completed – here, you are dealing with one person. If you have an issue, you can deal directly with just one point of contact.”

With the fast success of Leekes’ new store in Coventry – bolstered by, in Dawn’s opinion, the retailer’s strongest advertising campaign to date – and the establishment there of a studio concession, the design team will have to work hard if it is to transfer all of these best practice techniques to the new teams.

In the design studio, where customer service becomes interior design, the true value of high-end products is communicated, and follow-on sales are synonymous with the personal touch, Leekes has found an invaluable bridge between the store and the home.
“It’s about going beyond the call of duty every time,” concludes Dawn. “We’ve got so much to offer here that we have to.”

This article was originally published in Furniture News magazine, issue 286.

© 2013 - 2024 Gearing Media Group Ltd. All Rights Reserved.