27 May 2024, 13:38
By Furniture News Aug 16, 2013

Friday five – Richard Whitbread

Each Friday, Furniture News puts five questions to a selected industry professional to explore their background and approach to business. Today, it's the turn of Richard Whitbread, technician manager, FIRA Service Technicians …

How did you get into the trade?

I was actually pushed into the trade by my parents who spotted an advert for an apprentice upholsterer at a factory over the road from our home in Weybridge, Surrey.

After four years I became fully qualified and then worked for various upholstery companies before joining a contract furniture company on the outskirts of London, servicing the hotel and pub trade before moving to Dorset and going into partnership providing the full interior service for an already-established interiors shop in Dorchester. In May 1992 I chose to go it alone and ran my own interiors company for a further eight years.

Whilst trading I was a member of the Association of Master Upholsterers, who passed on an advert from FIRA regarding a position for a service technician. I took on the role whilst also keeping my interiors business running. However, the work with FIRA really took off and I chose to close my business and concentrate on employment with them. Within 12 months of joining the company I was promoted to a supervisor position, responsible for service technicians working over the southern half of the UK. Back then we only had about 10 clients and 12 technicians.

In 2006 I was promoted to the position I now hold, technician manager.

What was the turning point in your career?

The turning point in my career was definitely joining FIRA – it really opened my eyes to the furniture industry. Up until that point my relationships within the industry had been principally with consumers. After joining FIRA I had the benefit of also having commercial relationships with manufacturers and retailer clients.

The role of a FIRA service technician requires one to have an unbiased point of view – our remit is to visit consumers’ homes and to provide an independent assessment of furniture products. Independence is essential when validating furniture complaints, and an understanding of consumer law is paramount. As an independent resolution service, our job is to determine whether a complaint is justified or not.

How will the industry evolve?

I hope to see more furniture manufacturing coming back to the UK. Labour costs abroad are currently rising, which means that their USP of low manufacturing overheads is being eroded. Furthermore, in my opinion, real design innovation is not a skill set of Far Eastern manufacturers. I don’t think the Far East will be as competitive in the future, so consumers will see the value of buying products made closer to home.

How can retailers increase sales and profitability?

To increase profitability, quality issues and returns need to be limited – this is where FIRA Service Technicians can help. Through our care and repair service we are able to repair products within the customer’s home, ensuring higher satisfaction for customers and a lower return rate for clients. Retailers need to source good, reliable, well-made products.

Matching the correct product with the needs and the wishes of the customer is vital. Staff should also be better trained, with a focus on the customer’s needs rather than the actual sale, to increase satisfaction and reduce returns. To do this, staff need to be able to build a rapport with the customer and have strong product knowledge. Making full use of the point-of-sale materials is also important to ensure the customer fully understands the product prior to purchase.

What brings a smile to your face in this industry, or do you have an amusing tale to share?

The FIRA service technicians always have amusing stories to share, gathered from being out on the road resolving furniture issues. However, it brings a smile to my face knowing that the training I have provided has been well received and is working effectively. It is good to hear positive feedback from customers, meaning my techniques and the experience I have shared has been beneficial to others.

This is an extract from an article published previously in Furniture News magazine. For more stories like this, you can subscribe to receive a regular physical copy of the magazine, or sign up to have a free digital issue delivered to your inbox each month.

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