20 April 2024, 08:38
By Furniture News Jan 12, 2015

Back to (bed) school

At the Bed Show last September, The Sleep Council – the consumer-facing arm of the National Bed Federation (NBF) tasked with raising consumer awareness on the importance of a good night’s sleep – launched the Sales Academy, a modular online course designed to develop the retail skills of shopfloor salespeople working in the bed sector. Paul Farley decided that the only way to fully appreciate the course would be to enrol on it himself …

Ever since two cavemen first exchanged a tiger’s tooth for a handful of berries, trade has been at the heart of human civilisation – consequently, the art of selling is a many-faceted thing of mathematics and psychology.

There are general, common-sense laws governing all exchanges – for instance, to sell a product, it helps to know the product. When it comes to beds, most manufacturers assist in this regard, admits the creator of the course, Simon Williams. However, he adds, there’s much more to making the sale than regurgitating the contents of a brochure.

“I’m limited to the theory element of the course, as no retailer in their right mind would ever let me loose on their sales floor”

“The aim of the programme is to provide specific sleep knowledge rather than product knowledge,” says Simon, “and to show salespeople how to best use that knowledge to build trust with their customers and give them the best advice with their purchase. This in turn will mean greater customer satisfaction and improved sales for the retailer.”

Delivered online through 30-minute modules, the course continually assesses students and asks them to put their new skills into practice, culminating in a final assessment.

Enrolment

So, I’m going back to school – but I’m limited to the theory element of the course, as no retailer in their right mind would ever let me loose on their sales floor. This means that the fast-track pre-release version I’m tackling does not include the SCR (Sales Conversion Rate) that a true student would experience. That said, I hope to pass with flying colours, obtaining the Accredited Advisor certificate and pin badge to prove my achievement.

Programme overview

After logging in and creating a password, I’m taken to a hub page with links to The Sleep Council blog and back catalogue of articles, guides and videos. This ensures students are made aware of the newest available resources, whenever they join the course.

Via video, NBF president Jessica Alexander introduces the course’s aim – to provide support for those “on the front line, actually selling beds to the public” – before the structure and learning expectations of the course are outlined in detail. I learn that each module is assessed through a multiple choice test, with a pass grade of 80% which must be attained before I’m able to move on.

For an online course, the introduction is standard fare – if a little lengthy – clearly establishing the course’s principles before proceeding. While some of the information is fairly obvious, it’s never delivered in a patronising fashion – perhaps thanks to the course being developed and tested in partnership with bed retailers.

Module 1 – Sleep Basics

The first module is theory-oriented, delving into the science of the sleep cycle, outlining techniques for improving quality of sleep, and presenting a range of useful facts and figures that demonstrate the benefits of buying a new bed.

Despite the content being a little dry, there’s no doubt that the ‘killer facts’ laid out in this module – for example, “around 20% of aged mattresses contain two micrograms per gram of dust mite allergen, which is enough to cause hypersensitivity in asthma sufferers” – would prove formidable additions to any bed seller’s arsenal.

Upon completion, I’m prompted to download and read several additional resources before proceeding to my first exam.

Grade: 80%. I fail this test once before passing it, some of the questions requiring recall of specific figures outlined in the additonal course materials. Clearly, I’d need to really absorb and retain key facts and figures I was ever going to deploy them confidently during a sale.

Module 2 – Engaging with the Customer

Having imparted sleep knowledge, the course moves on to the sales floor, outlining the four key questions you should ask the customer, eliminating the “never-ask” lines of enquiry, overcoming objections and identifying upselling opportunities.

It all becomes more engaging as I’m introduced to two characters – experienced salesperson Di, and exasperated novice Matt – and shown via video demonstrations how to best handle first contact with a customer. Whilst the characters are a little polarised, their respective approaches clarify how a good, polite introduction beats the hard sell.

It’s all basic retail psychology – don’t set up a sale without first establishing who the bed is for, find out why a customer might say they’re “just looking”, don’t suggest a purchase based on price or delivery time that’ll potentially close off the sale – but it’s easy to see how much more effective a salesperson taking this information on board in a bed environment would be.

“There’s some fascinating insight here into both verbal and non-verbal buying cues, including the value of silence during a pitch”

The module really highlights how phrasing and the nuances of language are critical factors in making the customer more relaxed and open to suggestion, and how good etiquette can go a long way.

Grade: 100%. A comprehensive first-time pass, perhaps because the questions are more oriented towards psychology than specific sleep knowledge.

Module 3 – Qualifying the Sale

This module discusses how to demonstrate the product, establish a budget, build trust with customers, and identify relevant body language signals. It also explains how to employ the facts and benefits outlined in Module 1.

Basically, I’m being taught how to educate a customer. It can be difficult to persuade someone to lie down and relax on a bed in a showroom – so why not offer to hold their bags and coats, provide them with the same number of pillows they use at home, and back off to a non-threatening distance? And what use is espousing the latest foam/latex/gel/spring composite if you don’t explain how it will actually help someone sleep?

One exchange sees a customer tell Di that a price is a little too high. She responds with: “That’s just 25p a night over seven years – a small price to pay for a good night’s sleep.” Back this up with the assertion that an uncomfortable bed can rob a person of up to an hour of sleep each night, or that a bargain bed is no bargain if you don’t sleep well on it, and you have a persuasive case for a more expensive model.

Grade: 80%.

Module 4 – Closing the Sale

This section explains how to overcome common objections, apply pressure without being pushy, identify further upselling opportunities and outline the aftercare process to minimise returns.

There’s some fascinating insight here into both verbal and non-verbal buying cues, including the value of silence during a pitch – you can talk people out of a sale as much as into one – and the limits to which customers’ objections can be refuted before you start coming across as rude. The use of videos demonstrating best practice continues to engage, and, in some examples, entertain!

Grade: 80%, following one failed try. The fact that repeat questions sometimes arise definitely helps my second attempt …

Module 5 – Evaluation

Finally, there’s a 20-question final assessment covering the topics in each module.

Overall grade: 85%, again on my second try. It’s by no means a strong pass, so I would probably have to brush up on a few of the details if I was to hit the sales floor. I’m asked to evaluate my overall experience of the course before my success is logged and I await my accreditation. In the meantime, I’m prompted to download the Sleep Hub App, which provides a more direct link to the course materials and updates.

Whilst the multiple choice format has some limitations, it’s really the only way to assess a course of this nature – and, despite a few repeat questions and lucky successes, I feel I’ve learned a good deal, despite being unable to put my knowledge into practice.

Verdict

I’m now officially an Accredited Advisor of the Sleep Council Sales Academy – or at least, I would be if I put in the hours in-store. I feel I’ve developed a far better understanding of the sales process through this generally engaging and well thought out online programme, and that everyone taking this course will learn something new.

It’s true, when it comes to selling, best-practice techniques can be a contentious issue. Many a retailer has succeeded in business for many a year without applying the exact theory outlined in this course, but there’s never any harm in refining your approach. Much of the curriculum will be common-sense practice to strong salespeople – but, as the gulf of knowledge between the fictional Di and Matt indicates, these skills can’t be taken for granted, and having the approach tailored to the bed sector in particular makes it particularly useful.

“It’s about selling sleep effectively, engaging the buyer and explaining the benefits of a mattress in a manner that’s more likely to lead to a profitable sale than when leading on price”

As I was told at the outset, this course is intended as as supplement to the product knowledge imparted by a supplier or manufacturer. It’s about selling sleep effectively, engaging the buyer and explaining the benefits of a mattress in a manner that’s more likely to lead to a profitable sale than when leading on price.

Shortly after completing the course, I went shopping, and noted the extremes of approach amongst the salespeople I encountered. Some were courteous, informative and helpful, listening carefully to my objections and queries before responding, and backing off when I gave non-verbal cues for them to do so. Others merely reiterated what was written on the label, failing to engage me in anything like a two-way conversation, or simply sat in a corner and ignored me. If I ran a bed store, I know which category I’d rather my staff fell into.

Retailers can find out more about the NBF’s Sleep Council Sales Academy five-week programme by visiting the dedicted website. This article was published in the January issue of Furniture News magazine. Author Paul Farley is the editor of Furniture News, a media partner of the NBF Bed Show that strives to promote best practice techniques within the furniture and furnishings industry. Despite his industry experience, Paul is not – and it’s likely he could never be – a good salesperson.

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