The Three Million Dollar (Sales) Man

By Gordon Hecht, Serta Simmons Bedding

Records (especially ’80s glam rock) were made to be broken. It’s true in our retail world too.

There was a time when $1 million in annual furniture and bedding sales was deemed impossible for any single salesperson, whereas many could sell $300,000 to $500,000 a year and earn a good living.

But check out business social media sites like LinkedIn in early December and you’ll start to see celebrations, well-earned indeed, for retail sales associates crossing the million-dollar mark.  You’ll even see a few $2 million writers.

Just like when Roger Bannister shocked the world by running a mile in under four minutes at the 1952 Olympics, the once impossible has become routine and new records are constantly being broken. In fact, there happens to be at least one $3 million salesperson in our nation today, selling nothing but furniture and mattresses. That’s no easy accomplishment; it’s the equivalent of writing $10,000 a day, every working day of the year.

His name happens to be Chris, and he works in a Southern state not known as a retirement mecca. I spoke with his manager and the owner of the company, who told me how Chris reached this lofty goal.

Product Knowledge, Part I. Chris is not a specification wonk, but he has an excellent understanding of the product features that will benefit whichever customer he is working with. The knowledge is internalized; he doesn’t have to check a catalog or go online. And he uses that knowledge the way a chef uses salt: Just enough to add flavor, but not so much as to overwhelm.

Product Knowledge, Part II. Today, the greatest competitive edge is availability.  Chris not only knows his products, but also knows the stock status. He knows what’s in the local distribution center along with what’s on the road heading to his company. He understands how to utilize clearance merchandise and floor samples that may be ready for retirement. Based on the shopper’s requirements, he tailors his presentation to their needs. He also checks with the delivery team to know what slots are open for the upcoming week.

Dance to the Music Played. The store manager told me that Chris alters his speech pattern to mirror his shoppers. He is soft-spoken with quieter customers and can joke, laugh and sing with the boisterous ones. He works to make a friend first and a customer second. Besides closing more sales, he gets more referrals than anyone else on the sales team. He has learned to sell himself first.

Equal Opportunity. It’s a fact: Prejudice is still prevalent on sales floors today. And it has nothing to do with your customers.  Salespeople tend to sell the merchandise they like and stay away from items and categories they don’t understand. In a typical retail furniture store, many sales associates avoid the bedding department, or don’t take the time to enhance their customer’s selections with lamps, rugs and artwork. In contrast, Chris sells a wide variety of products. He’s not the store leader in any of single one of them but sells a lot of all of them.

Put Me In, Coach. Athletes and musicians earning multi-millions have coaches to help improve their performance. Even part-time duffers on the golf course or tennis court spend hard-earned dough just to take their game up a notch. But when it comes to training, coaching and using new tools, our sales teams scoff and belittle the value. Chris, on the other hand, builds his business by graciously accepting coaching and including it in his presentation at the next opportunity. You’ll see him taking notes during training, and you may even see him reading an article or blog between ups.

Honesty. Salespeople, and even some retailers and manufacturers, are infamous for embellishing the value or performance of their merchandise. Top performers like Chris know that it’s hard enough to sell someone the first time, and doubly hard to try to re-sell on a reselect. In this imperfect world we’ll never satisfy every shopper, but Chris spends less valuable selling time re-selling by finding the right item for the shopper the first time. He also provides a reasonable expectation of product performance and delivery time.

The Loser’s Lounge. Retail sales floors are a source of income and often become a social setting.  We spend more waking hours at our store than our home. Some work conversations are lighthearted, others can turn dark.  Chris is the guy who never accepts the invitation to the pity party taking place in the breakroom. While everyone else is complaining about business, he’s making a few hundred bucks.

The Company You Keep. Don’t think that it’s an accident that Chris works at this leading regional retailer. His company helps Chris by providing opportunities. At the start of the COVID thing in April 2020 the business was hit with a state-mandated shutdown for eight weeks. But the owners knew business would return and increased their stock orders by 150 percent for the next three months. They’ve kept that rate of ordering up and always have a great supply of merchandise. They don’t have everything in stock every day, but they keep the barn pretty darned full. In addition, their work week of four 10-hour days helps Chris maintain a good work life balance.

Drop the Ego. With all those sales, Chris will earn something north of $180,000 this year. He’ll earn more than his store manager, general manager or any of the VPs in his company. But they understand that they do better when he does better. Egos about earnings must put aside when you have a high performer.

They Didn’t Break the Mold. There are very few “born” salespeople. Chris has natural talent and charisma, but he also needed training, coaching, encouragement and the proper environment to sell $3 million in one year. There may not be a million people like him, but chances are good there’s a potential multimillion-dollar performer on your team. And if not, they’re on someone else’s team, or playing at the college level or on a completely different field.

Create the right conditions, policies, expectations and marketing and you’ll attract a Chris of your own.

Gordon Hecht is Senior Regional Manager/Strategic Retail Group at Serta Simmons Bedding and a regular contributor to YSN. You can reach him at ghecht@sertasimmons.com.