"Our goal is loftier than just making money…."
Jeffrey Zaffron is Managing Director of a licensing company that operates Ashley Furniture Home Stores in Western Texas and Eastern New Mexico. He employs more than 100 people who work in more than 175,000 feet of space in four stores. That area is larger than three football fields -- plenty of room to show off sofas and lamps. When you talk to Jeff, however, you get a sense that the key to his business is closeness -- to his parent corporation and to his customers. Keeping a focus on two relationships is vital to his success.
On a large scale, the relationship between giant Ashley Furniture Industries, North America's largest selling furniture manufacturer, and its licensees is closer than a typical supplier/retailer exchange. Ashley can use its size, design teams, manufacturing and long-haul trucking capabilities to lower costs for its store operators, so they can offer greater value at lower prices. That's a prodigious advantage, but when it comes to hiring, another relationship matters more.
On a small scale, Jeff Zaffron knows he must hire people who can build relationships over the long term with customers, especially in his competitive retail niche. Jeff explains:
"We're in smaller cities -- Lubbock is the largest at 250,000 people -- so finding people is always challenging. We look for the best and brightest people; they don't have to be from a furniture background. Selling and marketing are inherently about forming a relationship. If you have the ability to connect with a person, you can potentially be good in sales. There are other furniture stores, car dealers, and many other venues where people with transferable skills like sales can find work, so it's competitive. Our difference is that we want people who understand that our purpose is to help people. Our goal is loftier than just making money."
Help people? A furniture store?
"We live where we work," continues Jeff. "West Texas and Eastern New Mexico have tight-knit communities, and we pride ourselves on service before, during and after the sale. Sales consultants greet customers at the door, offer bottled water if it's hot outside, and answer questions with high product knowledge: If a customer has a question about the mechanism on a reclining sofa, sales consultants can answer without referring to a book in the back room.
"We also believe wholeheartedly that we need to be good corporate citizens; we need to be a good part of the community, rather than a big, impersonal furniture store. We have our own events here — like rock walls for the kids on certain days, or philanthropic activities. It's about making Lubbock or Amarillo or Hobbes a better place."
What's a Porter?
Where in West Texas will you hire a "porter?" Where will you find a "visual merchandiser?" For that matter, what do they do?
They set the scene, and everything follows from that.
Walk into an Ashley HomeStore and you won't find a sea of sofas. Instead, the stores contain many small, fully furnished rooms called vignettes. In the vignettes, the sofa, love seat, cocktail table, lamps, end tables, rugs, artwork…everything is carefully designed by a visual merchandiser who decorates and re-decorates under the watchful eye of Jeff's director of visual design (a job that merges marketing and interior design). Porters are the people who arrange and maintain these rooms. The effect is to inspire customers; to have them walk into a vignette and say, "Oh yes! That's what I'm looking for!"
Hire for Growth
Relationship-building is a transferable skill, which means Jeff faces competition for talent outside his industry (from car dealers and other retailers). He attracts the best candidates with potential growth opportunities. For example, he says, "We opened a new store in Hobbs New Mexico, which is experiencing explosive growth. Advertising on Monster brought us dozens of candidates for individual positions who also had crossover potential. We were able to take someone who applied for a sales manager's job in Hobbs NM and match them up with a store manger, sales manager, or operations manager job in another store as well. I'm looking for people who can grow within our organization, and that becomes a long term relationship too."
Hiring Tip from Jeff Zaffron
"Think of reading resumes and interviewing as an intelligence-gathering activity. Take your time until you find a person who really understands what the goal is. A marketing person has to "swing the door" and a sales person has to close the sale, but when you're operating in a close, tight-knit community like us, you actually need people who want to do right by themselves, their families and their neighbors."