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“We see every vendor monthly,” says Preziosi. “We would have to be thoroughly convinced that someone would know the product that well to replace the people we have in house. How could we be sure that they would be getting the same contact with the vendors and the new products that we would give them?”
Fixing problems, making sales
Golfgods.com employees get hourly compensation and benefits through a local payroll company that leases the employees back to the company. Golfgods picks up half the health benefits tab while the leasing company also picks up a share. “Leasing gives the employees a better deal on benefits since it makes them part of a larger company,” Preziosi says.
But it’s Golfgods that does all the recruiting and hiring. And as in BackcountryStore.com’s case, the local population offers a big pool of enthusiasts, but the job requires more than that. “Golf knowledge is one thing we look for; the right attitude is the rest. We’ve found that with any kind of Internet or phone sales, the customer is calling for a couple of reasons,” Preziosi says. “Either they are looking for something they can’t find, so they’re a little bit frustrated, or they’re calling because there is some kind of a problem. The same staff handles both kinds of calls so they have to be problem-solvers.”
Web lighting and furniture retailer Bellacor.com counts on its product specialists to solve customers’ problems-and to up-sell. Bellacor customers who work with a product specialist after reviewing the web site represent order values twice as high as those of customers who buy without that assistance, says CEO Jan Andersen. Though Bellacor doesn’t reveal current sales volume, Andersen says the company had sales of $3 million to $5 million in 2000, its first year, and that sales have doubled annually since then, delivering the company’s first profits a year and a half ago.
Bellacor recruits only long-term retail employees with an in-depth knowledge of the furniture industry as product specialists. “If people have product knowledge and the attitude of enjoying customer service and sales, teaching them how to do that by a different means is very simple,” Andersen says. “The hurdle of having to learn computers and the web is greatly overrated. But it takes many years to acquire product knowledge in our field. The one is much easier to do than the other.”
Bellacor has enough contacts in the local retail furniture community that it does not need to advertise for product specialists. The job appeals to retail veterans with its offer of greater flexibility-product specialists have general sales targets but a great deal of autonomy to make deals-and a chance to work in a stimulating environment. “It’s more fun than standing around waiting for someone to walk through the front door,” Andersen says. “They are a lot busier with us than they are in a store.”
One more question
Andersen says the company has occasionally tried out product specialists without deep industry experience, and the experiment failed in all cases when the employee couldn’t convey a compelling sense of the product. Bellacor looks for call center agents who know furniture manufacturers and the differences among their products, the attributes of various color combinations, the qualities of fabrics, relative price points of manufacturers and products and durability of construction methods.
The company has never bothered to try outsourcing because it is convinced results would be similarly poor. “I’m not going to outsource something this critical to someone who may not know all that much about the products,” Andersen says. “You end up with someone who might know marginally more than the customer, because they may be supporting several different web sites. It’s one thing to be talked through a site and get an answer on order status, but we want to do so much more.”
Most Bellacor customers who use product specialists do so after using the web site first. Staff interacts with customers via e-mail and phone. Though Bellacor’s product specialists have done a limited test of live chat, Andersen doesn’t yet see the demand or need for it, believing that a phone conversation is more powerful than having a message pop up on a screen for his overwhelmingly female customers. “Our customers like the personal touch and the ability to call and say ‘I’m about to place an order but I have one question first’ is a great thing,” he says.
For Bellacor, BackountryStore.com and other retailers like them, it may be technology that makes their business possible, but it’s people with product experience that have made it profitable. When the product line is specification-heavy, as in camping gear that must hold up at 20 degrees below zero, for example, or requires multiple choices that the shopper may have little knowledge of, such as a home lighting solution, these retailers are finding that nothing closes a sale like years of first-hand experience with the industry segment and the merchandise.
“There are things that we can do great online with technology, but that doesn’t replace everything else,” says Andersen. “The key is taking the best of both worlds and combining them for optimum results.”