Q&A With Spa Dealer Norm Coburn

Ohh 510 AqNorm Coburn is the owner of New England Spas in Natick, Mass. AQUA recently called him to ask about one of the secrets to his considerable success — his well-trained sales team.

How many spa salespeople do you have at your three stores?

Everybody in my company is a spa salesperson. The service techs hand out brochures when they're filling their trucks with gas. They identify old clunker spas that need to get replaced and advise the homeowner accordingly if there's an expensive repair bill looming ahead. We do have full-time spa salespeople who are dedicated to helping the client who wants to learn about how to buy a spa once they come into the showroom; however, those people are also able to get behind the cash register and sell chlorine and answer water chemistry questions. Likewise we have some existing-customer specialists who are behind the cash register the majority of the time for water testing and that sort of thing, but who are also trained and capable of taking a prospect through presentation, pricing, spa selection and closing the sale for either a hot tub or a sauna when there's overflow and the primary spa salesperson is busy.

You just never know when customers are going to come in. You can be sure that as soon as you open your lunch, customers will come walking in, and you can be sure when someone goes out to do an errand, customers will come in. We also find that customers tend to congregate in the parking lot until there are five of them, then they'll all come in at the same time. That being said, we're prepared for whatever comes our way. We don't ever want to give the response, "You want to talk to Bob? Bob's not here."

There are two to three people in each location who are capable of going front to back with a spa prospect.

What do you look for in a salesperson? Do you hire for personality or experience?

We're recruiting now, and our ad basically states that we're looking for all of the above: experience in high-ticket sales, experience in pools or spas. But we'll train the right person. Regardless of a person's skills, if they don't have the right personality for your sales environment and fit into your company, it doesn't really work. So you really have to have the personality above anything else, and if I had to pick one thing to look for, that'd be it. Experience is an added bonus.

Essentially, when you throw your net out there, you take what you can get. You process your applicants and end up, hopefully, with a couple of good people. Then you just have to decide who is the better long-term pony to bet on.

How do your salespeople approach customers?

We would like to have every customer that comes into our store be greeted very promptly with a smile and a "Hi, how are you?" We would also like the salesperson, when the customer says, "Good. And how are you?" to respond in a way that'll start a conversation instead of just offering an empty greeting in return.

So after that smile and "hello," we like to offer the client some time to walk around a little bit and not feel like we're pouncing on them. There are different styles for different salespeople, and it's kind of nice to have those differences. Some people will start in with non-business-related conversation. You know, ask about the weather or the Celtics game last night. But ultimately we'll get to asking, "What brings you in today?" We try really hard not to ask yes/no questions like, "Can I help you?" Those draw the typical "just looking" responses. We we try to be more engaging and start working on the relationship. Our role as a consultive seller begins when the person develops a little bit of a comfort level with the salesperson.

How do you orient new salespeople?

We have an outline of the building blocks we need to establish as a foundation for that new person's education and training. They'll shadow an experienced salesperson for anywhere between two and four weeks, and they'll be trained by several different people in our company so they'll get exposure to different techniques. We will also try to involve our suppliers. They're going to try really hard to sell their product, so they're going to be the most enthusiastic about their brands. That way they'll learn the best pitches for each of the products a customer may look at. So our sauna guy will come in, both the reps from our spa lines, and do some training.

After that we'll put them into rotations where they can be observed. We also have the ability to listen in on phone conversation. It's an incredible training tool to correct misinformation from being disseminated and to coach our salespeople. If I were able to put myself in each of the showrooms for X amount of hours, it would be pretty hit-or-miss as to whether I'd have any meat of potatoes to discuss with them. But, with the phone calls, I'll listen to them religiously, take notes and give feedback to the salespeople. I just a critiqued a 15-minute phone call this morning with one of our new salespeople. About 40 percent of it was what she was doing right, and 60 percent of it was about how she can be more effective going forward. So it was given in the spirit of being constructive, and she was very receptive to that. So she'll be doing her rotations next. If you have events, that's a great opportunity to get a rookie some exposure and some experience.

What do your salespeople do when they're asked a question they can't answer?

What we would like to see is for every person to tell the prospective client right up-front, "Hey, I've just got to let you know that I'm new at this and so I probably won't have an answer for every question that you'll have. I will promise you this: If I don't know, I will find out and get back to you. Would that be OK?" That's word for word what we tell our salespeople to do. It does a number of things: It eliminates the awkwardness of not knowing the answer to a question, because you've already told them you may not. Secondly, you've asked their permission to get back to them with answers, which is also a good relationship-building tool. The customers almost "adopt" these salespeople: "Don't worry about it! I forgive you." You're already in a position of gaining some favor with a client. I also tell them I don't care if they use that line for the next three years!

One of the interview questions I'll use in a face-to-face interview is, "Knowing what you know now (which is nothing), if a client were to ask you, 'When can I take delivery of this hot tub?' What in your opinion would be the best answer you could give?" Do you want to take a crack at that?

Well, I guess I would start off by telling them I don't have all the answers, then I'd tell them I would have to check with the delivery department.

(laughing) No. The correct answer is, "When do you want it?" That tells you whether the person has sales smarts.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail barrett@aquamagazine.com.

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