Training Top-notch RSAs: A proactive and comprehensive RSA training program is a key differentiator in today’s market - March 2021
By Jessica Chevalier
One of the challenges facing the retail flooring world involves replacing the older-and often long-serving-generation of retail sales associates (RSAs) who are on the edge of retirement. By and large, while top-selling RSAs can make a salary well into the six-digits, younger generations often do not consider retail flooring sales as a career or may shrink away from the idea of commission-based sales altogether. The development of successful candidates is two-fold: identifying good candidates for the position and training them to perform at peak level-not to mention stick around long term.
Retailers, of course, have different goals, preferences and cultures and, as such, they approach hiring and training in varying ways. The retailers with whom we spoke for this piece-New Jersey-based Avalon Flooring; Indiana-based ICC Floors Plus; and Ohio’s McSwain Carpets and Floors-have tackled their hiring and training in various ways, but all have found success in being proactive and strategic in their approach.
Hiring trainees and simply throwing them to the wolves of the sales floor does not produce quality sales professionals, satisfied employees or for that matter happy consumers.
Avalon is a 17-store retailer with 300 employees, 150 of whom are in sales. As such, president and CEO Maryanne Adams emphasizes that she and her team have both the capital and manpower to formally train in ways that a mom-and-pop may not.
Avalon, an ESOP company, likes to hire trainees that have been in a commission-based sales environment, though it prefers individuals that have not worked in flooring sales previously, as it likes to start afresh with imparting flooring knowledge.
Avalon’s training program is six months long, and trainees are paid $800/week. The company begins with computer-based product knowledge training, then transitions to a mentor system, partnering the trainee with a seasoned employee and incentivizing the established RSA for their time. After that, trainees work with product managers to learn specifics of each product category and Avalon’s offering.
Once trainees are up and running independently, they go to $700/week plus commission. Many don’t make commission for their first six months, though Adams notes that their early success is partially a factor of whether they come out of training in a busy or slow selling season. She adds that it can take a full year and a half to get trainees fully up and running with all the product knowledge that they need.
One building block in RSA success, according to Adams, is Avalon’s merchandising strategy, which focuses on keeping a curated assortment on the selling floor, rather than loading it down with manufacturer racks. “We want RSAs to be well-versed in carpet-not just one manufacturer’s products,” says Adams. “We want to build an understanding of fiber and which is best for the customer’s application. We want to make sure we recommend the right product and type for the customer’s lifestyle.” One of Avalon’s strategies in this regard is training RSAs on how to utilize a good-better-best strategy. For instance, a customer may come in desiring Carrara marble for a bathroom project. Avalon encourages its RSAs to price that out for the customer, but, knowing they may suffer a bit of sticker shock when they see the estimate, the company encourages trainees to have a second estimate ready as well-perhaps on a porcelain that replicates Carrara.
Unsuccessful RSAs are, of course, a reality, no matter how good the training is. Adams looks for early signs that a trainee might not be a good fit. “We put them in the training program and want to see them progress,” she explains. “If they aren’t progressing, we are having conversations early. No one should be surprised if they are let go. We are giving them the tools to succeed, and they need to understand that commission selling means you are in charge of your own destiny.”
As for the frequent turnover problem in the RSA community, Adams notes, “If they are good, turnover is not a problem because we allow them to make money. We have some making well over $100,000/year. The turnover is at the bottom primarily.”
Covid has thrown a wrench into Avalon’s training process. While the retailer has traditionally brought in groups of trainees and moved them through the process together, amid quarantine, they can’t do that. Recently, the company has turned to Zooming with groups of ten or so for product knowledge sessions. But Adams notes that trainees aren’t generally as interactive in virtual sessions.
Ultimately, Adams believes that a successful RSA must be money-driven if they are to succeed. “A successful RSA is career-minded,” she notes. “It’s the difference between those who see this as a job versus a career. As long as you cover your numbers and make your draw, you are welcome to stay, but the folks who are hungry, those who take charge of their own destiny, really succeed.”
ICC FLOORING PLUS
As part of the National Floorcovering Alliance (NFA), Jason Waggoner, vice president of sales for ICC Flooring Plus, heard members lamenting year after year that there were no good training platforms for RSAs. Around 2018, the company decided that it would develop its own internal training program-and stick to it.
To accomplish that, ICC, which has three retail stores around Indianapolis, Indiana, partnered with a local company, using its platform as a base on which to post custom-built content. “Originally, we thought we’d make it ICC-specific-who we are, how we do things-then use manufacturer sites for product knowledge,” explains Blake Powell, retail sales leader for ICC. “But eventually, we realized that we wanted all the components of the training program to be in one place, and we wanted to train new hires on the nuts and bolts because manufacturer sites would be biased. So we opted to build product knowledge content in a fun, engaging way with design 101, sales training, etc., and it all came together nicely in one centralized hub.”
ICC’s training program operates on a very detailed 30-day/six-week schedule. The calendar breaks down not only what the program covers daily but hourly. Waggoner and Powell laugh recalling how they would follow trails of topics and find themselves down one rabbit hole after another in an effort to be thorough; indeed, some elements of the program are highly choreographed. The day two “software knowledge” section, for instance, is broken down as follows: Introduction to CMM (15 min), Overview of CMM-Bid Pro (20 min); Overview of CMM-Order Entry (20 min); Overview of Measure (20 min); Overview of Podium (10 min); Podium and Webchat Feature (10 min); Best Practices for Using Chat (10 min). As new topics and products hit the market, the company continues updating and adding to its content; continuing education happens on a weekly basis.
While the formal training program is 30 days, the company realizes that there is a long curve before a new trainee becomes a great RSA. Like Avalon, ICC prefers to hire RSAs with no experience in the flooring industry, so trainees don’t first need to be uneducated on former procedures, policies and ways of thinking before they are educated on the ICC way. The company notes that the best candidates are motivated, positive and entrepreneurial; ICC has had good results with individuals possessing backgrounds in restaurant service and cell phone sales. Recently, Powell had an exceptional experience at a restaurant and gave the server his card, saying, “If you are ever looking for an opportunity, let me know.” He advises to “always be on the lookout for good talent.”
As Waggoner and Powell considered the time and financial commitment it took to build a proprietary training platform, they realized that their work would benefit others, so they developed a second company, called Floorish, to distribute the training program to other companies.
The Floorish e-learning platform launched to NFA members at Surfaces 2020, offering the program at no cost for six months. Floorish operates on a pay-per-month-per-user model.
While ICC did not build the platform as a reflection of its own culture-since other companies are utilizing it as well-it does in fact believe that culture is absolutely key. “Culture is the root of keeping RSAs around,” says Waggoner. In fact, culture is the first pod within the training program, followed by software, sales and product knowledge. “The first thing we do is a tour to meet everyone and alleviate that stress of being the new person,” Waggoner notes. The company believes that it is important to impart product knowledge before trainees meet the brands for two reasons-first, they will be less impressionable to partiality and, second, they will retain more because they already have a base of understanding.
After the first week of computer-based training, the company partners the trainee with a veteran associate. They offer no additional compensation to the veteran, believing that it is better to build a culture in which helping others is the norm.
While ICC has developed a technology-based training program, both Powell and Waggoner work closely with trainees and utilize “old school” strategies like role-playing to teach particular concepts, such as selling higher value products.
Waggoner and Powell report that within two weeks they can tell if someone is a good fit. “We are all guilty of having that gut feeling that someone won’t work out but not letting them go,” Waggoner says. “It’s a disservice to the trainee and a major cost, so we work hard to cut ties earlier rather than later.”
Like Adams, Waggoner believes that the best RSAs possess a “special something” that can’t be taught but also notes that key to motivating any employee is understanding their “why.” He adds, “You have to know what makes them tick-is it financial or flexibility or helping others-and remind them of that.”
MCSWAIN CARPETS & FLOORS
In early 2019, McSwain Carpets and Floors, a nine-store retailer based in the Cincinnati, Ohio market, hired industry veteran Bibi Gadd as director of customer care and talent development. While the company had a training program for RSAs previously, Gadd was tasked with developing a more robust offering, partnering with vice president of retail sales, Dean Wright, in the effort. McSwain, an NFA member, has 31 RSAs and is facing the same challenge that many flooring retailers are currently going through. “A number of our experienced salespeople will be transitioning into full or semi-retirement within the next year,” explains Wright, “and some of them are our top producers.” The organization is looking to bring on six RSA trainees before the middle of the year.
When Gadd joined the operation, she spent the first four months following the course of an RSA trainee and learning everything she could about the existing training program. That enabled her to see the strengths and the flaws and to develop a curriculum based on the needs of those in the position. In addition, McSwain opted to utilize ICC’s Floorish program.
McSwain seeks RSA trainees with previous customer service or sales experience; it doesn’t have to be in floorcovering sales, but that is not considered a negative either. “One of the overarching traits you want to see in a trainee is an entrepreneurial spirit,” explains Wright. “We have lots of support systems at McSwain to help RSAs, as well as policies and procedures, but in reality, each salesperson can manage their work as if they were running their own business and making decisions. The most successful in this business run it as if it were their own.”
Trainees begin their orientation with an introduction to McSwain, facilitated through the Floorish program, which McSwain uses for the computer portion of its training. After that, Gadd takes them on a tour of the facility, reviews company policies and procedures, and starts in with e-learning product knowledge.
Like other retailers, McSwain approached the development of its training program with an eye on balance. “We didn’t want to have new associates sitting in front of the computer all day,” explains Wright. “They have a computer lesson, then reinforce that with real life education on the floor.”
This diversity also makes it more enjoyable. “Floorish has given us the ability to be more structured,” says Gadd. “We break e-learning down over several weeks and mix it up with shadowing. This type of approach keeps the salesperson from being extremely overwhelmed because there is lots of variety.” Part of that is also varying who the trainee is spending their day with. Shadowing and mentoring play an important role in McSwain’s process and trainees spend lots of time learning from store leadership, and this is where the bulk of sales training and strategies are imparted.
Gadd and Wright also craft their own lessons, based on gaps that they see. “I saw the need for one on communication and email etiquette,” says Gadd. “There are many people who email in business as if they are writing a text. We want to explain the professionalism that our associates need to portray-even in inner company email.”
Only after trainees have completed the e-learning do they meet with vendor reps. “This way, they are more educated on the breadth of the category before the individual products,” Gadd explains.
All told, McSwain’s RSA training generally lasts about 90 days, though it can go faster or slower based on the learning speed of the particular candidate. “Typically, we are seeing that by the middle of the second month, they are ready to take on customers,” says Wright.
Continuing education is an important component to the retailer, as well. McSwain is looking forward to the release of a new Floorish design program that consists of 15 modules. The entire RSA team-new and veteran-will participate.
In addition, McSwain likes to bring in experts to teach important concepts, such as how to “sell up” rather than starting low; Pami Bhullar, VP of business development for The Dixie Group’s residential business, is a favorite.
“Pre-Covid every time we get the sales group together, there is a training component,” reports Wright.
Since coming aboard, Gadd has instituted Wednesday Wisdom sessions, which focus on personal and skill development issues.
Wright concludes that true success for RSAs at McSwain comes from, “having a passion for serving the customer” and the ability to adapt and thrive in the culture they’re in. “In an operation of our size, a person can get lost,” he notes. “A successful RSA has to learn their support structure: who to go to, who to rely on. If they can’t build those connections, they will get lost or frustrated.”
Not all retailers have the resources and bandwidth to create and operate formal in-house training programs. As such, manufacturers make an effort to bridge the gap by providing RSA support for their retail partners.
Morgan Obey, digital engagement manager at Shaw Industries, leads a team of eight Shaw employees who serve as a connection point between Shaw and its retailers. The goal of the team is to educate, enable and empower partner RSAs to be comfortable selling.
All of the training is complementary, and the Shaw team offers opportunities for engagement monthly. These opportunities can be enjoyed in either a live, interactive format or utilized at a later date, as they are compiled for on-demand use.
Shaw offers a full gamut of programming, including product knowledge, selling tips and nuts-and-bolts information about the product categories.
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