Steve Phillips doesn’t understand why customers in today’s world wouldn’t want help from a salesperson. But he’s not so stubborn that he refuses to believe it is true.
“My son keeps talking about stranger danger, that customers don’t want to be approached by salespeople anymore,” says Phillips, president and CEO at Phillips Furniture Co. and six Ashley Furniture HomeStores in the greater St. Louis area.
“As a leader in my position, this is where I’m going to have to rely on these young people to make decisions that will put us in a great position for younger customers.”
Phillips Furniture is a family-run business that launched in 1937. Phillips doesn’t see things the way his father did. His son, Michael, the company’s vice president of advertising and merchandising, doesn’t always agree with his father’s point of view.
But it’s their ability to respect each other’s differences and then reach a consensus on how to operate the business in today’s world that allows the company to succeed.
“I’m hearing what they want, and I’m OK with what they want,” Phillips says of the younger generations that are becoming a larger part of both his customer and employee bases. “It’s just foreign to me. But as a leader, I have to be willing to let them try things that I’m not familiar with.”
Phillips says it’s not always easy to move away from behaviors that you’ve grown up with and used to achieve success. And he doesn’t always believe it’s necessary to shift away from something that has become a proven success. But if it is necessary to change, doing so beats the alternative every time.
“It is tough,” Phillips says. “But it’s tougher if you fail. If I keep dictating policy and how we’re going to do things based on how we did it in the past, I know we will die and that’s not good. So I just really trust these young people, and I trust the organization. If we truly have the customers’ best interest at heart, we’re going to do what they want, not what we want.”
It’s that idea of constantly seeking a better way to please customers that drives Phillips and his 330 employees.
Set a foundation
Perhaps one of the reasons Phillips is more agreeable to accepting new ideas is that he has been reluctant to follow the crowd when it comes to furniture salesmanship.
“The furniture business has not had the greatest reputation for integrity,” Phillips says. “A lot of people give false high prices and fake savings, and I didn’t want to do business that way. We have one price on a piece of furniture.”
The problem for Phillips is that many employees who have worked in the industry for a number of years were trained to take the misleading approach.
“There was a very specific way we wanted to do things that was not normal in the furniture business,” Phillips says. “That’s why we don’t necessarily want people who have been in the furniture business because we don’t know what their training background is.”
The solution for Phillips was to create a training program that new employees must go through before they are allowed to speak to a customer.
“So everything that we do structurally and integritywise is ingrained before they talk to their first customer,” Phillips says. “As a matter of fact, we probably don’t spend enough time talking about product. It’s more about how we do things. We have leadership round tables every month also. We have our leaders come in and we just go through what’s important to our customers.”
The goal is to have a sales team that doesn’t just talk a good game when it comes to pleasing the customer, but they can actually show how they’re going to do it.
“They have to role-play to show us, not just tell us, but show us they know how to service customers the way we want them to,” Phillips says.
That’s the end result. The steps for getting to that point where employees have the ability to display those skills must be dutifully followed if training is going to work.
“You can’t train or correct anything until you can measure it,” Phillips says. “We know how many pieces per hour some of our furniture assemblers can do and what the standard is. We know how many pieces per hour one man can unload on a truck. You can’t manage and train until you know what the issue is, which is only done through measurement.”
Once you have that data to work off of, you’ve got to put what you want to do in writing and then make sure you do it.
“If it’s not in writing, it’s not real,” Phillips says. “So everything is in writing, and you just go over it step by step. They can’t be promoted until somebody observes and there is a physical check-off that this is what they can do.”
If you don’t believe you have time to conduct training with an already cramped schedule, you’ve got to find a way to make it work.
“Training has to be a priority,” Phillips says. “If you get caught in the treadmill of doing business all the time, you’ll never get off the treadmill and start training. If you train and make it part of your culture and your business religion, you don’t think about it as being a disruption of your normal process. It is your normal process.”
Take a visible role
Many leaders will talk about how important a training program is, but then they personally move on to other things and leave the team to figure out the best way to make it work.
Phillips says you have to do more than that as CEO.
“Every training class we have for salespeople, I’m the first presenter,” Phillips says. “I take the first hour or so and tell them about the company and what we stand for.”
The company’s COO tackles the next segment and then training responsibility shifts to Phillips’ brother, Matt, who heads up training at Phillips Furniture.
“What we want these people to see is that everybody at the top also believes in everything we do,” Phillips says. “The fact that we spend so much time with them, we certainly hope that’s what they believe.”
As a way to encourage leaders to want to take part in the training process, Phillips suggests rewards for leaders whose direct reports receive promotions.
“A lot of leaders withhold knowledge or training for fear of somebody rising above them,” Phillips says. “Our managers are rewarded for having someone promoted from beneath them. We love store managers who want their assistant managers or their team leaders to be promoted. They don’t feel threatened by it.”
Focus on core values
The other piece of the puzzle for Phillips is core values. While he is open to changing training methods and operational policy, he leaves no wiggle room on his commitment to the company’s core values.
“No matter what processes or changes you make in your business, you can still hold tightly to your core values,” Phillips says. “That’s the one thing I will never negotiate — how does it look with our core values. You have to keep that out there in front.”
Arriving at the three core values that define Phillips Furniture was no easy chore. Phillips and a team of more than a dozen leaders left the company’s headquarters and headed to a remote cabin in the Ozarks. Once they arrived, it took three days to finish their work.
“There were a lot of great ideas,” Phillips says. “I just didn’t want a lot of them. We could have had 10 great core values, but I wanted to be able to sink our teeth into three or four. Once you get past three or four, they start becoming a little redundant. These were three that nobody could ever argue with.”
The three core values they decided on were “integrity above all else, honesty in all we do and service to others first.”
“If you can get your entire organization to buy in to those three things, you have a much easier time finding great leaders because leaders want to buy into something greater than a dollar,” Phillips says.
Some companies consider “making a profit” a core value and Phillips says he understands, even if he doesn’t agree with it.
“We think that’s the result of doing the first three,” Phillips says. “So we wanted the core values to produce the results that we were looking for.”
Phillips says his company wants to make a buck as much as anyone. But by focusing on other things, such as the customer experience, employee readiness and job satisfaction and giving back to the community through charitable efforts, everybody comes out ahead.
“It’s imperative that a company stand for more than a dollar,” Phillips says. ●
How to reach: Phillips Furniture, (314) 966-0047 or www.phillipsfurniture.com or Ashley Furniture HomeStore, (314) 845-3084
The Phillips File
President and CEO
Phillips Furniture Co. and Ashley Furniture HomeStores/St. Louis
Born: Dayton, Ohio
Education: I went to the University of Missouri for three years. I got married when I was 20, and I got tired of being broke, so I quit school and took a job.
What was your very first job?
Raising vegetables and selling them door-to-door. I’m an avid gardener, and I still am to this day. My first full-time job was in the furniture store while I was going to school at Mizzou.
What got you into gardening?
My dad had an extra lot next to the store. I always wanted to be a farmer my whole life, and now I do own two farms. There is something really neat about getting your hands in the soil. He gave me this plot of ground, and I had a wagon. I would load it with vegetables I grew and picked and I would take them door to door to our neighbors. I didn’t have prices. I always said pay me what you think they are worth and I got taken advantage of quite a bit. So I learned not to do that the next year.
Who has been the most influential person in your life?
It would have to be my mother and my father. From a business point of view, it would have to be my father. He was the most patient and kindest man you ever met. I never saw him raise his voice ever. I don’t know that I got those traits from him, but I’ve always admired those traits. My mother had six kids and she’s a phenomenal woman.
Don’t be afraid to change.
Make the time to do training.
Don’t choose too many core values.