Stefan Brugger wanted to transform the way Gautier USA did business. Unfortunately for him, his decision to move forward with this change came as the world was plummeting into a deep economic recession.
One of his many challenges was the fact that high-end contemporary furniture is not high on most priority lists when the pocketbook tightens.
“The biggest chunk of the market is still traditional furniture,” says Brugger, the company’s CEO. “So in this niche of high-end contemporary European furniture, it was a big challenge to survive this economic downturn.”
The challenge was made even more difficult by Brugger’s plan to scrap the old way of relying on distributors to sell furniture for the $220 million company. He wanted to launch his own line of franchise stores that would sell the product with a more personal touch.
“Our goal is to create an environment (that) makes the furniture understandable for the people who are maybe not so informed about contemporary furniture,” Brugger says. “We try to work more on these qualitative things than to overreact and quit on our strategy and go like everybody with sales and panic measures.”
So how do you as a niche business launch a new way of doing things during a time of great economic uncertainty? How do you get employees and customers to believe in a strategy that seems to go against the grain of what everyone else out in the marketplace is doing?
The answer is you show confidence in the plan you’ve developed, in the product that you’re selling and in your employees’ ability to meet the needs of your customers.
You look for ways to get your employees to feed off of your energy and sell your brand to your customers. In simple terms, you don’t panic.
“It would be fatal to panic,” Brugger says. “We are willing to survive and overcome this economy and have a clean, understandable and coherent strategy for the time which follows.”
Brugger just needed the 650 employees joining him on the new venture to not panic either and to buy in to his plan for change.Stay the course
Brugger felt the pressure every day to cut prices and hold blowout sales to get customers in the door. But he did not give in to it because he was committed to the company’s niche of being a high-end furniture dealer and not a discount retailer.
“Every end consumer, even people with money, everybody is asking for a discount at the moment,” Brugger says. “So it is tough, but it pays out long term. You might lose a customer, but if you begin to go in that direction, it never stops. It’s tough to make that clear sometimes on a daily basis, but long-term-wise, it’s obvious.”
Every successful niche company needs a brand, something that it can identify with that resonates with consumers. If you feel strongly about that brand positioning and you want to maintain it, sometimes you have to find a way to weather the storms.
You need to take steps to show your people that you believe in what you’re doing.
“If a store owner begins to panic and to agree with every discount, which some people do right now at the store level, that would be completely wrong in the long run,” Brugger says. “We jeopardize our image and our brand and everything. Our goal is to offer this environment in our franchise stores in order to explain to people we are French high-end quality.”
So how do you get people to believe in your strategy when they see people they know at other companies losing their jobs and wonder if they might be next? The answer is you convince them that they are part of a team that is going through the challenge together, not alone.
To weather the storm, get people involved in coming up with plans and strategies that fit your vision and maintain your brand image. Make people proud of what it is you stand for and show that you are committed to fighting for it.
“Pride is a very important engine to get people to bring ideas to the table and to bring the company further than only being employees,” Brugger says. “You don’t only talk about the measures they have to take, but the goals and objectives we want to reach when we achieve those measures. It’s a better understanding of why we do this. We don’t just dictate what to do but also show where that should lead to.”Share the knowledge
Brugger wanted his employees to have the same wealth of information about his company’s products that he did. He wanted them to know why Gautier USA chose this piece of furniture to sell and why it was being targeted to this particular consumer.
So he made sure to bring all of the employees together and directly explain this reasoning to them.
“We invite them in and present all the new collections and features,” Brugger says. “We go over the sales arguments and possible objections and the story behind them. We give a little background to help people understand that we adopted this collection to respond to a trend or a certain need. With that background information, the person is then able to create something of their own in the sales process. If you just teach them the arguments, he stays in what you teach him. If you give him background information, he is able to create something individual in his sales approach, which better fits his personality.”
It’s that engagement and willingness to share information and bring your people into the strategy of how you do business that will earn you more loyalty. When consumers use a niche business, they expect a certain level of expertise on the product they are looking for.
“We want to have people who are fascinated by our product and by our company and our values,” Brugger says. “You have to be a good salesperson for your strategy. Live the strategy and be enthusiastic about it.”
When you hold strategy sessions with your employees, encourage two-way communication. Make the sessions collaborative by doing less talking and more listening to your people.
“If you have people around the table, to me, it’s always important to take advantage of everybody’s skills,” Brugger says. “It’s more brainstorming and creating a workshop instead of the university atmosphere.”
Use the sessions to answer questions from your people and to talk about your products and services and try to find an advocate who can further your cause for you.
“Pick some relevant project elements and develop a workshop with them so they feel part of it,” Brugger says. “They are the best people to talk to about it because they are out in front.”
When the company got a new wall unit that was designed for consumers who lived in condominiums, Brugger made sure that employees knew that detail.
“Now, if he knows this wall unit is particularly flexible to be in condominiums, if somebody comes in next time, he knows which collection to offer him,” Brugger says. “He can be much more creative in the sales process.”
There’s no reason why details on your products and services have to be closely guarded secrets.
“That’s the key because we are not fighting with prices or with discounts or those common tools,” Brugger says. “Our unique selling points are functionality, quality and French design. This is exactly why people have to know much more about our products and they have to be part of it.
“If I created the strategy, it’s very easy for me to sell it a product because I live it and stand for it and I’m very conv incing. If I have to sell a product, which I have to swallow, then it’s different. It’s difficult to tell you how to sell it because you can’t give the same energy as something I would with something that I stand 100 percent behind.”Don’t focus on money
Brugger makes it a priority to take as much focus as he can away from money, whether it’s dealing with customers or with employees. That’s not always easy to do in a tough economy when you’re trying to draw people to your business.
“Everybody else tries to throw down prices and push more products on the market and tries to convince people with payment plans,” Brugger says. “We try to convince people that this is a good investment in the long term.”
Brugger is confident that success is found when you avoid the haggling over dollars and cents and instead focus on meeting a need, whether it’s a need for your customers or your employees.
On the consumer side, that’s particularly important when you’re talking about consumers who in many cases, aren’t frequent shoppers of your product.
“If you’re looking for quality furniture, you buy every fifth, every 10th, every 15th year,” Brugger says. “So you don’t have the same information as you have for clothes or other consumer goods. We build on long-term success and not short-term success. … In the long run, we’re able to generate more quality sales that way.”
Your employees are obviously working for you to earn a paycheck to support their families. But when you focus on meeting customer needs and make it a priority to be open with them about things other than financials, you make it about more than just the paycheck.
“For me, in my experience, long-term-wise, it’s not the best approach to have people just motivated by money,” Brugger says. “It can be part of it, and it should be part of it, but it’s much better to have that provision be on a team base and not an individual base.”
In other words, focus on building teamwork and rewarding teams for collective effort.
“If most of the people are just money-oriented, then they are usually short-term-oriented because they just want to push, push, push to get the next paycheck,” Brugger says. “It shouldn’t be the main reason why somebody is working for us, because then people are much more difficult to involve and it’s much more difficult to implement a strategy because their first thought is money.”
When you focus on providing good service and helping your customers and you show that you’re in it with your employees, you make it easier for them to join you. And the end result of better service is usually a better bottom line.
In the case of Gautier USA, the approach put the company in a position to successfully launch its first concept store in New Jersey last year with new projects planned for Florida, New York, Texas and Las Vegas.
Brugger says a key to his success is the ability to build a connection with his employees.
“Even stronger than money benefits is really involvement and identification with a company, with the values and with all the basic core elements of the company,” Brugger says. “If they really feel they are part of something and they can commit personally to it, then they will invest more than if it’s only money-based. This is a factor which is extremely important.”
How to reach: Gautier USA, (954) 975-3303 or www.gautierusa.com