Curious about the in’s and out’s of the pro deal system? SNEWS turned to industry expert Andy Marker, a veteran in developing pro programs, to share his insider perspective. In the second of a three-part series on SNEWS, Marker looks at how to develop a pro program for retail employees, identify signs of abuse, and the hallmarks of a good and bad program. To see Part 1 on the basics of the various discount systems, and the differences between third-party outfits and managing a pro program in-house, click here.
The benefit of offering a pro deal to employees of retail operations or to others is most definitely in the eyes of the beholder. While there’s a small minority that doesn’t see any benefit to these programs, most retail operations in the United States do allow their employees to take advantage of these deals. To those manufacturers focusing on these programs to encourage sales, some of the sweetest words that can ever be spoken on the selling floor from consumer to sales associate are: “What do you use? What do you recommend?”
It is at that precise moment that the power has shifted to the salesperson -- it’s go time and the “selling through experience” game is on. If your company has decent products, you’ve marketed them well to your store-employee customer population and provided them with excellent customer service, you have a fighting chance of being named by the salesperson. But I have actually heard a sales staffer say to a customer: “These skis are great, but the company offers poor service, so I don’t recommend them for that reason.”
It’s a given you’re not making a ton of money off of employee pro deals, but that is largely not the point in marketing to these influencers. There is generally no better path to the full paying retail customer than the one through a retailer’s floor employees. The more you can do for the retail population -- that is, the better you market to them, and the better your program deals and prices -- the more likely these ultra-important influential retail employees will be preaching the gospel of your product.
Typical customers assume the sales staff has experience with all the toys in the store and has probably used -- maybe owns -- all or the majority of them and will turn to staffers for advice. Creating a worthwhile shop employee program for your brand supports participating salespeople and their experiences. The goal is to foster their recommendations for your products and, ultimately, influence sales for your company. Retail shop employees should be treated as your best customers as they have influence over full-price sales more than just about anyone.
OK, that’s the match made in heaven, but on the flip side, abuse can and does still happen. Despite all your best efforts to offer access to your product at great prices, someone will not get the memo and do the wrong thing.
Abuses of the system
This past year, after sending a store employee a welcome letter, I was accidently included in a reply to the employee’s friend. In her note, she provided the details of how to log in and how the friend could buy for herself. I’ve seen enough of these to quickly laugh and reply back to the clerk with a quick hello -- and also say I’m shutting down her account and sending a note to the store manager.
I don’t know what eventually happened to this particular employee, but the manager told me he was very thankful for my note as he took this kind of thing very seriously -- as he should. These programs are not about a “hook up,” nor should they be considered “bro deals.” I get livid when I hear these terms as they undermine the seriousness of the transaction and of the business itself.
A pro/employee/influencer program is an amazingly powerful tool in the right hands, and if done well. If not and you hand out little cards with codes on them at trade shows, you don’t quite understand the complete business as a whole -- and you should.
I was perhaps lucky in finding this one abuser as I suspect pro deal abuse is, unfortunately, quite rampant to one extent or another. The access and the prices make it quite tempting for one clerk to buy something for a “poor” friend or spouse. And certainly, K2 doesn’t know that you’ve bought your limit over at Rossignol, so it’s actually quite easy.
I have been involved in programs that look at every single order coming through the system for size matches and questionable volume amounts -- especially over the course of a season -- and we found quite a few. But this process takes some resources -- read: people -- and also has to blend equal parts suspicion with an understanding that someone may be very excited about your brand.
I have also heard about a retail clerk at a well-known national chain that was called in front of her manager under suspicion of abuse. It seems she was spending nearly every bit of her paycheck on gear. It turned out, though, she and her husband were well off and she really didn’t need the cash. She had the job because she loved gear and she loved to go on adventures with her husband, so she bought just about everything she possibly could with her deal. Perfectly legitimate…but you never know.
Some stores handle all employee deals through one buyer, which can be a very effective control measure. As a manufacturer, the programs I have run don’t usually incorporate this function. I like to have individual accounts for employees or pros, so that I can connect with them, market to them and have a relationship with them -- I feel selling and marketing is better accomplished this way.
I also believe that if you have a strong relationship with the employee, the temptations of abuse will diminish. Maybe I’m still naïve to the human spirit, but that’s what I believe.
Regardless of any of that, abuse is bad and the offending party should be at the least, denied further access to your product. And possibly, all related employees or pros should be denied access to make it clear that abuse won’t be tolerated. At times, the rep should be involved -- especially if the person working on the program is at coordinator level and doesn’t quite have the experience or maturity to handle the situation.
There are dozens of ways a pro deal can be abused, and as a manufacturer, one needs to recognize the tell-tale signs of suspected abuse:
• Large volumes of product being bought (remember, store employees are typically, but not always, poor).
• Purchases of product that mix up a variety of sizes.
• Shipping to multiple locations. Manufacturers should explore limiting shipping to only store locations.
• Buying products for the other gender.
Unfortunately, sometimes a shop employee or pro customer that appears to be your biggest fan might just be your biggest abuser.
Being aware of these potential abuse scenarios is a hallmark of a good program. Same with great pricing for a shop employee or pro -- varying levels are appropriate and that will be discussed in the next column.
Building a pro program
A focus on world-class customer service is also paramount to great programs. As discussed a bit in the first column, you are offering the price and the access to these people in hopes they will use, love and promote your company. As a result, don’t you think they should be given 110 percent of your full service capability, especially the ability to return a product that doesn’t fit or is not the color they expected. Any good experience will be remembered and appreciated. Bad experiences are told the world over ten-fold. Think about it.
Indicators of good programs include:
• Great product information at the point of sale, i.e., website. This is especially important if you are using a third-party pro program provider. Get some product information up on the page, so your potential influencers don’t have to search all over the place.
• Experienced people running the program. People with a focus on employees/pros/influencers are far and few between. This is such an underdeveloped business opportunity for almost everyone…and it shows. Getting someone who is knowledgeable and focused will increase your sales dramatically. It will also give you a better reputation with shop keepers, their employees, pros and influencers that you need and should be targeting. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I can tell within a few seconds whether someone should or should not be in my program. Don’t leave this up to a coordinator-level person -- get someone knowledgeable and experienced.
• Simple and easy qualifications to get in the program. Make it pretty black and white: Here’s our program, to qualify you need to have this certificate or spend this many hours doing this or that -- and that is it. People are either in or out.
• Review your participants/members constantly. Store employees and pros can be some of the most job/location fickle people in the world. With a change in location or job, comes the need to usually re-up, re-categorize or cancel.
• Consistent marketing/communication to the store employees and pros/influencers you have on your list. To not market or communicate to your database is a waste of time and energy.
Indicators of bad programs include:
• Poor customer service. No one should be victim to this, ever.
• Poor return/exchange policy. Perhaps it could be listed under service, but it really needs to be called out.
• Brands/companies not checking who’s participating in their programs. I’ve seen programs that haven’t checked to see if their “pros” do what they were doing when they first signed up…many, many years later. Sales were great…why check?
• No on-line ordering capability. No, it’s not the worst thing to submit an order via fax, but it’s so…1990, and we all know faxing credit card numbers is bad. Building an on-line program is cost effective and relatively easy. And ordering with a check via snail mail just shouldn’t be done anymore.
There are quite a few more hallmarks of both good and bad programs, but this will get you started. If you’ve got the majority of these covered, you’re on your way.
In Part 3, we’ll explore the factors that go into pro/influencer programs outside the retail employee realm. Whether it’s to athletes, ski patrollers, educators or musicians, programs that are well-focused, well-run and have clear guidelines can achieve a high level of sales, influence, marketing and brand recognition.
Andy Marker is the pro sales director at Prana, and has worked for the last 20 years developing pro programs at companies such as The North Face, Nike and Patagonia. He is also the author of the white paper, “Creating, Building and Managing Successful Pro/Influencer Programs.” Questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.