The performance at the sales counter of most distributors falls sadly short of customers' expectations. Of course, no one sets out to make a poor impression. In fact, a newly launched sales counter, well staffed and organized with product-filled shelves and walls, is a marvel to behold. But then the phone rings and customers stack up and business goes on. It just happens over time; dust gathers, signs fade, and paint peels. It may occur gradually, but the impact is immediate. The result? Customers believe that you no longer care as much you once did.

That's when it's time to stand back and take a look at what the counter has become. This article will help you transform an aging sales counter into a tool of mass persuasion. While most of these suggestions will seem familiar and easy, it's their simple nature that makes them so often overlooked or deemed unimportant. To recognize just how critical these elements are to major players in the construction industry, take a surveillance trip to Lowe's, Ace Hardware or Grainger. You'll see that these businesses show a healthy appreciation for the many elements of persuasion. Now for the health of your own branch, consider these 17 ways to amp-up the customer experience at your sales counter.

  1. Price it

    Traditionally, items sold at the sales counter are not priced, but this could change if industry consultants and marketing experts have their way. Citing research from surveys and statistics, both groups make a convincing case that in sales counters where the merchandise is priced, sales climb as much as 20 percent! The reason for this is two-fold: First, some customers will not ask a salesperson for a price so they just don't buy the product. Second, some customers believe if it's not marked, it must be expensive. Adding price tags overcomes both of these objections.

  2. Clean it

    One of the bad things about growing up is that mom's not around to tell you when it's time to clean your room anymore. So, take a good hard look at your counter area. Is there dust on the displays and cobwebs on the ceiling? Abandoned soda cans on shelves? Wipe down all horizontal surfaces or anywhere else that dust gathers. Buy a Shop-Vac to reach the corners and under displays. Don't forget to clean the mud and fingerprints off the front door. Cleaning is a task that is never complete. Make your mom proud and take out the trash before it overflows.

  3. Paint it

    If the walls of your store still look dingy, faded and tired, then it's time for a fresh coat of paint. It's an inexpensive and fairly easy way to give any sales counter that new-and-improved appearance. Light, neutral colors are best for persuasive environments. Special note: If your sales counter is still sporting brown pegboard from the 60's it's time for a makeover. A bucket of paint provides a lot of bang for your buck.

  4. Move it

    Even repositioning a gondola can make a difference in product sales. Don't get stuck in an old-school merchandising rut. Be bold and innovative. Moving displays around every other month or so gives your sales counter a new look and keeps your customers alert to make new discoveries.

  5. Upsize it

    If high school kids can persuade customers to “add fries to that burger” then anyone can learn how to “upsize” orders at the sales counter, too. Some may think that selling add-ons is too high-pressure, but the truth is most customers appreciate the extra attention. Trust is essential in add-on selling. Avoid recommending an item unless there truly is a benefit to your customer. Selling up creates a professional image that identifies you as a specialist in your industry. It pays to sell up.

  6. Reduce it

    Most branch managers equate having a sale with taking a loss on old products. But, with careful planning a sale can be a moneymaking opportunity. Instead of displaying only the obsolete products, mix in some new products as well. Before the scheduled sale, take advantage of vendor promotions and buy for the sale. Display the new products at a slight discount alongside the sale merchandise.

  7. Throw it out

    If it's damaged and not returnable, or if it's an obsolete item that survived the sale, get rid of it. Scrap it, give it away, whatever. Don't tie up inventory dollars and valuable shelf space with material that's going to be written off at your next inventory anyway.

  8. Open early

    If customers are standing outside the door before your posted opening hours, let them in. Think of it as money scratching to get into your store. Few things are as aggravating to a customer as seeing store workers through a locked glass door. Sure there are exceptions, such as counting cash or administering CPR, but whenever possible make a point of opening your doors before your competitors open theirs. A related point — close late.

  9. Greet your customers

    So simple, but so often neglected. Acknowledge customers as soon as they cross the threshold, even if you're already waiting on someone. Sam Walton thought it important enough to place a greeter in each one of his stores. Obviously, most distributors don't have a budget for professional greeters, so make it everyone's job. Make it a policy that any employee in the counter area should greet customers and ask if someone is helping them. Even if an employee isn't trained for counter sales, he or she can still welcome and assure the customer that help is on the way.

  10. Educate yourself

    In spite of your longevity or expertise, there are still discoveries to be made in this industry. Don't wait for the company or your boss to assign training. Show initiative and sign up yourself. Check out the NAED Learning Center developed by the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED), St. Louis. Current offerings include “Advanced Inside Sales,” “Counter Pro” and “Selling Green 101.” Only companies with a training-based culture will deliver the level of competence required of savvy customers. The constant learners of today are the profit earners of tomorrow.

  11. Know thy product

    Selling is easier when you know what you're talking about, and customers love knowledgeable salespeople who respond quickly to their needs. They're magnetically drawn to efficiency. Learn about new products before the product launch. Ask your reps about available selling resources and aids for their product offerings.

  12. Upgrade signage

    Signs deliver a message about your product or your company. Overhead signs are useful for showing customers where products are located. Remove any faded, torn or out-of-date posters. If you have handwritten signs get rid of them. They look sloppy. Replace with professionally printed ones or print new ones off of your printer. Rotate or replace product posters two to three times per year.

  13. Give a boost to displays

    Strategies and tactics for displaying merchandise can promote rapid product sales and growth. Adequate product supply, knowledge of customer preferences and appropriate marketing mix are key elements in boosting counter sales. If this is outside your expertise or you simply don't have the time, hire an expert. Yes. it's that important.

  14. Do the “light thing.”

    Lighting is a major element in creating an atmosphere of persuasion. Look up. Scan for black shadows and replace all burned out lamps. Look at the wall displays from left to right, as you would read a book. Watch for poorly lit, empty or blank spaces. Use track lighting or wall washers to fill in or highlight certain product displays. Take advantage of the different lighting sources available from your manufacturers to showcase the lighting options available to customers.

  15. Divide and conquer

    Assign specific areas for individuals to monitor and keep merchandised. Keep in mind that creating attractive merchandising displays isn't a natural trait in most people. It requires instruction. Don't just tell someone, “Keep this display full.” Show them. Put it in writing. Design and follow a planogram.

  16. Walkin' the floor

    Walk in through the customer entrance. Stop. Consider how it would appear through your customer's eyes. Take it all in. Look for clutter, empty shelves and pegs and anything out of place. Turn to your right and resume walking. Arrange displays in a way that creates a logical traffic flow through your store. This will save time and ensure the safety of browsing customers. Place the coffee maker, popcorn popper and vending machines in strategic locations to draw customers to different parts of the showroom.

  17. Post a guarantee

    A no-hassle guarantee is a powerful tool of persuasion. The guarantee needs to be posted and clearly visible to customers. It's most effective with customers who fear parting with money or making a bad decision. Research has repeatedly proven that the increased sales more than offset the handful of customers who might take advantage of a generous return policy.

Every element in the sales counter can be a tool of persuasion — or an instrument of sales prevention

Whether customers feel like welcome guests or troublesome pests depends upon how well these elements are engineered. This isn't a one-time fix, but an ongoing maintenance plan. Understand that everything matters. From the broken caster on the display to the empty toilet paper dispenser, customers unconsciously grade your company on a mental scale that weighs their expectations against the service that you actually deliver. Relentlessly focus on the elements of persuasion to ensure that the performance you deliver exceeds your customers' expectations. Do that consistently and it's a guarantee that the scale will always tip in your favor.

Mike Dandridge is a 20-year veteran of the electrical wholesale industry. He is the author of “The One Year Business Turnaround,” a book that details the exact processes and techniques he used to turnaround an electrical supply company in central Texas in just 12 months. He's also a featured speaker for national wholesale organizations and is a columnist in several industry magazines. Dandridge is a nationally recognized expert on showing independents how to improve profits and gain market share from predator competitors. You can contact him at mikedan@mac.com.