Each Friday, Furniture News puts five questions to a selected industry professional to explore their background and approach to business. Today, it's the turn of John Oliver, manager of FIRA Service Technicians, a leading furniture care and repair service for manufacturers and retailers across the UK and Ireland.

How did you get into the trade?
I’m relatively new to the industry – I spent 20 years in retail store operations and marketing management positions at Boots, and this was followed by a 10-year spell at Kodak Ltd, where I ran the UK and Ireland customer care function for their consumer imaging division. In both roles I gained valuable experience, in particular how vital it is to put customer interests at the centre of any functional processes.

The position at FIRA appealed since, in common with my previous companies, the role was concerned with consumer products. I joined FIRA as operations manager for Service Technicians in early 2008.

What was the turning point in your career?
Until 1996 the majority of my experience was in dealing with the consumer. The key issues included how to communicate with them by point-of-sale, devising promotional mechanisms that would promote growth in retail sales, planning of store layouts and merchandising, and dealing with the various after-sales challenges that might occur.

Joining Kodak later that year changed the game. There were still demanding consumer issues, such as complaints – and very few issues are more emotive than when a customer’s holiday of a lifetime or one’s first pictures of a grandchild are irretrievably lost or damaged! – but I learnt a huge amount about B2B. Many of Kodak’s clients were major high street retailers with very clear views on what ‘good’ looked like. Interestingly, some of the high street names I dealt with then are also FIRA Service Technicians clients.

How can retailers increase their sales and profitability?
Invest in your staff! The reality is that, in too many cases, the lowest-paid, least well-educated individuals, whose opinions are most often ignored in any organisation – especially retail – are those with whom the customer has the most direct contact. If retailers are to benefit from the sales growth and customer loyalty that comes from a great customer experience, they’d better make sure it’s properly delivered at the sharp end. Amazingly, some just don’t make the connection.

Both manufacturers and retailers will be acutely aware that, in this industry, product returns, be they justified or unwarranted, are very expensive indeed. Profitability is directly impacted when a customer rejects a product – the costs come straight off the bottom line.
FIRA Service Technicians can make a real difference to profitability through our ability to keep product in the home through complaint validation and repair – where no fault is found, our technicians will advise and educate customers as appropriate. This process results in between 80 and 90% of products being kept in the home. In some studies we’ve done we know that the savings we generate for clients are more than 10 times greater than our fees.

What can retailers do to improve their marketing strategy?
Clarity of purpose – understand your marketplace and keep an eye on your competition, but do not be compulsively driven by their actions. Competition should not be your prime focus, the customer should be. Ask your customers what’s important to them and determine how to do that, and do it better than anyone else. Chasing the business downmarket by increasingly aggressive price discounting has damaged other industries I’ve worked in, and it’s not the only way to get sales.

Do you have an amusing tale to share?
We see around 40,000 consumers each year in the course of our FIRA Service Technician visits. With that sort of volume, incidents are bound to occur. One unexpected and humorous thing I saw recently was as a result of a new piece of technology some of our techs are using – a digital pen which records a tech’s handwritten report and transmits it for conversion into typed text – misread the sentence: “The customer reports a problem with depression of his mattress on his bed.” One of our administration team was somewhat surprised to see a report accompanying images of the offending mattress with the text: “The customer reports a problem with depression of his mistress on his bed”! I never completely trust technology.

This is an extract from an article published previously in Furniture News magazine. For more stories like this, you can subscribe to receive a regular physical copy of the magazine, or to have a free digital issue delivered to your inbox each month.