Next month, I will celebrate my 20-year mark in the contract interiors industry. In many ways, it feels like yesterday when I started my career at a furniture dealership in Milwaukee. But when you stop and look at how much has changed, 2001 was light-years ago.
Back then, clients wanted to work with a dealer that would give them a fair deal, could be trusted to perform, and stand behind their product. Most of all, they valued someone who would also make them look good…. and maybe take them golfing 🏌️♂️. While those factors still matter today (well, maybe I’m more likely to invite you to a brewery or to play table tennis than take you golfing), they often are not the most important things on the client’s mind. Today, our customers and stakeholders value dealers that can provide insights and help them create spaces that are both high design and highly engaging. They also value expertise and the ability of their partners to teach them something more than features/benefits and durability.
Here is a quick summary of what I believe to be the biggest differences between 2001 and 2021:
From Procurement to Partnership:
The main contacts and stakeholders on a project or in a client-dealer relationship are often quite different today. Think c:suite, human resources, and committees instead of facilities and purchasing managers. The way you make them look good has also changed. Doing what you say you are going to do is every bit as crucial as it used to be. However, listening and being able to tailor a unique experience for them is often more important.
From Product to Service Provider:
Today, furniture usually doesn’t need to last 30 years or be built like a tank. When I started in this business, not only could I name every product our major manufacturer partner (Steelcase) offered, but I could also tell you their specific features/benefits. Now, I can’t even name each of the 50+ companies that Steelcase owns or has an interest in, so knowing every product they offer by heart is completely out of the question. Complexity in this industry has increased more exponentially rather than incrementally in the past 20 years. Our customers expect us to be the experts on how to help navigate this complex process and to know how to help them co-create a great workplace for their employees. Being able to help them this way is more important than the specific product lines we can offer.
From Solution to Insight-Based Selling:
When we say we are experts in our craft, it has more to do with smart design and workplace research/insights than it does product expertise. Sure, we know our product solutions, but that’s not what sets us apart. We understand how the workplace can be the most important tool for employee retention and how a nicely (or poorly) designed space can have a big impact on an organization’s culture. Never has this been more important than at this point in the pandemic. Sure, employees need to feel safe to come back, and we can help design for that, but safety won’t be enough to make people WANT to come back. Employers who get this will be in a much better spot than those who simply put up a few screen dividers and call it a day. Dealers and their manufacturer partners are going to be the ones most capable to help them through it all.
It takes a talented group of people to do this. It isn’t ordering some desks and chairs out of a catalog and then delivering/placing them, maybe ordering a few more as they grow and replacing it all in 15+ years. The title, “salesperson”, doesn’t seem like a fair representation anymore. And neither does “project manager” nor “designer”.
Today, the world and workplace are much more complicated than 20 years ago. It’s also an exciting time – the value of a well-designed workplace will likely never be more valuable. Our jobs are certainly more demanding, but also more fulfilling. I am proud of my team for continuously adapting and deciding to stick with a challenging, yet rewarding career path. A path many people don’t know even exists unless they happen to work in our industry.