As far as negative public perceptions go, the archetypal Phones 4u salesman is hard to beat as one of the most derided stereotype on the high street.
Phones 4u operations director Tom Shorten is deeply frustrated by the characterisation. He says it is grossly outdated and unfair to what he says ‘are the most skilled and fantastic bunch of people on the high street.’
The era of the Caudwell-schooled wideboys, with their excess of hair gel and hard-selling, has gone, says Shorten.
Phones 4u is unashamed about having salespeople who sell; in fact, the company is proud to have a high street sales force that sells on average more contracts per store than any other mobile retailer, he adds.
Since the transfer from Caudwell to private equity owner, Providence Equity Partners, the Phones 4u management team has been refining the famous 4u sales process and softening the spiky edges.
Out go the so-called ‘street-fighting’ tactics (offering leaflets to passers-by and dragging them into the store) and the detailed sales script (complete with mandatory pen click and enquiry on favoured football team at prescribed points).
Shorten (pictured) says he hated this sales process. ‘I consciously changed the language to make it more natural. I didn’t believe it was right to have a scripted approach.’
A new sales process is being piloted in some stores, which is ‘materially improving the transaction speed while still addressing the customers’ needs’, and it is likely it will extend to the whole retail estate.
Shorten has introduced new schemes, staff incentives and ideas over the last 12 months to give Phones 4u the edge in a market where there are more stores fighting over fewer connections.
Don’t just rely on pay
Pay is no longer the only motivator for staff, and Shorten has introduced more in-depth training and a structured career ladder within the company. ‘If money is the only benefit you offer as a retailer, you’re screwed.’
Cribsheets on new handsets are sent out to stores each week, underlining the importance of product knowledge. ‘We’re taking away that regimented sales process and empowering the sales consultant with more knowledge so they can do their job.’
Shorten says Phones 4u is out-performing the gloomy market trend (we have to take his word on this as Phones 4u is a private company and doesn’t disclose its figures), and says: ‘It’s testament to the training and the work of everyone in our stores.’
He adds: ‘People buy from people, and we’ve got some great personalities in our stores. They are the Ant and Dec characters who our customers love engaging with.’
Fighting staff turnover
At the centre of this change is Shorten’s belief that to win the most sales the company needs to win the best salespeople first. A slightly David Brent-esque ‘Recruit, Develop and Trust’ programme was set up last year, and now Phones 4u appears to be reaping the benefits, with Shorten claiming it has better skilled, happier staff who want to stay in the business.
Staff churn at Phones 4u is the stuff of legend. Reports from two years ago show staff turnover was often higher than 100% - a frightening statistic indicating that employees didn’t stay with Phones 4u for even one year.
That figure has fallen, as has the high level of fraud in stores, and it has coincided with the company’s claim that it is enjoying its strongest performances since the boom of the mobile phone.
Despite these results, Phones 4u has still lost some of its best salespeople as operators have rapidly expanded their own store estates over the last year, and have set out to poach salespeople with experience in mobile retail.
Shorten says: ‘There’s no doubt of fluidity. We believe we give people a career. You have to give your best people development and meet their ambitions.’
He says the company has also benefited from listening to the salespeople in stores. ‘Some of our best ideas come from stores.’ He adds: ‘Last year, we set out to understand the job on the shop floor; understanding the culture, being honest about what the job involves and it has made a big difference.
‘It’s important to move out of the general retail mentality. We’re in a fabulously exciting sector, selling some great products and services.’
Dongles, Sim-only and Sky
Phones 4u and Carphone Warehouse have survived better than smaller independents, but they face a similar threat: networks being much more successful at retaining customers. Both retailers have rushed to adjust to new opportunities. Shorten says Phones 4u staff are best placed to ‘untangle the complexity’ of convergence, and make sense of the multitude of broadband offers on the market.
The company has been piloting schemes in Birmingham and Liverpool to bundle plasma TVs and laptops with offers from Sky and Virgin. Elsewhere it is tapping into the surge in the Sim-only market by enjoying brisk trade, promoting Sim-only deals and Sim-free handsets since February.
Phones 4u has also looked to establish its credentials in the dongle market by claiming it is ‘the home of mobile broadband’.