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Frequently in this column, I have argued that REALTORS have a lot to learn about selling and customer service from “professional” sales organizations. A common reference has been who puts at least seven photos of every pair of shoes online. Zappos proves that just because you have a large database of “inventory” there’s no excuse for not having lots of clear, informative information and images for your products. Zappos even raises the bar on “descriptions” on inventory: their writers describe shoes in terms of customer desires and needs – like “sexy, comfy, classy, etc.” This is totally unlike REALTOR home marketing, which mostly consists of “it has bedrooms, it has baths, it has a kitchen.” Zappos markets the product based upon how the buyer wants to buy it – desires and emotions – while most REALTORS market property as if they were giving a description of a car accident to a policeman.

Now someone else has upped the ante for professional sales standards: Lord and Taylor. On a recent pass through their store, I watched a Lord and Taylor saleswoman in action. My girlfriend was looking at a pair of shoes, and Ellen, the saleswoman, immediately offered to help. Pulling a PDA from her belt, Ellen flipped the shoes over and scanned a barcode on the bottom. The PDA wirelessly checked the store’s inventory, and displayed a list of sizes and colors available in that shoe model. It took four seconds, and the customer was enthralled. In fact, I had just caught this out of the corner of my eye, so I went over to ask some questions.

Ellen explained to me that their entire inventory database was accessible to her via the PDA. She could scan any garment or shoe tag and immediately see the availability and options for that item. Rather than going back to “check” and then possibly coming back with bad news for the customer, Ellen could “manage the sale” by checking inventory, and then confirming its availability or offering an alternative shoe if necessary.

Lord and Taylor had trained Ellen to integrate her technology into the sales process. Using the PDA was seamless: Ellen didn’t struggle with the device, blame it for beeping or malfunctioning and made it look completely normal. The technology was used in “just the right amount” – not too big or bulky or beeping to distract the customer, but enough to give Ellen real-time information necessary to continue the conversation with the customer.

And the customer loved it. Time was saved, rather than waiting for the salesperson to go back into the inventory room, then come out empty-handed. Instant gratification was made “more instant” – and in a bricks-and-mortar environment. Who says real stores can’t compete with online stores?

Of course, I had to take a picture. It was a perfect example of technology-empowered sales. At no time did the technology become the center of the discussion: Ellen continued to build rapport, identify the needs of the customer and create a safe atmosphere for her to describe her desires. Every time the customer suggested an option – another color, another style – Ellen immediately provided information.

Imagine if this was the experience consumers had when they talked to REALTORS by phone? Or while they were touring a few homes, and their agent had a wireless laptop with them to suggest more properties or local town information as they went along? Imagine if REALTORS actually took their laptops to work, the way Lord and Taylor trained its salespeople to integrate into the everyday practice of selling shoes?

Ultimately, the shoe had to be tried on and experienced. That’s sort of like an “open house” in real estate terms. The customer had been “enticed” by the advertising (a model shoe on a shelf) then inquired for more information (asked the sales person) who instantly replied with information (responded to the lead in real time, then provided data base to the customer immediately) while they applied sales skills to build a rapport.

Oh, yes, one more technology was applied: A credit card reader was used to purchase the shoes. Total sale: $100 in 10 minutes. Customer very happy. Salesperson very happy. At $10/minute that’s not a bad pay rate.

All because the sales person took her technology to work.

Good job, Ellen!