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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Why I left my salaried ad agency career for a commission-only position in a struggling furniture store.

After spending 2 years at an advertising agency after college, I realized that this type of “office” environment just wasn’t a good fit for me. The workdays either dragged because I was working on promoting some industrial product that didn’t interest me. Or, I was totally stressed out dealing with ego-driven CEOs and marketing execs, print deadlines, and all the little critical details that go into planning an ad campaign.

I also wanted to be more creative. I always aspired to work at an ad agency for that reason – to be creative – thinking up tag lines, product names, clever headlines, etc. But I was pegged as a “suit” not a “creative.” And once you’re defined in that role, it’s very hard to crossover to the other side.

Plus, I became frustrated with the slow income-growth opportunity. I was making $26,000/yr and was likely to only get a $2,000 raise every year. With a new house to decorate (well, new to us) and other “grown-up” expenses, this income level just wasn’t going to cut it.

Then, one day while my husband was getting his hair cut, I walked into a beautiful furniture showroom a few stores down from the barber shop. It was not only visually stimulating; but it smelled like a combination of leather and freshly-baked bread from the Einstein’s Bagel shop next door. Although I knew I was not going to be able to afford a thing in this store, I still got butterflies in my stomach just by being there.

I ended up filling my new nest with inexpensive upholstery, flea market finds, antique store curiosities and even garage sale furniture. But guests to my home would always compliment me on how nice it looked. I felt I had a natural talent for decorating. But what could I do with it?

That furniture store experience stayed with me. My visceral reaction to it was telling me that this was an environment I enjoyed being in. But I thought for sure you would need a design degree to work there. It was my husband who urged me to at least call the store to find out how their hiring process works. The fact that he thought I would be good at this, too, gave me the confidence to make contact with the store manager.

After going through a couple interviews and design tests, I was offered the job – at an $11 an hour draw against commission with a 90-day “trial” period during which I could be let go for any reason. Plus, even after the first 3 months, I could be fired if I had several months of not hitting my sales quota. O.K. is that even an actual job offer?

But something was telling me that I would really enjoy this – talking to people about their rooms, coordinating fabrics for them, and going out to their homes to put together a whole room plan. Despite having no experience doing this, it didn’t scare me at all.

But going on a commission-based structure both concerned and excited me at the same time. I tried asking the manager on different occasions, “How much do you think I will make working here?” Her response was always the same, “It’s up to you. What you put into it is what you’ll get out of it.”

I asked for a few days to think over the job offer. But now the time had come when I had to make that call back to the manager to give her my decision. Problem was, I still hadn’t made up my mind. Should I take a risk doing something new that I think I would enjoy but came with almost no guaranteed income or long-term employment? Or, keep my steady, salary-based job that bored me to death and totally stressed me out.

In that moment on the phone with her, I decided to just let my mouth answer and whatever came out, I would do. “I’ve decided to…” then I paused for what seemed like an eternity “take the job.” The store manager was so excited. I was actually surprised she still wanted to give me the job seeing how unsure I was about taking it.

My parent’s wanted to take me out to breakfast to discuss this job change. It turned out to be more like a career intervention. Basically, my Dad told me he didn’t send me to college to sell sofas. I had job security and a salary at the ad agency, which, in their eyes was better than the promise of commission.

I was lucky that there just happened to be a training session going on in my area right before I was scheduled to start my new job. To prepare, I tried to memorize the catalog the day before the training session so I didn’t look like a fool due to my lack of furniture knowledge. Despite my research efforts, I remember being in the class when an unfamiliar term was mentioned - a camelback sofa. I thought “What in the world is a camelback sofa?” That’s how little I knew about the industry.

My first week as a design consultant, I was literally thrown on the floor to start taking customers after just 2 days of watching some sales training videos. Wow! So much for that intensive training program I was told about. I guess it’s going to be more like trial by fire.

I just tried to do everything I was taught in the class and videos – make social conversation with the customers to build a bond, sketch their room as it is now to get a good understanding of their furnishing needs, ask for the sale, and if you don’t get the sale, at least take their contact info so you can continue to follow up with them.

During my first week, I mentioned to my new co-workers, “I can’t wait to get my first commission check!” They all laughed and told me that no one in the store makes commission - the store is in a bad location, the people in this city can’t afford good furniture after just buying their big houses, there are 5 other stores within an hour’s drive that sell the same furniture for less…” The list of reasons was ongoing. But there was no option for me. I had to make this work.

I did begin to get a little nervous, though, when 3 weeks went by and I hadn’t sold a thing! My first upholstery sale cancelled their order the day after they placed it. My first full room design client never showed up for their presentation.

Then finally, I sold a pair of candlestick lamps for $600. That same week, 3 customers came back in and bought from me. Plus, I sold a $5,000 sectional to a first-time-in customer. My first month’s total was a little over $20k – not a record-buster by any means. But in a struggling store, it was a great first month.

I even made commission on that month and continued to do so every month after that. When the other design consultants would ask me what I was doing differently than them, I had no idea how to respond. So I just said, “I’m just doing what they tell me to do.” “They”, meaning my manager, the videos, and the trainer. I knew nothing else besides what I had learned from them.

In my third month,December - which is typically a slower sales month - I had sales totaling $30,000. Not “Super Star” status yet, but being new in a struggling store – it was pretty fabulous.

That’s when I was offered the store manager position, as my manager was being moved to a different store. This was another hard decision to make. Management would mean working a lot more hours and loads of responsibility and headaches, especially considering I was so new to the business. But I wasn’t sure if this opportunity would present itself again in the near future. Plus, making more money was appealing. So I took it.

As a selling manager, I almost doubled my ad agency salary. And boy, did I learn a lot from all the hardships I endured by being 24 and running a million dollar furniture showroom. I also went on to bigger and better things which I’ll blog about in upcoming posts this week.

So, it just goes to show – my manager was right - you do the right things and the right things will happen. I followed my heart to find a job that I was passionate about. I didn’t let my lack of experience stand in my way. I listened to the right people and didn’t get sucked into the current staff paradigm that you couldn’t make money working in that store. And I put a lot of work into this new career– way more than a typical 40-hour work week between in-store time and housecalls.

Think to yourself, “What do I need to be doing in order to make the right things happen for me?”

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