For nine years now, James + James has been disrupting the furniture industry with their high quality, customizable pieces and unparalleled customer service. We sat down with founder, James Smith, to find out what makes an outstanding customer experience, what drives a culture of personalization, and how to effectively engage leads online.
“Filling an order on time, delivering a product safely, and making a customer happy is the absolute bare minimum. It’s not success.”
What would you say are James + James’ core values?
One would be constant change and growth. We want to grow—so we are constantly going to change how we do things. Because things that made sense yesterday don’t make sense today. If we were still building tables the way that I built them in the garage, we would be in a world of hurt! We had to find better systems and get better tools.
What is the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome to get your business where it is now?
I think it’s been learning how to lead people effectively, how to find motivated people, and how to give them challenges and opportunities that excite them to where they want to work hard. It’s pretty easy as an entrepreneur to do something yourself, but once you start getting to the size where you’re really dependent on other people to grow and scale, I think that’s the biggest challenge—learning how to find the right people and set them free to do awesome things. Because that’s the only way you’re really able to multiply your efforts.
What’s the #1 trait you look for when adding an employee to your team?
We look for people who want to work for our company and don’t just want a job. A lot of people come in for interviews who are just looking for a job, and that’s fine—there’s nothing wrong with that. But we’re looking for people who understand what we’re doing and want to be a part of where we’re going. Ultimately, those are the people that stick around, come up with the best ideas, and drive us forward.
How do you get inspired at work?
I think a lot of it is interacting with our customers. Last week, our store manager was out on a much deserved vacation, so I filled in for her and got to interact much more closely with our customers. Just hearing their excitement, seeing their faces when they walk in the door and say things like, “This is a really cool store,” or “Oh, wow, I didn’t realize you guys could customize that!” really inspires me.
Being in the sales inbox and seeing responses to our follow-up emails like, “We got it, we love it, it’s so much prettier than the pictures!” and “We had our first dinner around it!” also really energizes me.
“Knowing that every evening there are families all over the country having dinner around our tables, talking about their days, doing work at our desks is so fun—it’s inspiring to be part of something that’s a core part of being a family.”
Can you tell me about a time when the odds were stacked against you and it looked like you might not succeed?
Yes—it was the middle of March. We had moved into a bigger retail space and were a week away from our grand opening when everything started shutting down because of COVID. And our sales tanked. We were really nervous—we had a team of people relying on orders coming in to build, and we were relying on money from those orders to pay those people. We knew we needed cash and work, and both were going to run out.
So we sent an email blast to several thousand people that were on our email list. It was from me, and I just said, “Things are really uncertain right now, and no one knows what’s going to happen. But I’ve got a team of carpenters that I want to keep busy and keep working, so here’s a 30% off coupon for the next nine days.” Our customers responded in such an awesome way. That’s the largest sales week we’ve ever had—we almost sold a month’s worth of orders. That kept us going through April, and then in May, sales were just crazy. We’re still digging out from all that work! It was really cool to see this community of people we’ve served over the last eight years respond to our plea for help.
Where is James + James headed now?
The current climate with COVID has changed things dramatically for us. I think a lot of people have been concerned about going into stores, so they’ve shifted to beginning their search for products online. And I think a lot of people who went online to buy furniture had a great experience and continue to go online, so it really accelerated that shift that we knew was going to happen anyways.
What has allowed your customers to have such a great online experience with you?
I think it’s about making it personal. And I think Podium helps us with that because it allows us to text our customers and answer questions in real time. They don’t feel like they’re stuck behind a call center or getting emails from a company with a “no reply” email address. We keep the same sales person with a customer throughout their whole journey, from when they first reach out to us to after they get their furniture.
“We have a team on our sales side that deeply, genuinely cares about people. They really try to make that customer feel like their friend.”
How have you optimized your website to connect with customers?
We’re coming up on a year and a half with Webchat. We can’t even imagine not having it now, because it’s just so valuable. You get a customer on your site, (especially for a considered purchase), and they have questions! And they’re not going to call or email you, they’re just going to click away. By having that chat bubble on the site, I think we’re capturing a lot of people. We’re getting back to them and blowing away their expectations, like “Wow, this is a real person! They’re texting me pictures of stain samples, and I just sent them a picture of my space and they made a recommendation of a finish color!”
It’s also given us a lot of insights into what is confusing people! I think we’ve actually driven down the amount of messages we get because we’re always listening and saying, okay, what questions do we get asked via webchat and how do we make those things more clear on our website? We’ve been constantly critiquing the product descriptions and layout.
What were some of the obstacles to expanding through Webchat, and how did you overcome them?
It just makes sense! The moment we put the icon on our website, we started getting messages. Some technologies, you have to train customers on—but this one is intuitive. And customers are pleasantly surprised when the chat goes to text and they can just go about their day without having to keep a browser open.
What is the one thing that most furniture stores are overlooking right now?
The whole industry traditionally involves going to market, getting inventory, putting it in their stores, and selling it. There’s just not a lot of customization going on because most stores don’t make their product—they just buy it and sell it. I think a lot of furniture stores are missing the boat on younger consumers’ desire to get things exactly how they want them. And missing the boat as far as quality as well. People have a really strong appetite for quality right now. A lot of customers are getting really tired of the “throw-away” culture. They want things that are going to last.
How has James + James built such an effective culture of personalization?
We begin with the understanding that filling an order on time, delivering a product safely, and making a customer happy is the absolute bare minimum. It’s not success.
Success is last Sunday—I got an email from a customer who’s bought several things from us. We have such a great relationship with her that we mailed her a James + James coffee mug (because she saw one on Instagram and wanted one). She sent us this picture, and was like “James, I have to tell you this story, I was sitting on my front porch drinking coffee with my husband out of these James + James mugs you sent us, and I looked up, and your delivery truck pulled up and was delivering a table to my neighbor! I had told them about you when they asked about my table, but I had no idea they actually purchased!” So she sent us a picture of her coffee mug in the foreground with our trailer in the background. She was just so excited about it.
So we’re really looking for opportunities, like how do we not just have satisfied customers, but how do we create advocates? Customers that can’t not tell other people about us?
“If you look at our reviews, the word that’s used the most is ‘experience.’ We read those every week in a team meeting, and we’re like, Guys, are we selling furniture or are we selling an experience?”
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