The only thing worse than a pushy salesman in a slick suit is a salesman pushing a slick suit. In 1973, that insight led George Zimmer to open a store that would sell suits differently from how they'd been sold before. Much has changed since he opened that first store in Houston: The Men's Wearhouse Inc. is now the country's leading discount retailer of men's clothing, with 6,000 employees, more than 400 stores, and annual revenues of $630 million. But Zimmer's basic idea remains the same. "The average man enjoys shopping for clothes about as much as going to the dentist," says Zimmer, 49, the company's CEO.
How do you build a company around customers who hate buying what you sell? By building a company that reinvents the shopping experience. "Most business practices repress our natural tendency to have fun and to socialize," Zimmer says. "The idea seems to be that in order to succeed, you have to suffer. But I believe that you do your best work when you are feeling enthusiastic about things. Our business is based on faith in the value of human potential."
The result: Men's Wearhouse is on a tear. The company, which went public in 1992, has a market value of about $1 billion. Since the IPO, it has expanded by an average of one new store per week.
But the company's unrivaled record in turning reluctant shoppers into loyal customers is also based on being smart about recruiting and motivating its staff. Zimmer and his colleagues have tossed out conventional hiring rituals and evaluation criteria. "We don't look for people with specific levels of education and experience," says Shlomo Maor, 48, associate vice president of training. "We have one criterion for hiring: optimism. We look for passion, excitement, energy. We want people who enjoy life."
What does optimism have to do with selling suits? Everything, argues Maor. "Optimistic people do not prejudge or pressure customers," he says. "You have to sell the right product to the right customer for the right reason - which often means delaying gratification and taking rejection in stride. That's emotional intelligence, and it's what makes great salespeople great."
Being clear about the kind of people it wants to hire lets Men's Wearhouse streamline the process of finding them: The company simply encourages its managers to hire people like themselves. And once it recruits its "sales associates" and "wardrobe consultants," it begins the process of training them in the Men's Wearhouse way of selling.
New wardrobe consultants attend a regional "Suits High" facility for a two-day course on the company's selling philosophy. That course is a prerequisite for attending "Suits University" - five days of intense seminars and socializing at the company's training headquarters in Fremont, California. The Suits U. curriculum is less about understanding how to sell suits than about understanding people. "The most important skill we teach is the ability to move beyond the initial customer request and to satisfy a true need," says Maor.
Zimmer is tireless when it comes to evangelizing that message. Every summer, he and his top executives conduct a six- to eight-week road show on which they lead training sessions. "I spend most of my time trying to ensure not only that the experience of our workforce is positive but also that it improves year by year," says Zimmer. "When you get down to what really happens in the retail world, it's all about customers interacting with employees. The question is, What kind of energy do you sense in the stores? When you interact with salespeople who seem content as well as professional, you know that you've found a company that's doing something right."
You can visit The Men's Wearhouse on the Web www.menswearhouse.com
A version of this article appeared in the October 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.