How's this for a new spin on helping smart young people interact more effectively with customers? Eight twentysomethings who work for Whirlpool, the home-appliance giant, are thrown together in a retro-decor house near a Lake Michigan beach. They spend two months living, baking, washing, cooking, and cleaning with the products their company sells. Then they take what they've learned as real-world consumers, and use those insights and experiences to train Whirlpool retailers to sell products in terms that buyers can understand.
"It seems like such a no-brainer, but we tend to get away from spending time with the consumer," says Jackie Seib, the national manager of training for sales and operations for Whirlpool. "The biggest challenge in changing the retail culture is teaching salespeople what the consumer wants."
That's the theory behind Real Whirled — a cutting-edge training program at a from-the-heartland company. Real Whirled is targeted at the all-important sales trainers — the people who go out in the field and teach clerks at places like Home Depot and Sears how to sell Whirlpool products. It has two very different sources of inspiration. One, of course, is the voyeuristic MTV show that follows a crew of young strangers who live together in an on-camera social experiment. The other is the home-economics programs of decades past, when students would live together and manage a house.
This summer, eight new hires — all of them market-training reps — lived together in a seven-bedroom home near the small vacation town of St. Joseph, Michigan, which is next to Whirlpool's headquarters in Benton Harbor. Unlike their MTV peers, these gen-Xers didn't face the scrutiny of a national audience. But they did face scrutiny. Whirlpool executives would drop by for dinner — an unforgiving audience for undercooked chicken. The director of training might show up at, horrors, 7 AM — to wake up the gang so they could begin a new day.
The six women and two men had to work as a team — and not just to schedule showers. They made sales pitches to one another, studied appliance features together, and stayed up late at night talking about the cool time-saving features they discovered. For these recent college grads, the experiences were instructive because many had never even cooked for themselves before.
While living at the Whirlpool house, Dan Fitzgerald, 26, made a blueberry crisp in the microwave. He never believed that microwaves could make food crispy. Now he tells sales associates at each of his stores about his miraculous blueberry crisp.
That little tale — and countless others like it — is the real power of the program. Before Real Whirled, new sales trainers were handed little more than a product catalog and a list of their markets. The result? They could rattle off statistics without ever giving retail clerks a compelling sense of why Whirlpool products are different. Real-Whirleders encourage salespeople to show how products solve real problems. Throughout the eight weeks, members of the group respond to one another's sales pitches with "So what?" or raise a red flag if anyone spouts jargon. "Trainers are the brand," says Josh Gitlin, 37, formerly national director of sales operations, who also helped develop the program. "They are Whirlpool." As he watches some recent graduates make a sales pitch, he is amazed at their professionalism and how consistent their message is. "I don't know how we survived before this program."
You can contact Jackie Seib by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or visit Whirlpool on the Web (www.whirlpool.com).
Sidebar: Soft Sells
Real Whirled participants cook, clean, and bake. So what has that experience taught them about selling?
Those who do, teach.
"When I tell people I've actually used the Catalyst, most people are blown away," says Dan Fitzgerald, a recent graduate, referring to a new make of washing machine. Because he's tried it, he feels confident saying "It's the most quiet washer I've used."
Real life has real problems.
The best way to empathize with customer frustrations is to experience those frustrations yourself. Give yourself a story to tell. Try different solutions, and talk about what worked for you. And if you don't have a good story, says Nicole Cox, another Real Whirled participant, "you can always steal someone else's."
Sell solutions, not specifications.
Why try to sell a fancy convection oven to a person who doesn't cook much? Why sell a heavy-duty dishwasher to someone who lives alone? The story of your product needs to fit the story of the buyer's life.
Create a compelling experience.
Re-create a consumer's problem, and demonstrate how the product can solve it. Even if the customer doesn't bite, the story will spread.
A version of this article appeared in the December 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.