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A Conversation With... Michaela Merk

What makes a “brand ambassador” different from an ordinary salesperson? Michaela Merk, author of Luxury Sales Force Management gives us the lowdown on the challenges of motivating and retaining top talent, and the changing landscape of the luxury industry.

Your book teaches how to truly engage with a luxury sales force. From your experience, what’s different about managing a luxury sales force as opposed to a non-luxury one?

The term luxury in the title of my book reflects the industry sector in which I conducted hundreds of interviews among managers and salespeople. When it comes to sales, this is definitely one of the most demanding and challenging fields for selling brands, since luxury salespeople need to be on top form in terms of service and product knowledge, and need to be able to give the customer a truly enjoyable shopping experience.

Having devised 18 management strategies based on these intense studies, I would say that they actually apply to all industry sectors in which selling is a key factor of success – not only luxury. This is true for all fields in which customers don’t serve themselves but require experienced, highly motivated and engaged people to service and sell. They stand right in between the brand, its products and the client.

Your book discusses the importance of employing ‘brand ambassadors’. What separates a brand ambassador from an ordinary salesperson?

Brand ambassadors defend and live their brand from head to toe. They are highly engaged and motivated, working and actually representing this brand both internally and externally. Their attitude, values, lifestyle and behavior are fully in line with the DNA of the brand they represent. Indeed, they are the true stars of the brand and are able to pass over the flame of the brand message in the most authentic way. They love their brand and ensure its success.

Today, for economic reasons, many companies build a multi-brand sales force that represents several iconic luxury brands at once. Under such organizations it is almost impossible to build true brand ambassadors, since you cannot be Armani, Ralph Lauren and Chanel all in one person. Consequently, the way companies structure their sales force needs to be reviewed under the aspect of building brand ambassadors. This is a highly strategic decision.

The book contains interviews from over 600 top managers and salespeople. What was the most surprising thing you learnt from your extensive research?

As opposed to what most managers believe, namely that money motivates and retains salespeople - this is simply not true. Money does not turn a salesperson into a brand ambassador. The keys to success, however, are emotions developed through efficient and coherent relationship branding strategies. If money is the centre of a company’s management approach, it will lose the best people as soon as the competitor is paying more. Yet, companies that put in place emotional management strategies are able to win the hearts of their employees.

This does not mean that salespeople should not be paid well, on the contrary. Money is the basis of this work, and is expected. However, it does not serve to build brand ambassadors. Even worse, if money, facts and figures requested under constant pressure are at the heart of management strategies, emotional bonds are destroyed. In my book I introduce the 5 ‘Olympic rings’ of relationship branding that are the base to building brand ambassadors.

You talk about the best ways to recruit the next generation of engaged brand ambassadors. What is the most important thing when looking for new talent in the luxury industry?

Don’t only look at the ‘hardware’ but also at the ‘software’. The art of building brand ambassadors requires a huge amount of empathy in order to look inside the candidate’s true heart. The challenge is that recruiters must also be brand ambassadors in order to detect new ones! This is the first tricky stepping stone since many companies have not thought about making recruiters and HR managers into brand ambassadors for their own brand. They must be able to sense, identify and detect whether the future employee might be compatible with the brand’s values. Consequently, testing competence it not enough. You need to find personalities who are in line with the brand’s philosophy. In my book I help managers and all those who find themselves confronted with the recruitment challenge look for the right aspects during an interview. A series of checklists, deriving from my interviews with salespeople and managers, provide a guide for finding future brand ambassadors.

And what have you found is the biggest challenge when motivating and retaining the top talent?

Well, a company that wants to retain top talent needs great charismatic, visionary and motivating leaders; leaders that have the courage to move ahead, to take risks, to guide their boat in a clear direction at high speed. Only companies with engaged leaders can keep their brand ambassadors. They must be the biggest ambassadors of the brand and company. The most successful companies in which I conducted my interviews are those which are or were headed by charismatic leaders. They are not dictators but rather democrats, who integrate rather than exclude. Through their passion they are able to transmit the brand message throughout all company layers and beyond. Yet, such leaders are rare in today’s business.

The luxury industry is expanding into emerging markets and is no longer just concentrated in Europe and North America. What does a global luxury industry mean for its sales force?

Indeed, the highest growth rates in the luxury industry are not to be found in the traditional luxury markets but the new BRIC states, above all in China. This is related to the fact that the upper and middle class is steadily growing in these markets where more and more people can now afford to pay for high priced products. In addition, these customers are starting to travel and also want to find their desired brands abroad, with preference in their original country. Acquiring a Louis Vuitton bag in Paris has a different value than acquiring it in Shanghai, aside from the fact that high import taxes make luxury brands even more expensive in many emerging markets. For the sales force this means being prepared for more international customers, and acquiring intercultural competences (and particular language skills) in addition to their brand and product knowledge.

Especially in luxury, where service is a key aspect, salespeople need to learn how to greet and interact with a new clientele they are now welcoming in their stores. At the same time, traveling customers want to experience their luxury brands in the same way wherever they go. For that reason, it becomes increasingly important for brands to build a coherent global brand identity, which is then lived and represented in the most consistent way by salespeople as its brand ambassadors.