Simplicity Sofas wins fans with RTA line, return policy
Gary Evans -- Furniture Today, October 13, 2012
HIGH POINT - When a customer told High Point-based Simplicity Sofas she was sending its sofa back because she liked one she found at Crate & Barrel better, the company simply said, "OK."
While the reason for the return might sound more than a little frivolous, that was only half the story. The customer used the sofa for 10 months. Not only did the company agree to accept the sofa, it paid to have it shipped back.
"I kept saying to myself: This is a test. This is somebody who wants to see if we'll do it," said Jeff Frank, owner of Simplicity Sofas, a producer of ready-to-assemble sofas, chairs and sectionals.
He was talking about a return policy he put in place when the company opened. It simply states, "If you do not like our furniture for any reason, whatsoever, you may return it to us for a full refund including shipping charges for one year after purchase."
Customer service has been the hallmark of the company, which Frank said was founded to fill a void in upper-end RTA upholstery. He and co-inventor Glenn Laughlin wanted to make stylish and quality furniture that could fit through and into tight spaces and be easily assembled (videos show very young children assembling both a sofa and sectional).
It also has been the driver for the company's 20% annual growth rate, topping $1 million within its first three years. With a lean staff and low overhead, no debt, and a line of unused credit, the company is capable of carving out margins that would be envied by anyone. Almost 100% of sales are through the Internet.
"We thought that the only way we could do it was to bypass the retailer and go directly to the consumer," said Frank. "We had a small company nobody ever heard of making products nobody every heard of that were expensive pieces of furniture. Then we asked them to pay upfront for stuff they'd never seen (except on the Internet) and never sat on. That's where the customer service comes in," he said.
Not only does the company provide good customer service, it provides what is described in the trade as "extreme customer service." That has made the company a legend in customer service circles, with its policies cited in numerous publications, including the recent New York Times bestseller, "Worth Every Penny."
Simplicity Sofas makes the non-personal interaction of buying online a satisfying experience for consumers by having a dozen or more email and phone contacts to make sure the purchase was as it should be.
Within hours of delivery, Frank said the customer gets a call asking: How do you like the furniture? What do you think of the customer service? What problems do we need to take care of right away? And to make sure customers are never left in the no-service wilderness, a live person can be reached 24 hours a day.
Frank makes a point is saying that it's not that the company has never had a complaint; it's just that a customer is never left unsatisfied - even when it's not the company's fault. And where Internet sites are heavy with complaints about furniture companies, Simplicity Sofas isn't one of them. For good reason:
When a customer cut through a shipping container and into his couch, the company sent a replacement part at no charge. When UPS delivered late, the customer got a $50 check for her trouble. If a customer decides he doesn't want the product, Frank asks that it be given to charity and issues a full refund.
The payoff is repeat customers, referrals, and testimonials. Simplicity Sofas owners have volunteered to open their homes to show prospective customers the product, and customers have even apologized for "causing the company trouble."
The company's biggest test was in 2010 when sales "suddenly doubled overnight and kept going at that higher rate," and the company making its product couldn't keep up. "The factory was swamped," said Frank, who has extensive retail and manufacturing experience. "It couldn't keep up. We had to make an emergency move to a new factory. We were completely down and did not produce for a month."
At one point, the company had 100 orders that were two to 12 weeks behind promised delivery. Frank, who regularly calls customers, sent several long, detailed emails of what was happening, and offered to cancel orders if the customers wished. But none did.
"We gave them deep discounts and refunds of $100 to $500," said Frank. "It was expensive. We would have been nicely profitable in 2010 if we hadn't had to make that switch."
The positive outcome was that customers were impressed and have become repeat buyers and word-of-mouth advertisers.
Since the company is selling direct, Frank said "there's a nice margin in there" to provide extra perks. He said most manufacturers see customer service as money right off the bottom line. "To us, customer service is a marketing expense, not a cost of doing business."