Owned and operated by Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Sam’s Club is a membership-only retail warehouse club with more than 650 locations throughout the U.S. Tim Simmons, Vice President of Member Management, joined the company just over a year ago. In this role, he oversees three separate teams, including customer segmentation and marketing, merchandise marketing, and member services. What the Sam’s Club team has accomplished in that short amount of time is pretty remarkable, including building a member field sales team from scratch. During a recent chat, Simmons detailed how this team was created so quickly and described the challenges of selling a membership-based model.

Since our members are paying to shop at Sam’s Club, our prices are very low. We have a large member base and aim to renew them year over year. At the same time, we know we're never going to be perfect at retention. Some members will leak out of the bucket, and then we look at ways to fill the bucket back up. The goal is to grow that bucket every year. If the bucket shrinks, it’s likely traffic, sales, and all those other metrics shrink also. Keeping and acquiring members consistently is key.

We have a very diverse membership base. There are business members, such as retailers or restaurants, buying paper plates, napkins, or even produce and meat for the dishes on their menu. We also have what we call savings members. These are consumers purchasing for their household. For example, there is the “new moms” segment we’ve identified that purchases diapers, wipes, formula, and fresh produce. It’s a totally different population of customers than our business members. Challenges for our model are working within a limited warehouse SKU environment. It can be difficult to maintain the right assortment and balance of items for both business and savings members. We’re constantly thinking about the optimal assortment mix so all of our members stay happy and renew.

Our membership fees themselves are not a high consideration, and easily justifiable by the money saved on products and services. Even though our prospects may have other sources for their needs, we’ll still say, “Hey, pay $45 and come test out the club.” We can also do a lot of things with free memberships or gift card promotions to drive trial. We want to get potential members into the club, have them see the great value and assortment, and discover how easy it is to shop. Hopefully we’ll get an ongoing member from that point.

Staying relevant with our members and adding more to their membership experience is incredibly important. For years, low prices were enough. For many members, that’s definitely still the case. But others are also looking for more value every day. We’re always working to drive this through innovative partnerships, from car buying to identity protection. We’re also constantly looking at convenience through things like Club Pickup, our new Scan & Go app, and our Sam’s Club app. A club card isn’t just for use at the warehouse — there’s an entire host of services, convenience, and best-in-marketplace discounts with partners.

When I joined, thanks to great leadership and work from the team, the savings membership base was positive again and growing. However, the business members were not growing. My goal was and is to win back business members. We want them to start with Sam’s Club. Even though we may not have the huge specialty assortment some businesses need, we do have a majority of what they need available in clubs with a larger assortment online. We've developed a whole creative platform, messaging, hierarchy, and architecture on how to convey this message to our business members. Getting that in place has been a high priority.

We put together a detailed business case and took it to HR and leadership, stating that we needed a strong sales force in order to build and nurture relationships with the highest-value business members. Once this was approved, we prioritized and picked our top markets. We went on to hire and train sales reps and territory sales managers. Even though we hired people with a lot of sales experience, sales training for our unique model was especially important. We also needed to better equip this new team with best-in-class tools and data. We estimated that a large majority of the lead data we were providing to them was inaccurate. It was important to get mobile devices in their hands since they were literally printing lists. We implemented Salesforce and internally branded it “SalesPro.” SalesPro has elevated our prospecting. Now we have great, contextual, up-to-date data in the hands of our key associates. We’re excited about the trends we’re seeing in the business member base as a whole. We have an informed and engaged sales team now, and the benefits are starting to show.

It is everyone’s responsibility. For our top business members, it is the field sales team’s responsibility to work on renewals and make sure those members are taken care of. For other business members, our club managers are tasked with getting to know their business members and keep an eye on who's declining or showing an early risk of not renewing. In each club, we have a membership team keeping an eye on who is due to renew soon and how to reach them. And of course our front line associates such as the cashiers have prompts at checkout if a member’s renewal is due. In the corporate office, we send renewal communications.

Personally, I don’t like to be sold to. If I feel like I am, I just tune out. To me, selling is all about trust. If you go in and you're only about selling something, there's no trust. If someone really gets to know me and has my best interests at heart, then I'm willing to invest in that relationship. And trust is built. Sales reps need to understand customer needs and explore how they can provide legitimate solutions. As a customer, I’d have that conversation every day.

I would say The Trusted Advisor, even though it isn’t really a sales book. If you can really live the principles advocated in that book, you will see your sales grow. It has certainly helped me to do my best in the past.

It’s definitely “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. It was my go-to motivation song, going all the way back to my college football days.

Selling is all about trust. If you go in and you're only about selling something, there's no trust.”

Tim Simmons | Vice President of Member Management, Sam's Club