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Professional Selling Skills - Supporting Customer Needs - Part 4

Furniture World Magazine


Know how to present, support and acknowledge

We now come to the darling of the skills, as far as John F. Lawhon is concerned, namely, the skill he calls PRESENTING and Learning International, Inc. calls SUPPORTING. Those familiar with Lawhon's book, "Selling Retail" will remember how ecstatically he begins Book Two by exclaiming that everything he wrote in Book One was not selling. The greeting, the approach, qualifying, and selecting he writes, are not selling; they are getting ready for selling. It's as if Lawhon were writing about sailing. All the preparation one does before actually taking to the water is not sailing. Only when one is on a ship sitting in the water with the wind filling the sails can it actually be said that he or she is sailing. So persistent is Lawhon in his conviction that only presenting is selling that he defines the role or the goal of the salesperson as that of providing customers with the information (features and benefits) they need to make the best buying decision. In other words, the role of the salesperson is synonymous with presenting.

Presenting, then, is for John Lawhon like the Pantheon, the temple that houses all the gods of selling, so to speak. Nor is this metaphor skewed, to judge from his "Revelations" as he calls them in "Selling Retail" and from the title of his latest book, "The Selling Bible."

But while I readily acknowledge Mr. Lawhon's indispensable contribution to retail selling in general and to selling furniture in particular, I do not share his conviction that presenting alone is selling. That presenting is essential to selling there can be no argument. However, taking my cue from Learning International, Inc., I believe that selling consists of four interdependent skills that work together synergistically, and together comprise the selling process. My reason for not agreeing with Lawhon in this matter is based on the following:

It is the universally accepted rule of a definition that it must expressly state and not just imply what is essential to the make-up of the term being defined. The weakness in his definition of selling is that it only implies the need to get information from the customer. It does not express it.

Not that Lawhon has not always shown a keen awareness of the need for salespeople to get information from customers first before attempting to provide them with information. In fact, Lawhon likens salespeople who skip the probing process to doctors who would prescribe without first diagnosing. Salespeople who do that, he says, are as guilty of malpractice as doctors who would skip the diagnosis. Too bad Lawhon fails to express that same idea in his definition of the role of the salesperson.

We are not merely splitting hairs. Unless sales trainers stress that obtaining information from the customer is as much the salesperson's role as providing them with information, it will prove difficult for salespeople to understand that they must first probe for customer needs before moving on to support those needs.

But there is an added reason why I feel so strongly about the salesperson's information gathering role. That reason is based on the need to look upon selling as a process involving two experts; the customer and the salesperson. The customer is the expert about his or her house. The salesperson is an expert about his product and his organization's procedures and policies. Both experts have information to give; both experts have information to obtain. Therefore, the role of the salesperson's is as much that of obtaining as providing information. Either half of that role is not selling. Besides, what customers are looking for in salespeople is a strategic orchestrator, one who is consultant, long-term relator, and differentiator. When they find that strategic orchestrator, they find what one manager once told me... all customers go from store to store until they find a salesperson!

Only when selling proceeds as a partnership in which both sides exchange vital information does it stand a consistently good chance of ending up as a win-win situation. How appropriate the worlds of the "Professional Selling Skills" seminar: "The successful sales call is one in which you and the customer make an informed mutually beneficial decision." In short, win-win does not merely mean both sides win. More importantly, it means that both sides win at a higher level. That's what "making a better buying decision" ought to mean. Best for customer and salesperson both. Therein lies the very essence of what Larry and Russell Schneiderman of Schneiderman's Furniture call Preventative Selling, a concept they have persistently worked at inculcating in the minds and hearts of their salespeople. All stores should get their hands on their video tape called "Preventive Selling" and my accompanying manual called "The Before and After of Customer Service."

As for the skill itself of supporting, Learning International, Inc. prescribes three steps:

  • Acknowledge the customer's need. Why? Because customers don't care how much we know until they know how much we care.
  • Describe (we might add demonstrate) only those features and benefits that relate to the needs you have uncovered.
  • Check for the customer's acceptance.

Whenever you support, especially because of the kind of product that furniture is, demonstrate your features whenever possible. How wise those old-time salespeople were about the skill of supporting when they used to say such things as "A presentation without a demonstration is only a conversation," and "Not shown when told remains unsold" and "Features tell, benefits sell."

At times I get so excited about the skill of supporting that I'm tempted to think like Lawhon about it, until I stop to reflect on the law of definitions which has nothing at all to with revelations and everything to do with our God-given ability to apply the power or reason to that marvelous thing called selling.

Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to FURNITURE WORLD at pmarino@furninfo.com.