What does a child's drawing have to do with selling furniture? Megatons!
Serendipity is defined as an aptitude for making unlooked for, happy discoveries. Recently I made just such a serendipitous discovery when I asked my French teacher to suggest some reading to bolster my vocabulary. Among the things she handed me was a copy of "LE PETIT PRINCE" by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a young French pilot whose brilliant career ended when he crashed his airplane in 1940.
In the "LE PETIT PRINCE," Saint-Exupery stresses the dichotomy between the simplicity with which children perceive things, versus the cluttered thought processes of adults who get lost in the maze of parts brought about by their habit of blind analysis. By relying on their unfettered imaginations, children tend to see the spellbinding creativity of things. Witness how enraptured a youngster is at the first sight of falling snow in contrast to how troubled we adults are by the same phenomenon. Or witness the amazement of a child bewildered by the poetic flight of a butterfly in contrast to the biologist analytically staring at the lifeless body of the same insect immersed in some vial.
In "LE PETIT PRINCE" Saint-Exupery recalls how at the age of six he was awestruck over an illustration depicting a boa which had swallowed a wild animal whole. He was equally impressed by the fact that these huge snakes sometimes take as long as six months to digest their prey. Inspired by that illustration, he went on to make his own imaginary drawing of a boa which had just swallowed an elephant whole (figure A below).
With a child's simplicity he decided to show his drawing to some grown-ups. After approaching each one he'd show his work and ask: "Isn't this scary?" Each grown-up consistently returned the same reply: "Why should I find that scary?" The boy soon learned it was useless to insist he had not drawn a picture of a hat but of a boa that was digesting an elephant it had just swallowed whole. "In that case, young man," they'd all answer, "you must clearly draw what you want us to see." Furthermore, they'd add that he should put aside drawing and focus on the three R's.
At first, to please these authorities, the boy produced the following drawing which easily won their approval (figure B below).
But he never forgot how those grown-ups had failed to understand his first drawing. As a result, later on as he was growing up, he developed the habit of testing how well grown-ups perceived things by showing them his first drawing which they invariably recognized as a hat. He never argued with them. Instead he learned never to talk to these adults about boas or virgin forests or stars. However, he did learn to talk to them about such subjects as bridge, golf, and politics. Those were the subjects that always won their approval of him as "a reasonable man."
Saint-Exupery further learned that these reasonable grown-ups had a passion for analytical thinking with an especial fondness for numbers. He noted how these "bean counters" responded when, for example, he'd tell them he just met a new friend. They never inquired into the things that were really important to him, like the sound of their voice, the kind of butterflies they collected, the kind of fun they enjoyed most. Instead they'd inquire about their age, their height, their weight, the amount of money they had.
Now what does all this have to do with selling furniture? Megatons. I don't mean megatons the way the "bean counters" mean that word, that is, according to the norms of standard weights and measures. I mean that word according to the way it might sound to someone with the unspoiled imagination of a six-year-old. What I am suggesting in this article is that Saint-Exupery's first drawing which so many grown-ups saw again and again as a hat, has everything to do with selling. I believe with each beat of my heart that every day customers come into our stores with something similar to Saint-Exupery's first drawing. Again and again most of us salespeople, weighted down by our unimaginative analytical minds, see our customer's drawing as a hat, the very same drawing our customers see as one that fills their hearts and minds with hopes and fears. The last thing they want to hear is that we see a hat. For once they hear that, they know with absolute assurance that we expect them to dot each "i" and cross each "t" for us. They have discovered that we are not willing or able to invest our time to probe with kind and tactful persistence until we clearly see the boa digesting the elephant. They also know with the same absolute assurance that they dare not put their trust in us. You see, our customers would like to see that we are as excited as they are about the furniture they're thinking of buying. They dread hearing the same old dull questions we so often put to them like "What style are you looking for?" and "What direction can I point you in?" and "Lamps? They're all over the store." What they yearn for are salespeople like Lou Ann (who works in one of Minnesota's metro store's) who literally gets down to business with her customers on the store's carpeted floor while her customers are seated on some chair or sofa. There with fabric samples spread out all around like some toddler at work on a kindergarten floor, she spins a magical spin that might have brought envy to the mythological Athena, goddess of spinning. Lou Ann has learned the secret of successful selling--to spin the very pictures her customers always intended, not that of some dull hat.
We need more salespeople like Lou Ann who sell furniture the way the young pilot Saint-Exupery flew his simple forties aircraft. To Saint-Exupery his airplane was simply a means of utilizing nature's sophisticated laws of aerodynamics to float up in the sky and not to be pulled down to earth by the oppressive law of gravity. Saint-Exupery was a poet and a philosopher... in that order, who, I believe, somehow managed to draw nearer to the stars, in spite of his limited aircraft, than any of our astronauts with their advanced space ships.
In the final analysis--or should I say synthesis--it's not the size of the store we work in, or the size of the city it's in that matters. How close one comes to the constellations of selling depends on the eyes of the salesperson. How true the lines:
Two men looked out
from prison bars:
One saw mud,
the other saw stars.
Or as Saint-Exupery might have said it: "One saw a hat, the other a boa digesting an elephant it had swallowed whole."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.