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Why Pareto Probes Don't Work

Furniture World Magazine


Why Pareto Probing doesn't work and how to successfully use open and closed proves to get the information you need to build customer confidence and make the sale.

When the 19th century economist Vilfredo Pareto observed that twenty percent of the population enjoyed eighty percent of the wealth, he never imagined that his observation would one day have the wide application it does today under a principle named after him. For example, it is said that twenty percent of most sales staffs do eighty percent of the volume. So pervasive is the Pareto Principle that it has managed to creep into the thinking of some sales systems regarding how salespeople should apportion their open and closed probes; eighty percent open and twenty percent closed.

I disagree with that apportionment on two grounds. First, it fails to take into account that open and closed probes do not tend to elicit the same kind of information from the customer and, therefore, should not be weighed as apples to apples. Attempting to set up a mathematical ratio between open and closed probes would be much like attempting to balance eighty watermelons against twenty apples. Open probes tend to raise the window of opportunity more significantly than do closed probes. The reason lies in the different nature of the two probes. Open probes invite customers to talk openly about their concerns or the circumstances surrounding their needs; their fears, doubts, hopes, etc. Closed probes aim to limit customers to a yes/no response or to such specific things as number, size, color, kind of wood, etc. or to an alternate of choice. Because of this, it is unrealistic to direct salespeople to use four times as many open probes as closed probes. Such a directive would make of selling a mathematical situation which clearly it has never been nor ever will be. Selling is too protean to be held within the confines of some memorized mathematical formula. Proteus, you may remember was a Greek sea god who could change his form at will. Author Hank Trisler must have had the non-protean nature of selling in mind when he wrote that the trouble with memorizing our lines is that the customers keep forgetting theirs.

The second reason I disagree with the eighty-twenty principal as it applies to probing is that it fails to understand probing as such. The best probing is that which consistently takes its cue from the customer. In other words, the best probing is the result of listening to the remarks of customers and of observing their body language. For this reason, the proper prescription for salespeople to follow when probing is not the Pareto Principle but the pharmaceutical PRO RE NATA - "According to the situation." Applied to probing, PRO RE NATA means "use the probe the situation calls for." When you need a yes or no from the customer in order to find out things like size, number, color, etc. or to limit the customer to an alternate of choice, use an open probe. When you need to have the customer elaborate on circumstances, use an open probe.

The following are some tips on probing, whether they be open or closed.

TIP #1

First, take your cue from the customer's last remark. For example, if the customer says, "My sofa has had it," ask what the customer means by that vague statement, and keep on asking until the situation is clear to you. Don't assume to know anything. Allow the customer to tell you. Asking creates empathy; telling reinforces the reputation salespeople have as talkers. Keep in mind that customers tend to judge how smart we are by how well we listen rather than how well we tell them. An experience I had several years ago attests to that truth. I was attending a manufacturer's recognition night. On my right was a pig farmer. To his right was seated his wife who worked as the company accountant. Soon I found myself asking this man an open probe about pig farming. At once he went on all evening long with every detail about his occupation, much of it quite interesting. The next morning at the factory his wife hastened to tell me that her husband said I was the greatest conversationalist he had ever met, although he had done almost all of the talking.

TIP #2

Don't assail a customer with three or four or more closed probes when one open probe can get the same information without leaving the customer feeling interrogated.

TIP #3

Don't ask an open probe followed by a closed probe in the same breath, as for example: "What's wrong with your present sofa? Is the fabric worn?" The closed probe quickly reveals that you never meant the open probe. Instead, simply ask. "What's wrong with your present sofa?"

TIP #4

Your open probes need not end with a question mark as is evident from the following examples: "Please tell me more" and "I wonder what you mean by that" and "I'd appreciate hearing more about that" and "You really have my curiosity now."

TIP #5

The same probe may be either open or closed depending on how the customer hears it. Consider the following probe: "What kind of recliner do you have?" One customer might answer by naming the brand of recliner he has; another might interpret the probe as open and reply: "Do you have a couple of days? I can't begin to tell you what kind of recliner I have. You name the problem. I've had it!"


It is often advisable to gain the customer's permission for you to begin your probing. For example, you might say something like "Mind if I ask you a few questions so that I can better understand the kind of dining room you may be needing?"

Follow these tips. They can help to make your probing much more productive. Above all, don't allow your probing to be fettered by the eighty-twenty principle. Instead let all your probing follow the wisdom implicit in the prescription PRO RE NATA.

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.


Furniture World is the oldest, continuously published trade publication in the United States. It is published for the benefit of furniture retail executives. Print circulation of 20,000 is directed primarily to furniture retailers in the US and Canada.  In 1970, the magazine established and endowed the Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library (www.furniturelibrary.com) in High Point, NC, now a public foundation containing more than 5,000 books on furniture and design dating from 1620. For more information contact editor@furninfo.com.