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Selling By Proxy - Sales Book For Furniture Representatives

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Selling by Proxy
A manual manufacturer's reps can use to work more closely with sales associates in their home furnishings client stores.

By Peter A. Marino, Ph. D.


I have written this manual as a way of thanking the many reps without whose intervention I could not have learned the features of the many products I sold as a retail furniture salesperson. Anyone who has sold furniture in retail stores over a period of years has probably had two or more reps that either had a poor knowledge of their products or had poor teaching skills. I too had a few of those inept reps.

However, I had more reps that not only knew their products well, but also knew how to teach others what they knew.
The aim of this manual is to make reps more effective by adding to the teaching techniques they already know. I am, after all, a professional teacher, having taught a great variety of subjects both in high school and in college.

The many years of teaching have made it quite clear to me that the best teachers are side-by-side learners, just as the best salespeople are side-by-side buyers. Teachers that might feel insulted by being called side-by-side learners have to admit they have not learned it all. The tragedy of those that think they have learned it all is that they most probably have. But the ultimate tragedy of teachers that think they have learned it all is that by having stopped learning about their subject, they have lost their ability to excite their students.

Once when I was teaching in a high school, one teacher explained to me that the reason he was no longer learning more about his subject was that he already knew more about his subject than most of his students would ever learn. I agreed that he probably did, but quickly pointed out that the real reason why he should be learning more about his subject was in order to be excited about what he was teaching. I have long felt that what our young students lack in our schools are teachers excited about their subject matter. I feel the same about salespeople. The vast majority of them are not excited about selling. Therefore, the vast majority of them cannot excite their customers.

The aim of this manual is to help reps become more effective by becoming more proficient at what they do. Proficiency and excitement make wonderful partners. In short, the aim of this manual is to make reps more professional.


The purpose of this manual is to provide the manufacturer's reps with one more means of working closely with furniture retail salespeople that sell their manufacturer's products. In truth, it is the retail salespeople that do the selling of the rep's products or services to the consumer. Therefore, ultimately, reps cannot be successful without their retail salespeople.

Thus, anything less than a close working relationship between reps and their salespeople will inevitably result in a significant loss of sales for both. For this reason, we chose to call this manual Selling by Proxy.

The urgency for this working relationship is based on a logistic necessity. It is logistically impossible for the solitary rep to sell enough products to meet the manufacturer's required quotas without the help of retail salespeople. Yet, it often happens that the working relationship between reps and salespeople leaves much to be desired. Perhaps this is so because, alas, it is too easy for the relationship to become one-sided, as each side goes about its own business in a manner some sociologists call Gesellschaft, a relationship based on an impersonal agreement instead of the Gemeinschaft, a relationship based on a personal agreement.

In practical terms, then, the purpose of this manual is to help reps cultivate a Gemeinschaft or selling partnership with their retail salespeople, a partnership grounded on mutual business goals that help both sides perceive that the best way to realize those goals is to work closely and caringly with one another. In order for this partnership to function well, the working relationship must be based on the often mouthed but seldom understood, and even less practiced, concept of win-win. Too many define win-win as both sides winning.

While it is true that both sides win, too few of us perceive that win-win means that both sides win at a higher level than each side might have attained by going it separately. In short, a win-win relationship works on the basis of synergism.

The GEMEINSCHAFT or selling partnership we are presenting in this manual cannot be attained unless both partners buy into each other's goals. After all, that is simultaneously the best way to attain one's own goals. After all, each one of us is instinctively motivated to work within the psychological principle of "What's in it for me? (WIIFM)” The paradox of the win-win philosophy of selling is that it unselfishly operates within what on the surface of the words, "What's in it for me?" would appear as a selfish philosophy. Actually, in order for the win-win philosophy to be effective, it must avoid every trace of selfishness, if each side is to attain its highest goals.

Reps and salespeople both must understand that by going at one another's jobs separately, their relationship at best will be a parasitic one that feeds on another's life system without providing any benefit to that life system. Such a relationship is always one in which the used party rids itself of its user the first opportunity it gets. How different, for example, the symbiotic relationship between bees and flowers: The flowers provide the bees with the essential pollen for honey, and the bees in turn provide the flowers with their essential cross-pollination.

But the real worth of a symbiotic relationship between reps and retail salespeople is the enthusiasm it promotes by working together. At the same time, it helps to prevent the indifference in a one-sided parasitic relationship aptly implied in the Korean expression, "The flea never asks the dog in what direction it is going." In a symbiotic relationship, reps and retail salespeople, despite each side's individual goals, somehow manage to share a common direction.

While this manual, as its title shows, is directed at the manufacturers' reps, it would be a sad mistake were one to take that title to mean that retail salespeople need this symbiotic relationship less than their factory reps.

One final note before we get into the units that show how to develop that symbiotic relationship. The ultimate satisfaction that awaits reps that work hand in glove with their retail salespeople rests on a much higher plain than that of a mutual financial remuneration alone. We have only to watch the expression on the faces of professional players that have just lost a play-off or a championship game through a lack of teamwork to see the ultimate dejection of the losers that know they have lost more than money. How different the dejection of the losers from the exhilaration of the winners as they celebrate the triumph of having won together. Our hope is that this manual will help reps and retail salespeople experience such exhilaration again and again.

Unit One: The Elements of a Good Sales Meeting

All reps agree that successful sales meetings with their retail salespeople are key to promoting successful sales. To be successful, a sales meeting must have key elements in place. Let's take a look at these.

A. Specific Objective: A Sales meeting must have a clearly specific objective. To accomplish this, the rep's objective must be neither general nor mixed. The one detracts from a successful meeting because what is general is seldom exciting. The other causes confusion. The way to keep a meeting exciting and free from confusion is to have a specific objective. For example, the rep might focus on specific ways to increase the sales of premium bedding, or of selling more add-ons, such as a table pad or fabric protection, or of pointing out the unique features of a given product or service, such as credit features and policies.

B. Need Awareness: Reps must be aware of their retail salespeople's needs. Like all people, retail salespeople feel all five of Maslow's needs: basic, security, social, ego, and self-actualization. The rep must be tuned in at all times to the frequency of the levels of those needs. Reps need to realize that their salespeople tune in to their own levels of needs. Their salespeople more often than not tune in to a frequency and level of needs at variance with the frequency and the level their reps tune in to. Reps, without abandoning their own objectives, must work hard to help their retail salespeople attain their objectives. Otherwise, reps will find their message distorted and garbled by the static caused by being on the wrong frequency. At the same time, retail salespeople must be willing to respect the frequency within which reps are obligated to operate, by arriving at a mutually beneficial compromise.

The most practical way for reps to tuned in to the frequency of their retail salespeople is to engage them in dialogue. For example, reps should make it a point to ask their salespeople what they would like to get out of sales meetings. Reps who fail to ask this of their salespeople will find it difficult, if not impossible, to hold sales meetings on the same frequency as that of their salespeople. For reps to assume to know the retail salespeople's frequency is to invite the kind of sales meetings that benefit neither reps nor retail salespeople.

Would it not be more productive for all concerned to hold the kind of sales meeting that meets the concerns of the retail salespeople, especially when those concerns, if not addressed, will prevent the active participation of the salespeople? And even if a rep happens to have correctly assumed the retail salespeople's concerns, would it not be more productive to discover those concerns from the salespeople themselves. After all, when a rep happens to assume the salespeople's concerns correctly, much like the proverbial blind pig that occasionally stumbles upon an acorn, knowledge through assumption does not bring with it the respect that genuine listening through clarifying and confirming does. “All human beings yearn to be listened to,” writes Michael Nichols in his book, The Lost Art of Listening. It follows that all salespeople yearn to be listened. The corollary to Michael Nichol's words is that listeners tend to be listened to much more often than non-listeners are listened to. Reps that regularly listen to their salespeople will more regularly be listened to.

The following are some of the concerns reps might address in their meetings. What part of their products are the salespeople weakest in? Which customer objection do they need help with the most? What specific problem is discouraging the salespeople the most? How can they best
apply product features to actual selling situations on the floor?

C. The right approach: A wise man once said: "You tell me, I forget. You teach me, I remember. You involve me, I learn." Seldom does learning take place, and even less does buy-in take place, when the salespeople are not involved in the rep's sales meetings. By involving at least one or two of the salespeople in the meeting, the rep can always be assured of at least one thing: Those involved with him will come out of that meeting having learned something. In addition, those involved will probably buy into the objectives of that meeting, simply because the rep involved them. More than one survey conducted to rank the factors that motivate employees revealed that the number one and two motivating factors were “being appreciated for work well done” and “being in on things.” Being in on things requires involvement.

Paradoxically, the method of involvement is not as important as the involvement itself. The rabbi who stated that God would rather listen to someone sincerely stuttering his prayers than to some speech teacher insincerely reciting his might have been referring to this paradox.

Also, the involvement of salespeople in sales meetings must be motivated by a keen awareness of the different abilities of each salesperson. Some salespeople are good at preparing charts, others at demonstrating features, still others at talking about their relevant sales experiences. People do best what they are best at doing. The best reps know how to draw upon these individual differences.

D. Interesting & Exciting: Make your sales meetings interesting and exciting. An author once stated that it's not growing a great potato that makes a great potato chip. It's how you slice it. Reps must find a way to "slice the potato," to make sales meetings exciting, captivating, intriguing. They must practice what one author calls the 3 K's: Katch 'em, Keep 'em, Konvince 'em. That author wasn't troubled by misspellings. He knew the wisdom of Mark Twain's words: “If you can't spell a word in at least two ways, you lack imagination.”

E. The Agenda. One of the easiest and most effective ways to Katch, Keep, and Konvince 'em is to prepare and hand out an agenda, and then follow it. Little is more frustrating for those called to a meeting than an agenda that is not followed. The attendees end up feeling like someone who has just been served something at a restaurant he or she didn't order from the menu. On the other hand, store owners and managers should not arbitrarily and suddenly subtract from the time they allotted the reps to conduct their sales meeting. Doing so sends a negative message to the salespeople regarding the importance of the sales meeting.

F. Know when to close. A meeting without a close is like a story without an ending. We all know the agony of attending sessions in which the speaker never made his or her main points because he or she simply ran out of time. That is generally a sign of poor preparation. This does not mean that the rep must be an absolute slave to the agenda in a way that discourages questions from listeners. Only when a question is clearly unrelated to the subject at hand should the rep leave it unanswered. Even in that case the rep should say, "Please see me after the meeting. I'll be happy to go over that with you." After the meeting, the rep should make sure he or she does just that.

G. How to maintain control of:

1. The Quiet Person. With the quiet person ask questions in rotation or give the quiet person  some responsibility like preparing the training props. Or, after the meeting, you might spend  a few minutes on the floor going over the main features of your product with the quiet person. Also, you can try an open-ended question or two to help stimulate the quiet person's input.

2. The Talkative Person. This type tends to frustrate the rest who didn't come to hear this wordy person. It can help if you assign this person the job of knowing specifics about your products. Specifics should not take a long time to cover. Interrupt the talker's comments with statements like, "That's a good comment. Let's hear what the other salespeople have to say  about that." Wordy persons like to hear themselves talk. When they see that their comments simply serve to give their fellow salespeople a chance to be heard, they tend to shift to less, but more productive, talking.

3. The Negative Person. Negativism tends to become endemic. Whenever this type brings up a  negative comment, calmly and kindly ask him how he or she would handle the situation. As a rule, negative people do not bring up comments with the intent of being problem solvers. When asked to become problem solvers, negative people tend to be less negative.

4. The Classroom Clown. This type will do anything to get attention. If left uncontrolled, the  classroom clown will destroy your sales meeting. Give these types an assignment to keep  them too occupied to play the buffoon. ou might also try the following strategy. Walk up to  this kind of salesperson before the meeting and say: "I need your help. How can we get the  most out of this sales meeting? Any ideas?" This strategy can help put the clown-type in a
position of feeling responsible. By feeling responsible, the clown-type also gets a feeling of  self-importance and attention, the very things most clowns are really looking for when they  play the buffoon.

5. The Braggart. This type irritates his fellow salespeople by constantly talking about his sales ability. You can significantly cut into this person's habit by presenting scenarios with tough selling objections and by having this person tell the group how he or she would answer these  objections. Then ask the group to rate his or her performance fairly and constructively. Braggarts are often insecure. They therefore use their bragging to cover up their insecurity.

When you conduct a meeting, practice the Golden Silence rule whenever  you are tempted to answer your own questions because you feel no one else in the meeting is  going to respond. Instead, give the group at least 10 to 12 seconds before answering your own  question. Those 10 or 12 seconds may feel like 10 or 12 minutes, but stick to the Golden Silence rule.

In general, regardless of the types of personalities you encounter in your sales meetings, always encourage the free exchange of ideas. An effective way to do so is to avoid using the singular  when you invite their ideas. Note the difference between the following examples:

  • “What is your idea on this matter?” The singular word idea sounds manipulative because it appears to invite the salespeople to echo the rep's idea.
  •  “What are your ideas on this matter?” The plural word ideas invites the salespeople to bring up their ideas).
  • Another effective way to encourage salespeople to bring up their ideas is never to follow up your open-ended question with an immediate closed probe. For example, avoid the following way of asking for the input of the salespeople: "How do you think we should handle this problem of overselling? By learning more about our product?" The immediately following close-ended question cancels the preceding open-ended one.
  • In follow-up sales sessions, make it a habit to encourage the salespeople to give examplesof successful sales and what they did to make them successful. Always ask them to be specific. At the same time, make it a habit to encourage the salespeople to comment on the kinds of objections they encountered in selling your product and how they handled those objections.
  • Whenever the discussions get off track, point that out. You might say something like the following: "While what you have pointed out has some interest, we're getting away from today's agenda. So that we can get back on track, let me ask you . . .?"

Note: The suggestions offered above for handling these difficult types must not come off as  punitive or vindictive. For better or worse, these different types of behavior will probably continue to be found within the sales staff. You need to find a way to motivate each type to sell more of your product. Attacking them won't help them do that. Involving them in meaningful ways will.

Conclusion: Successful sales meetings are not a matter of luck, but of preparation meeting up with opportunity. Salespeople respect reps whose meetings show preparation.

Unit Two: Spiffs and Quotas

A. Spiffs:

The most productive reps know that salespeople tend, consciously or unconsciously, to sell fewer of the products of those reps they care less for and vice versa. Put another way, most salespeople have an uncanny way of believing in the products of the reps they are fond of.

While all reps seem to realize this to some degree, too many reps do not strive to win that fondness at all; they try to buy it through spiffs.1

For better or worse, the practice of giving spiffs to retail salespeople for selling assigned lines of a product is much more prevalent in the bedding industry than in any other. The intent of this unit is not to condemn that practice. Besides, I doubt that my condemnation or anybody else's will make a perceivable change in the practice of giving spiffs. Nevertheless, I feel that reps should keep the following in mind.

Fondness won by money is as reliable as our shadows. While the sunshine of spiffs is present, the shadowy fondness continues. But as soon as the “spiffless” clouds return, the shadowy fondness disappears. In the long run, there "ain't" enough spiffs to go around to keep up with the shadows. The moral? Don't bank too much on spiffs to win the fondness of your salespeople. Instead, do the things that are more substantial in their eyes: Spend time with them in the stores, teach them specialized product knowledge, and help them with their selling skills. In this way you won't just win their fondness. You'll also win their respect.

B. Quotas

Using quotas as incentives is often abused not only by reps, but also by owners and their store managers. Every rep should read Tom Peter's In Search of Excellence, especially the chapter that discusses quotas. In that chapter, Tom Peters advises how to use quotas effectively. Foolish companies, he contends, actually use quotas to discourage most of the salespeople. How so? By setting up quotas so that only ten percent of the salespeople consistently reach their quotas, while ninety percent consistently fail to reach their quotas. In other words, the very quotas meant to produce winners end up leaving the ninety percent seeing themselves as losers. How different, Tom Peters continues, the results of those who set quotas to leave the ninety percent seeing themselves as winners. Wise owners and managers, insists Tom Peters, stack the deck in their favor. To start with, they set quotas low enough so that even the ninety percent believe they have a chance of reaching their quotas.

But, some might argue, what good is there in setting quotas that low? At this point, Tom Peters adds a point of view that hit me right between the eyes. The primary reason for setting quotas is to leave salespeople seeing themselves as winners.

Note: I have not been able to trace the origin of the word spiff. Most dictionaries define spiff as a verb, but not as a noun. As a verb it means "to spruce up." The use of the noun "spiff" seems to be a coinage of the retail industry to indicate a gratuitous amount of money awarded salespeople for a predetermined performance of one kind or another. Thus a "spiffed" mattress is one whose value is spruced up in the eyes of the salesperson.

Salespeople who believe in themselves tend to sell more than those who do not. Logically the purpose of quotas ought to be to motivate the ninety percent that consistently fail to reach their goals. The way to do that is to set the goals low enough so that the ninety percent begin to look upon themselves as winners. After that, a manager can begin to set the goals a little higher until gradually the ninety percent begins to look upon itself as winners. Understanding this means understanding the psychology of motivation. How sad but true the words of one author who said that we eventually understand the obscure; the obvious takes us a little longer.

Unit Three: Professional Presence

Significant progress is always the result of actions taken on the basis of new insights. Other words for insight are illumination, enlightenment, and revelation. I like the word insight because it implies a looking into oneself. Revelations, illuminations and enlightenments imply the intervention of outer powers that somehow shed light on or remove the veil of mystery surrounding something. Insights suggest individuals have to look within themselves for the answers.

New insights cause us to see new possibilities for action that can take us to new levels, that is, to step off the plateau of mediocrity. For as long as we are content to walk along Plateau Avenue, our lives will continue to be level and flat. Such walking, however comfortable, cannot possibly take us to life's richer discoveries at the top.

Insights come rarely even to the best of us, and they seem to come most rarely of all regarding this thing called professional presence. Hold a seminar on how to dress professionally, for example, and what you'll mostly hear from some participants are statements like the following: "That's all fine and good, but I don't want to overdress." Or you'll hear, "People don't care how you dress as long as you treat them right." Or you'll hear the one that irks me the most: "That's all right for some professions, but not for mine." These and others are the statements you'll often hear, reeking from the smell of half truths.

Such statements merely prove that mediocrity dies hard and fights all attempts at being dislodged from the security of being average. No one has perceived this better than Stewart Emery, a psychologist and consultant of note, who wrote: "It is remarkable how much mediocrity we live with, surrounding ourselves with daily reminders that the average is acceptable. Our world suffers from terminal normality. Take a moment to assess all the things around you that promote your being 'average.' These are the things that keep you powerless to go beyond a limit you arbitrarily set for yourself. The first step to having what you really want is the removal of everything in your environment that represents mediocrity, removing those things that are limiting."

There is not a rep alive who doesn't instinctively know that he cannot make an exciting impression on potential store buyers and merchandisers and salespeople by being less prepared than the reps with whom he competes every day. But not enough reps instinctively know that each one of them either dresses to win or dresses to lose. Robert Pante, author of "Dressing to Win," insists that clothes always make a statement, create a mood, or leave an impression. He goes on to say that you can't impress somebody if that somebody feels you look terrible.

"Ah, but you can overdress," is the common objection you might hear at this point, as though the objective of this unit were to get the rep to overdress, or as if overdressing were a common fault among reps. Look about you and you will see that is simply not so.

But since we have brought up the subject of overdressing, Robert Pante has the best observation on it: "If your clothes speak louder than you do, you are overdressed.”

Dress appropriately for your own industry, of course. How do you know you are dressed appropriately? Go to the authorities on the subject, especially the most current ones. They may not be infallible on the subject of dress, but they are the most reliable. If you wanted to know how best to train a racehorse, you'd go to a horse trainer, not a bookie.

The following reference materials can serve as guides on this topic.

1.New Dress for Success, John T. Malloy.

2.Dressing to Win, Robert Pante. Although this book is not geared to the selling profession as
such, it too has some valuable tips.

3.Successful Style, Doris Pooser.

4.The Professional Image, Susan Bixler. She has excellent suggestions for all professional
workers. Her latest video, Professional Presence, put out by American Media is a must.

Unit Four: A New Symbiotic Role

Traditionally the role reps have taught retail salespeople the features and benefits of their products with an eye to having them perceive the advantages of their product over those of the competition. While such a role is understandable, by itself it fails to prepare retail salespeople for selling. It fails because thorough product knowledge, as vital as it is, consistently falls short by itself. For while the goal of retail salespeople - and of all salespeople - may be to provide the customer with the information needed to make the best buying decision, their role calls for an ability to apply the professional selling skills within the dynamics of selling, as taught in Achieve Global's Professional Selling Skills seminar: The opening, probing, supporting, and closing - and something I've developed more fully than that seminar has - handling the intervening customer's objections as implied needs. For unless salespeople see that every customer objection is an implied need, they will tend to overcome objections rather than to support the need within those objections

Moreover, salespeople must see the selling skills as working interdependently, dynamically, and synergistically. The selling skills on any seminar's charts are static. In the actual selling process the skills must be dynamic. Therefore memorizing one's lines won't do it. As Hank Trisler points out in his No Bull Selling, “the trouble with memorizing our lines is that customers keep on forgetting theirs.” The answer to handling the dynamics of selling is to use the skills synergistically.

Not only that, but professional salespeople must understand that attitude, selling skills, and product knowledge reach their highest level of productivity only when the three work interdependently, dynamically, and synergistically.

All this makes sense only to those salespeople that see selling within the complex psychological factors that consistently fluctuate with each new buyer. “You can never jump into the same river twice,” quipped Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher of change. Every buyer enters the store with his or her unique set of needs. This complexity stems from the unique set of circumstances that always surround every buyer's needs.

Unit Five: The Importance of Specialized Product Knowledge and How to Teach It.

It is a sad fact that the longer many salespeople have sold on a retail floor, the more they tend to put down product knowledge by labeling it as irrelevant "nuts and bolts.” It is easy to explain why this is so. When first introduced to them, all salespeople are excited about the features of their products. Why do they lose that excitement in a short time? I believe they lose it because customers rarely inquire about those features as they enter the store. For example, in all my years of retail selling I have never heard a customer's opening words remotely resemble any of the following:

  • I'd like to see your sofas with drop-in-coils.
  • Show me a chair with finger-jointed corner blocking.
  • Take me to your mattresses with six-turned coils.
  • Show me one of your tables with a sixteen-step finish.
  • Show me one of your five-ply veneers.
  • Are the dowels on your chairs fluted?
  • Are any of the drawers in your dressers triple-doweled?
  • I'd like to see some Posture Tech coils.
  • Does your upholstery have UFAC tags?

It is true that most customers visit home furnishings stores to create beautiful and functional rooms. That does not mean that retail salespeople should not know their products inside and out. That's because failure at this most basic level sends a negative signal to potential buyers.

If salespeople lived to be the age of Methuselah, they'd likely be asked such questions a couple of times at most. The only features customers ask for - and rarely at the very start of the sale - are those they heard salespeople mention in another store, such as the following:

  • How many coils does this mattress have?
  • Is this fabric treated?
  • Is this solid wood?
  • Is this real wood?
  • Is this leather or vinyl?
  • Is this foam non-allergenic?
  • What kind of warranty does this have?

Note that all these questions imply the customer's concern about some fear about the product's ability to perform. Why do so many customers have fears about products? Because most of the customers have had sad experiences with products that failed to perform their level of expectation, an expectation strengthened by some salesperson that either intentionally or unintentionally exaggerated the ability of a product to perform. (I'll pass over those salespeople who understate their product's ability to perform, that is to say, those salespeople who undersell their products out of ignorance or indifference).

Customers with sad experiences of products not holding up are understandably skeptical and, therefore, approach each new salesperson feeling mad, sad, scared, or with all three of those emotions, as Michael Le Boeuf states in his book, How to Win Customers and Keep Them for Life. As a result, while most customers do not enter stores with questions on their lips about product features, you can rest assured they do enter needing satisfactory proof statements regarding their fears. In short, customers are looking for solutions. Those solutions lie in the features - the so-called nuts and bolts - of their products. Therefore, reps ought to teach product features to their retail salespeople, provided they do so with the following words in mind: “You can never know too much about your products, but you can talk too much about them.”

Also, reps should teach product features as solutions to customer concerns. Once reps are aware of these concerns, they should support them with personalized benefits, and then work to win the customers commitment. To do all this, reps have to have the necessary selling skills. Let's take a close look at the first of these skills - probing.

Unit Six: The Skill of Probing - A Threefold Process.

Every customer enters the store with specific needs as well as specific circumstances surrounding those needs. Salespeople need to have a clear idea of what the customer is looking for and why he or she is looking. Experienced salespeople tend to admit that they generally find it easy to find out what the customer is looking for: a recliner, a dinette, a lamp, etc. Were selling only a matter of finding out what the customer is looking for, selling would be rather easy. All they would have to do show only one sofa, one recliner, one dinette, one set of bedding, etc. But because the why surrounding the what is usually complex, selling too is complex.

The what and the why of the customer's needs should never be assumed or guessed. Salespeople should never reduce selling to a game of chance, unless they have no intention of succeeding. Therefore, selling calls for probing.

There are two kinds of probes, open and closed. Any time salespeople use a yes-no question or ask for specific information regarding such things as size, color, fabric, length of warranties, delivery date, etc., they are using a closed probe, as illustrated in the following examples:

  • How many chairs do you need?
  • What color?
  • How much were they asking for the sofa you saw at that store?
  • Which one do you prefer?
  • Is this your first time in our store?
  • Do you need the box spring and the frame?
  • Are you interested in our 60 days same as cash?
  • What particular style are you looking for? (Note that contrary to what some authors say about this kind of probe, it is not an open probe.)
  • Is there a particular style you're looking for?

It should be clear that the closed probe is effective, among other things, for finding out the what of the customer's needs. It is less effective for finding out the why. To find out the why, the salesperson should use open probes. Open probes encourage the customer to talk freely about the circumstances surrounding his or her needs. The following examples show how open probes encourage customers to talk freely about those circumstances:

  • Would you mind telling me what's really important to you in your next dining room set?
  • What happened when you used that other fabric protection?
  • Tell me the mood you'd like to create in that living room.
  • What exactly do you mean by "My sofa's had it"?
  • Something seems to be keeping you from making this purchase. Mind sharing with me what that is?
  • Mind telling me why that's important to you?

Both open and closed probes are essential to selling, just every bird requires two wings to fly. The following exercise should prove helpful in pointing out the need for both types of probes.

Directions For Holding A Probing Role Play: Form groups of two participants each. In each group of two have one participant be A, the other B. Have A probe B with closed probes alone regarding the what and the why of what A is looking for, and then have B do the same with A. Next reverse situation. Have A and B use open probes alone. Finally, allow A and B to use both kinds of probes. The results of this entire exercise should point out the need for both open and closed probes.

Qualifying: Qualifying consists of interpreting all the information arrived at through probing with the aim of setting up a selling strategy. In other words, the salesperson finds out the what and the why of the customer's needs in order to qualify the customer. On the basis of that qualifying, the salesperson develops a selling strategy or plan of action.

A Selling Strategy: Selling without a strategy is like sailing the seas without a compass. Without a strategy one's chances of getting to where he'd like to get aren't very good. Yogi Berra stated it best in his inimitable style: "If you don't know where you're going, how will you know when you get there?"

Simply stated, every customer wants to end making the best buying decision. To help us define "the best," we should remember what we may have learned in school: Every adjective has three degrees of comparison: positive, comparative, and superlative, as illustrated in the adjectives good, better, best.

Earlier we mentioned that if all customers were interested only in the what without the why, selling wouldn't exist at all. A store would have only one item for each category of furniture. There would be no need for customers to do comparison-shopping. Because customers have access to various stores and to various choices for each category of furniture, they end up choosing only what they consider to be the best. Eventually most customers, with or without the help of a salesperson's selling strategy, end up buying furniture somewhere. The problem for salespeople is that unless their customers consistently buy from them, they'll soon be out of a job. Only those salespeople with a selling strategy can consistently make it easier for the customer to choose what is best.

Unit Seven: How to Set Up a Selling Strategy

Step One: Preconditioning

At first sight, preconditioning might appear to be another way of assuming. It is not. Assuming is arriving at conclusions prematurely without first getting the facts. Preconditioning helps make customers aware of the common differences among a specific category of furniture.

For example, bedroom furniture tends to have common or generic differences, like those that appear in the following list.

Mirror: (landscape, trifold, pier unit)

Chest: (drawer, armoire, lingerie, chest-on-chest)

Headboard: (headboard-footboard, headboard alone, bookcase, posts with canopy)

Dresser: (drawers, drawers with doors)

Finish: (stained, painted, natural, lacquered)

Surface: (solid, veneer, print, high-pressure laminate)

Style: (Queen Anne, shaker, oriental, Early American, modern)

Wood: (oak, pine, maple, pecan, cherry, walnut, rattan)

Other categories of furniture could be similarly illustrated.

Salespeople ought to become skilled at preconditioning because it helps to eliminate drawbacks down the road. Often, customers present salespeople with the following drawbacks well into the sale, drawbacks salespeople might have prevented had they preconditioned the customer:

  • Does this come with an armoire?
  • Does this have a chest instead of the armoire?
  • What other fabrics does this come in?
  • Is that the only kind of mirror it comes with it?
  • What other colors does it come in?

Why demonstrate a bedroom set without first finding out what kind of bedroom set the customer's heart is set on buying? Why show a pillow top mattress only to find out later that the customer is against pillow tops? There are enough unforeseeable drawbacks in selling. Why should salespeople allow themselves the kinds of drawbacks they might easily have eliminated by preconditioning the customer?

The Principle of Three

Experienced salespeople know full well that the longer the selection process continues on the sales floor, regardless of the category the customer is looking for, the less the likelihood that the customer will make a buying decision.

Here's an interesting paradox. Customers prefer shopping in stores that provide a wide assortment of choices; yet they do not enjoy working with salespeople who give them a tour of that wide assortment. The sooner salespeople can zero in on three sofas, for example, the sooner they can win the customer's confidence. The number three is based on the three terms of comparison; good, better, best. But salespeople should set up the threefold comparison so that customers can easily perceive the "best." For that to happen, salespeople must develop the habit of being able to qualify just what features the customer is particularly looking for. But in doing so, salespeople should be especially careful not to assume that price alone is the outstanding factor. Price alone is seldom the deciding factor in a buyer's decision, especially if that price fails to provide the benefits that moved the customer to shop in the first place. That consideration was what probably moved author Chuck Reeves to write the following in his book, "Never Take Money From a Stranger”: "In the history of recorded time, no customer has ever said 'You're price is too high,' and meant it." It was probably the same consideration that moved Zig Ziglar to come up with his classic close: "Sir, doesn't it make sense to pay a bit more and get what you really want, rather than to pay a bit less and not get it?" Down deep in their pocketbooks and purses customers know that when they buy quality they cry only once!

The principle of three should become the principle by which all salespeople set up their selling strategy, while they keep the following in mind. A selling strategy rarely comes naturally to salespeople. It is the result of practice, practice, and more practice.

Unit Eight: The Skill of Presenting or “Benefeaturing.”

The following are mottoes salespeople should live by:

  • Not shown when told remains unsold.
  • A presentation without a demonstration is only a conversation.
  • Only personalized benefits sell.

Presenting is sometimes referred to as the skill by which salespeople provide customers with the information needed to make the best buying decision. By probing, salespeople uncover the customer's most pressing needs or concerns, both positive and negative, that is, their hopes and expectations as well as their doubts and fears. In other words, through probing, salespeople get to analyze the customer's current furniture needs and what it's going to take to support those needs.

In presenting, the salesperson actually prescribes what feature the customer needs and how that feature can meet or support the customer's needs. Because the customer's needs can only be supported by relevant or personalized features and benefits, I have coined the word benefeaturing. Both features and benefits are equally important in supporting a customer's needs. While it is true that customer's buy into the benefit, the salesperson that fails to demonstrate the feature runs the risk of losing the customer's credibility. After all, the solutions to all the customer's needs lie within the product's ability to perform. It follows then that the customer will be reluctant to accept the product's performance (benefit) until the customer accepts the product's ability to do so (features).

For this reason, the salesperson should have a thorough knowledge of the features of his product. Retail salespeople commonly refer to these features as specs or, less often, as "nuts and bolts," especially when they wish to talk down their importance.

But is it really necessary for salespeople to learn each and every spec? Absolutely! Here's why. To start with, salespeople have no way of knowing which specs customers need in order to solve their furniture needs. Let's say a bulk of a man is shopping for the kind of dining room chair to support his excessive weight. Recently he had purchased some chairs that simply failed to hold up. Let's also add that not long ago a salesperson assured this customer that the chairs he went on to buy could hold an elephant. The customer was never shown why except that he was told not to worry because the set had an excellent warranty. Unless the present salesperson in this scenario can demonstrate the very features that can leave this customer believing that the chairs can adequately support this customer's weight over a period of years, this customer will doubt any such claim the salesperson makes. A warranty alone won't persuade this customer to buy, since that would probably increase the customer's skepticism. Once burned, twice armed. Let's say the chairs this salesperson hopes to sell this huge customer are sample-tested as follows: the factory utilizes a machine that simulates the weight of a 250 pound individual rocking a chair 5,000 times. The salesperson has a factory brochure that attests to that method of sampling its chairs. The salesperson reads from this brochure and then hands it to the customer to keep. The customer then accepts the proof and buys the set. Had the salesperson known every other feature but the one about the test sampling, the customer might never have agreed to buy. The following truism might best sum up what we have been saying: It is better to be prepared for something to happen and then not have it happen than not to be prepared for something to happen, and then have it happen.

Relevant or Personalized Features and Benefits

In presenting, that is, supporting with features and benefits, nothing is more counter-productive than what we like to call the indiscriminate spewing of features and benefits all over the customer. Spewing is not too strong a term for this practice, for irrelevant presenting truly nauseates customers. In medicine, only a quack would prescribe indiscriminately.

Just as professional doctors do their best to match the prescription to the patient's ailment, so too should salespeople match each feature and benefit to the customer's need. Customers do not accept unrelated features and benefits. To be effective, the salesperson's presenting must be limited only to relevant or personalized features and benefits.

Unit Nine: Closing - The Skill of Keeping Customers for Life

For lack of a better word to indicate the skill of gaining the customer's commitment for life, I'll continue to use the commonly used word, closing. More important than the word is the habit of the skill itself. I remember having heard in a sales presentation that the vast majority of retail salespeople do not even ask for the sale once. This is startling when one considers that a Notre Dame University study some years ago revealed that the most successful salespeople ask for the sale an average of five or six times!

Salesperson should ask for the sale with confidence because, as the ancient historian Livy wrote years ago, confidence begets confidence. Customers do not tend to trust a salesperson that lacks self-confidence. Having said that about confidence, let's consider the skill of closing, for it is indeed a skill.

While various books on the subject of closing list as many as two hundred kinds of closes, the general steps of closing are not complex. The first step is to listen (with mind, eyes and ears) for buying signals. What is a buying signal? It is a measurable sign picked up by the salesperson, a sign that indicates some degree of the customer's readiness to buy. There are, of course, strong and weak buying signals ranging from "Do you accept Visa?" to an objection like "Let me think about it."

Sometimes the buying signal is in the form of a question like, "Do you deliver?" and "Does your store carry its own credit?" and other similar questions. In that case, you must evaluate the timing of the question. A customer who apparently loves on of you products and asks if you deliver, has given you a strong buying signal. The same question asked just after the customer has entered the store is not a strong buying signal. Unless the customer says “I'll take it,” you should seriously consider following a strong buying signal as follows:

  • Summarize the benefits the customer appears to have bought into.
  • Check for the customer's acceptance of those benefits.
  • Ask for the sale.

In summarizing, the salesperson should go over only the features and benefits the customer appears to have bought into. Also, the summary must be as concise as possible. Note that conciseness is defined as the omission of all unnecessary words. At times, especially following a strong product demonstration, the salesperson might skip the mention of features and go over the benefits alone.

In some cases, salespeople should go into a summary close more than once, if that is what it takes to win the customer's commitment. But vary your summary by rearranging the order of features or benefits. Note the following role play intentionally made easy since its objective is to give an example of how to summarize.

CUSTOMER: (Seated on a sofa) I really like the way this one sits.

SALESPERSON: I'd like to go over one more time why you find that it sits so well. What you're really feeling are the 8-way-hand-tied coils guaranteeing that the coils will not lean and lose their ability to let you sit comfortably. Also, the high-resiliency foam won't bottom out the way you said the foam on your present sofa did.

At this point, the salesperson should ask for the sale either directly with a yes/no closed probe or indirectly with an alternate of choice close.

Directly: Since, as I mentioned earlier, this is a discontinued sofa, let's set up  delivery at your earliest convenience. Which day would be best for you?

Indirectly: Since this is a discontinued sofa, as I mentioned earlier, let's arrange one of our free deliveries. Would sometime this week be all right or would you prefer the following week?

Trial Closing
More often than not, the buying signals salespeople receive are in the form of objections of one kind or another. Here are a few examples:

  • I'd like to think about it.
  • It's more than I wanted to spend.
  • When does this go on sale?
  • When does the sale end?
  • I need to do more shopping.
  • I never buy at the first store.
  • What if it doesn't look good when I get it home?
  • I just don't know.
  • I need to bring my husband (my wife).
  • You're very knowledgeable. Do you have a card?
  • Could you write the price down on your card?
  • I'll probably be back.
  • What time do you close?
  • I'm sure I'll be back.
  • Give me your card. I'll be sure to ask for you.

Salespeople should learn to look upon these stoppers, as I call them, as buying signals that need to be trial closed. What is a trial close and how does it differ from a close? A trial close is a way of probing further into the objection. It differs from the close in that it does not immediately ask for the sale Note the following example:

Customer: I need to do a little more shopping.

Salesperson: You mean so that you can be sure you're making the best buying decision.

Customer: Right. You don't buy a dining room set every day.

Salesperson: Absolutely. I'm the same way when I shop for something this important. But tell  me something. If there were no other stores to shop, would you buy this dining-  room set?

Customer: I'm not sure.

Salesperson: How's that?

Customer: I'm just not sure.

Salesperson: Mind sharing with me just what it is you're not sure about?

Note how far the salesperson took this customer who was about to walk out of the store. Granted, the customer needs to be taken a ways yet before the salesperson can hope to hear a strong buying signal, but by continuing to trial close, the salesperson has kept the sale going. Successful salespeople are masters at trial closing.

Unit ten: Reframing Objections As Needs

Objections are the surest indication of the customer's interest. "But," you might ask, "aren't all objections stumbling blocks customers throw at salespeople to block the sale?" Whether salespeople see them as stumbling blocks or as stepping-stones depends on the salespeople's ability to reframe objections as needs or to accept them as objections. In order for salespeople to reframe objections as needs, they have to infer the need implied in every objection. Once salespeople do that, they can move on to support the need in the objection with the appropriate features and benefits. The following scenario illustrates this process.

1. Step One: Use a closed probe to confirm the implied need as a stated need. Scenario:

Customer: I'd like to shop a bit more. This is the first store I've been to.

Salesperson: Carole, I imagine you want to do more shopping to increase your chances  of making a better buying decision. (Nodding) Is that it?

Customer: (Nodding) Sure. I don't buy a bedroom set everyday.

2. Step Two: Acknowledge, that is, agree with the confirmed need.

Similar Scenario:

Salesperson: That makes sense. I always shop around before I make a major purchase.

3. Step Three: Ask the customer's permission to continue your probing

Same Scenario:

Salesperson: Mind if I help to make your shopping at the next store more profitable

Salesperson: (Customer either nods or lets saleperson know by her body language she accepts your offer to be of help.)

3. Step three: Thank the customer.

4. Step Four: Remind the customer of the features she accepted earlier, but relate this to helping her do her shopping at the next store.

Same Scenario:

Salesperson: Carole, earlier you mentioned how much you like the fact that this bedroom has the very trifold mirrors you have been looking for, as well as the armoire for your TV and the secret hiding compartment in the dresser. When you get to the next store, remember what you told me when you first entered the store. You said a bedroom is something you keep forever.

Because a bedroom set is a long time purchase, when you get to the next store, keep in mind all the items you like in this bedroom set, and don't settle for anything less. What else would you like to ask me before you leave?

Note: Of course, there are other things you might say, depending on the item the customer is looking for and other circumstances. The steps outlined above are meant to help the salesperson win more of the customer's time in a way the customer perceives as helpful.

Unit Eleven: Four Kinds of Objections

I. Skepticism

In selling there are four main objections salespeople face, objections being defined as obstacles put up by customers that impede their commitment or buy-in. The four kinds are the drawback, indifference, skepticism, and misunderstndings. For decades first Xerox and then Learning International, Inc., now a part of Achieve Global, made the handling of these four kinds of objections the mainstay of their foremost seminar, Professional Selling Skills, in which skepticism and drawbacks are now referred to as concerns instead of as objections.

In selling, a drawback occurs when the customer insists on the store's “delivering the undeliverable” as a condition of the purchase. Often the drawback has to do either with price or delivery. For example, the customer insists on a two-week delivery when the earliest possibility is an eight-week delivery. Instead, indifference occurs when a customer communicates no need for the salesperson's benefits. There are two kinds of indifference, objective and subjective. Objective indifference occurs when the salesperson's probing confirms that a customer has no need for the store's product.

The salesperson should honor objective indifference instead of trying in vain to support what is not a customer need. For example, a customer wishes to buy the mattress, but not the box spring because she intends to use the mattress on a bunk bed. She is justified in stating she has no need for a box spring. Subjective indifference, on the other hand, because it is based either on the customer's unwillingness to examine his or her true needs or an inability to do so for lack of information, or both, should not be so honored. Instead, salespeople should further probe into subjective indifference to help the customer become aware of and admit to unmet needs.

The third objection, skepticism, occurs when the customer doubts the validity of the salesperson's benefits, that is, the customer doubts a product or service can live up to its claims.

At this point, the first three parts, we shall discuss how to handle skepticism. To start with, it is necessary to point out that the skeptic doubts benefits, not features, despite the fact that Learning International, Inc. states in one of its training manuals that the skeptic doubts both. In my opinion, that statement appears to misunderstand the very essence of skepticism, namely, that the skeptic does not doubt the existence of a feature, but its ability to provide the benefit for which that feature exists. True, customers often don't understand that a feature exists. That is a misunderstanding, as when a customer tells a salesperson, "But you people don't deliver in my area," and the salesperson knows they do. In fact, Learning International, Inc. is the only training company I know of that has taught salespeople to handle the misunderstanding by first confirming it as a need, next acknowledging the confirmed need, and then supporting the need with relevant features and benefits. While skeptics are aware of the salesperson's features, they doubt those features can provide the benefits the salesperson claims they can.

For example, a customer needs a durable fabric. The fabric on the last sofa she bought just didn't last, although the salesperson said that since it was Herculon, it would wear like iron. Now she has found a new sofa she really likes and asks the salesperson: "Will this fabric last?" The sales-person answers; "Lady, it's Herculon and will wear like iron." This customer doesn't doubt that the fabric is Herculon; she doubts that it will give her the benefit she's looking for. She is skeptical.

How should salespeople handle the skeptical salesperson? In my book, "Winning Bragging Rights," I pointed out that salespeople should never follow the customer's skepticism with a offer proof statement. That guarantees to put the customer on the defensive. In its current version of Professional Selling Skills, the salesperson is first directed to "acknowledge the concern" and then "offer relevant proof," an improvement for sure, but not quite enough. For as Learning International, Inc. has always taught, acknowledging should follow a clear statement of need. But since the skeptic rarely includes a clear statement of need when expressing a doubt, the salesperson must be savvy enough to imply the skeptic's need for a proof statement. Therefore, the steps I propose in handling skepticism are as follows:

(1) Use a closed probe to confirm the implied need, (2) acknowledge the confirmed need, (3) support the need with the proof statement or statements. The following role play based on a customer's skepticism regarding a bedding manufacturer's lack of a recognizable brand name should prove helpful:

CUSTOMER: I never heard of Primavera mattresses.

SALESPERSON: What I hear you saying is you're looking for a mattress whose quality and service you can depend on, right?

CUSTOMER: (Nods. The nod confirms the need).

SALESPERSON: (Acknowledges) Paul, I look for the same things whenever I shop. Let me show you why you can depend on Primavera's quality and service. (Salesperson then offers the appropriate proof statements).

Note how different this approach is from the one that shoots the customer with the proof statement and thus belittles the customer for never having heard of Primavera. Instead, the approach I suggest starts out by winning the customer's agreement on a need, the very stuff that all selling relies on. Then and only then the salesperson acknowledges that need before going on to support it with a benefit in the form of a proof statement.

Finally, I'd like to end this article on handling skepticism with a recent observation of mine. I used to direct salespeople to preempt all frequent objections, that is, to bring something up about their product or store service as a benefit before the customer would bring it up as an objection. I now believe that the only objection salespeople should preempt is the drawback by bringing up the drawback as a benefit before the customer brings it up as a drawback. I'll have more to say about that in a following unit.

Skepticism, in as much as it most often contains the deep hurt of a prior betrayed trust, should not be preempted. Instead, salespeople should use the proper proof statement to handle skepticism. Salespeople should keep in mind that the deeper the skeptic's past hurt, the stronger the buying signal salespeople will hear once the skeptic is won over. Note I said won over. Too many selling systems are still using the word overcome. Objections should not be overcome; they should be come over like the hurdles in a hurdles race. Moreover, the customer that does the objecting must be won over.

Read this article again and again until you have mastered the principles of handling skepticism. In that way, you won't end up shooting your customers with proof statements.

II. The Drawback

The toughest objection, even for top salespeople, is the drawback. As we mentioned earlier, the the drawback is an unattainable condition the customer places on the sale. In furniture sales, that condition is often based on price or delivery date. For example, the customer says he'll take your dining room set if you can deliver it within two weeks. But the soonest you can deliver the set is eight to ten weeks. That's a drawback. Or, say, the customer agrees to purchase your living room set on condition you lower the price. But your store has a no exception policy regarding its fixed prices. That's a drawback. Notice, we are not talking about conditions you can meet by asking the manager's permission to make an exception.

How should salespeople handle the drawback? For several years I have advised my salespeople first of all to acknowledge the reason for the need expressed in the drawback. For example, the customer objects, "But I have to have this set in two weeks. My parents are coming to visit us all the way from Boston to celebrate their golden anniversary. I can't wait any longer than that." The salesperson should acknowledge the customer's need to have the set in time for that golden anniversary: "I must admit that in your situation I'd want to have the dining room set delivered in time for so important a celebration."

We now come to the critical part. If the salesperson attempts to follow the steps taught in Learning International Inc.'s "Professional Selling Skills," that is, "to refocus on the bigger picture," and "outweigh with previously accepted benefits," there is the danger that the salesperson will find himself weighing on two different scales: the one emotional, the other rational. Weighed against the emotionally based drawback, the "previously accepted benefits" will be featherweights by comparison. The following scenario should illustrate what I mean.

Customer: But I've got to have this delivered in time for my parents' golden anniversary. They're coming all the way from Boston.

Salesperson: I must admit that were my parents traveling that far to celebrate their golden anniversary with me, that would be my first priority. Earlier you said you had to have a table with two extensions large enough to seat ten, as well as the matching server. Also, this set meets your stated price point. Given all that and the fact that you're not merely renting this set for one very important occasion, don't you think it's better to wait eight weeks and get what you really want than to settle for something that's available but doesn't really meet your needs long term?

Logically, the approach of outweighing the drawback by reminding the customer of previously accepted benefits would seem to make sense. But it forgets to take into account that the drawback is often resting on a highly emotional scale while the so-called previously accepted benefits are resting on a logical scale. To repeat, the highly emotional need to have the set in time for the parents' golden anniversary weighs tons; the previously accepted benefits, viewed by the buyer as rational considerations, are featherweights. My own experience has taught me that every time I have used the approach of trying to outweigh the drawback with previously accepted benefits, I have failed to get the sale whenever I asked for the customer's buy-in right then. So great is the customer's emotional need that he or she invariably finds it virtually impossible to focus on the salesperson's “bigger picture.” Therefore, I advise salespeople not to use the words, “Let's focus on the bigger picture.” For that reason, I advise salespeople to try something I have learned to do with great success. I turn to the customer and say something like this: "I don't expect you to give your answer right now. When you get home, think about this: Dining room sets are long term investments. You're not merely renting a set for one occasion, even as important as this one occasion is. The set you end up buying will have to please you for many years. And by the way, I'll bet your parents would advise you in the same way, if you asked them to."

No approach is infallible, and I'd be less than honest if I told you my approach always works. But I can assure you of one thing: it works far better and far more often than not following my suggestion, because any appeal on the salesperson's part to restore the customer to reason will succeed more often if you couch your appeal with a strong acknowledgement of the customer's need as he or she sees that need. John Lawhon in his best selling book, Selling Retail, has always insisted that the salesperson's role is to provide customers with the information they need to make the best buying decision. The role of providing is a two-sided coin. One side consists of what the salesperson provides; the other side consists of how the salesperson provides it. This article has stressed how salespeople faced with a drawback should use the best psychological approach in providing customers with the information they need to make the best buying decision.

III. Handling Indifference

Part A. Why “I'm just looking” and similar words customers use as they enter a store are not examples of indifference.

Generally, as customers enter the store, they start out in either of two ways: One, they tell the salesperson the category of furniture they are looking for, or two, they say "I'm just looking." The "I'm just looking," despite what some salespeople may believe, is not a sign of the customer's indifference. At the very least, this customer is implying an interest in buying furniture. In fact, more often than not, the "I'm just looking" is a strong buying signal and not an indication customers are there to kill time, theirs or the salesperson's. This becomes clear once the salesperson becomes aware of what I call the three mindsets. One, the average customer entering a store does not trust either the salesperson's product knowledge or intent. In short, the average customer does not believe that the salesperson waiting for customers at the door or approaching them somewhere on the floor is equipped to help customers make the best buying decision.

Two, most customers trust making a good buying decision by themselves more than with a salesperson. Three, the average customer has very little trust in his or her product knowledge. Therefore, it is only the fear of being misled by an incompetent salesperson that wants to take their money and run that gets customers to say, "I'm just looking." Once the salesperson understands that the customer's “I'm just looking” is a result of these three mindsets, it becomes easy to look upon those words as stepping-stones rather than stumbling blocks. For imbedded in those words are the customer's possible thoughts such as the following:

  • Look, this is an important decision for me. It represents a sizeable amount of my hard-earned income and not the possibly small commission it may represent to you.
    Also, I don't want to suffer the disappointment that always follows a bad buying decision, either the hurt I feel over a failed product or my family's and my friends' disapproval.
  • Based on my past experience with salespeople, I do not believe you can help me make the best buying decision. Salespeople make me nervous. After all, if you can't help me, why do you want to help me? I don't trust your intentions.
  • Therefore I'd like to look by myself, if you don't mind. And by the way, the last salesperson I told this to made it very evident by his frown that he did mind.

  • As I leave you, please, please, please, I want you to know one thing. Down deep I'm hoping that you're different, because I also know that my chances of making the best decision by myself are not very good. Simply begin to do the little things that will win my trust and confidence.

One thing is certain. The instant the customer first sees a salesperson approaching, the customer's mindsets begin to get stronger or weaker. The following factors tend to diminish the customer's mindsets: proper dress and grooming, polite eye-contact, positive posture, a warm greeting with a genuine smile, knowledge of exactly what is in the store's current ad and where each item is on your floor, taking control of the situation by asking questions designed to win the customer's attention, getting down to business as quickly as possible by probing for specific customer needs, utilizing ears at least twice as much as mouth, acknowledging every customer concern no matter how small, supporting a customer's needs with relevant benefits, asking for the sale confidently, persistently, and skillfully, and applying specialized product knowledge every inch of the way in keeping with saying, "If you know all there is to know about your product, you are an expert; if you tell your customer everything you know about your product you are a bore." These are the proven ways to get past the customer's mindsets about you and what you represent as a salesperson.

Part B: Handling the customer's subjective indifference.

Earlier I mentioned that subjective indifference occurs whenever customers claim they have no need for the salesperson's products. Often this indifference is the result of the customer's ignorance of the salesperson's product features and benefits or of the customer's satisfaction with a product he or she feels is doing just fine. As an example of the first, take the case of customers who don't realize the importance of a table pad in helping to protect an expensive veneered tabletop. Or take the case of the customer that wants to buy a new mattress, but is determined to keep the old box spring because “it still looks good.” In either case, the job of the salesperson is to penetrate the customer's indifference. The best way to do that is to acknowledge the customer's point of view, and with the customer's permission, to probe into possible needs.

In the many seminars I have conducted with retail furniture salespeople on the subject of indifference, a frequent objection of theirs sounds like this: "But Peter, we don't really deal much at all with indifferent customers or they wouldn't be in our stores." I love hearing that objection because it allows me to point out that customer indifference is in fact a daily occurrence. What I point out is that although customers are interested, let's say, in looking at dining room sets, they are often indifferent to the features and the benefits of the premium sets, indifferent to adding the server or extra chairs, indifferent to going with more supportive glass shelves, a table pad, a finer and more durable finish, and on and on, even though the salesperson senses this same customer might profit greatly from these benefits. Or take the customers who are shopping for a sleep set. Too often they show an indifference to premium bedding, by telling the salesperson, "I can sleep on anything," or "It's only for the guest bedroom," or "Show me your cheapest mattress."

In every one of these examples, the role of the salesperson is somehow to get the customer “to see the light.” The only kind of salesperson who can consistently turn on that light for the customer is the one who has both mastered the selling skills and John F. Lawhon's "Five Groups of Knowledge."

We have now covered what for unskilled and unknowledgeable salespeople are the terrible quadruplets of selling: the drawback, skepticism, misunderstandings and indifference. Only through repeated role playing in which salespeople bring together their selling skills and product knowledge can owners and managers hope to see continual improvements in this regard. The Japanese have a word for continual improvement, Kaizen, which, by the way, can serve to make up the following useful acronym.

Keep on trying
Maintain a proper Attitude
Renew your Interest daily
Sell with Zeal
Develop Effective habits
Accept the New challenges each day brings

While you will never be one hundred percent successful at handling the drawback, skepticism, misunderstandings and indifference, continue to follow the motto of one car manufacturer: The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection. You can take that motto to the bank.

Unit Twelve: All Customers Are Looking for a Bargain.

If it is true that all customers are looking for a bargain, it follows that the role of the salesperson should be to help customers make a buying decision they consider a bargain. This definition of the salesperson's role is not essentially different from that of Terry A. Mort who some time ago in his book, "Systematic Selling," wrote that the salesperson's role was to help customers make a good buying decision. Later on, John F. Lawhon took that sentiment up a notch when in his book, "Retail Selling" he wrote that the salesperson's role was to help customers make the best buying decision.

How do customers arrive at what is the best buying decision. I believe Lawhon summed it up best when he stated that customers tend to buy when the value of the product exceeds its price. Inherent in that statement is the perception that price is not the customer's main criterion in determining a value. Earlier we noted that Chuck Reeves stated that in the history of recorded time no customer ever said "You're price is too high" and meant it.

Then why is it that customers beat up so many retail salespeople on price? The answer probably lies in the fact that the value of our products is not always as easy to perceive as the value of our prices. I once heard someone quip that even a fool can read our price tags, but only the informed can perceive the value in our products. That being the case, we can add to our definition of the salesperson's role by saying that it is to help customers perceive the value in our products, something that is not likely to happen as long as customers are unconvinced they are receiving an appreciable return on their investment. Interestingly the root of the word appreciable derives from the Latin word for price, pretium, which also was the Latin word for value. Obviously the ancient Romans must have very early realized in the early development of their language that a price was good only when it delivered a relevant value, that price alone was not enough to guarantee a good buying decision. Experience must have taught them, as it has us, that when you buy quality you cry only once! The ultimate standard for a sound investment is the total satisfaction with a product's performance. Only then can customers truly say the price was worth it. In other words, customers place the price they are asked to pay on one side of the scale and the satisfaction they hope to attain on the other. Only when the satisfaction outweighs (exceeds) the price, do customers give their commitment. Value must exceed price. That is the guiding principle of every sound investment - it must provide the investor with an appreciable return.

We have defined the salesperson's role. What is the rep's role? It is to help train the retail salesperson to be able to so present the manufacturer's product that customers perceive it as an appreciable return on their investment. To do that, salespeople need to know both their product and how to sell it. Reps are there to help salespeople do both of those things.

Unit Thirteen: Underselling One's Products

Anytime a salesperson either oversells or undersells what a product's features can do for the customer, customer problems tend to result. Reps can do the stores they service a great deal of good by helping to train salespeople neither to oversell nor to undersell their products. Note that we are not suggesting that reps should train salespeople to denigrate their products. The golden rule of preventive selling is to tell it like it is, neither understating nor overstating the ability of a product to perform.

While both underselling and overselling are insidious practices, I believe more retail salespeople are guilty of underselling their products. They do this by default, in as much as I have often heard salespeople tell their customers “This cheaper one is just as good as the more expensive ones.” While that may occasionally be the case regarding two products made by separate companies, I believe it is much less so the case with two products made by the same company.

Nor do I believe that sales people should glibly conclude that quality is entirely subjective. Premium dining room sets, bedrooms, upholstery, and mattresses are what virtually every customer who can afford to do so should be buying. Go to a jewelry store and see if the average fiancé shopping for a ring for his fiancée buys the cheapest diamond ring in the store. Go to an automobile dealership and see if the average customer buys the poorest looking used car on the lot. Go to a dealership that sells boats and see if the average customer buys the cheapest boat in the showroom. Why then if people know how to differentiate one quality product from another, do some customers shopping for furniture blurt out that a sofa is a sofa, a mattress is a mattress, and a recliner is a recliner. I believe customers say that because there are not enough well trained salespeople to respond to that kind of tautology. A tautology consists of repeating the word you wish to define in the predicate. Tautologies are meant to verify the essence of a product, not the varying degrees of quality in a product. A Rolls Royce and a Yugo are both cars. They enjoy the same essence. They do not enjoy the same quality. Salespeople should be prepared to give customers who hit them with tautologies appropriate responses. Appropriate responses are not sarcastic, not rude, not demeaning.

I once had a customer who started out by telling me he didn't want any of those cheap veneers. I told him that neither did the king of England want any of those cheap veneers. I quickly added that the palaces of Kings and Queens are filled with veneered bedrooms and dining room furniture. I also told him that the most expensive case goods are veneered. He gave me the strangest look. I then told this customer that appeared to be in his thirties that it took me a long time to find out about the quality of veneers. In fact, I was approaching my fifties when I first learned about their quality. Next, with his permission, I went over the history of veneers, how the Ancient Egyptians had invented veneering, how only royalty could afford veneering, how the planked solids are incapable of producing the wondrous figures that only veneers can provide, and how veneering was lost for centuries, then rediscovered, and currently made affordable by the present manufacturing processes. Did I offend that man? Hardly. He held out his hand to shake mine and to thank me. You see, there is a right way and a wrong way to share information with customers. The same farmer that spreads manure on his fields doesn't spread manure on his table.

Some Final Thoughts

I excelled in sales largely because of the many good reps that taught me a lot about the products I sold. I don't go along with those salespeople that tell me they don't know more about their products because “those reps don't know anything,” any more than I go along with students that tell me the reason they can't write is because “those teachers never taught me.” That may have been a viable excuse when we were Neolithic hunters, but it long ago ceased to be a viable excuse, what with the world's libraries within our computers.

My parting thoughts are few. To start with, I had thought of ending this manual with a lengthier conclusion. Fortunately, I decided against that and opted instead to end by urging reps to follow the wisdom of one of Zig Ziglar's statements about nature's law of reciprocity: "You can get everything you want out of others if you first help them get what they want." And so, whatever reps read this manual, I have only these words: “Help your retail salespeople get what they want from you, and they'll help you get what you want.” Oh, and by the way: Thanks again.