Qualifying: Insight in a limited time frame.
We've discussed probing, the first part of a three-fold selling process. Let's now discuss the second part of that process... qualifying. Earlier we stated that many selling systems include only one of these two; none, I know of, includes both. No training system I have studied differentiates between the two.
The difference between probing and qualifying, I believe, lies in their different objectives. The purpose of probing is to obtain information from the customer, information which may relate to the sale directly or indirectly. Ultimately that information should help the salesperson to perceive the customer's levels of need. The purpose of qualifying is to interpret the information obtained by probing in order to set up the best possible selling strategy. Thus, the first two parts of the three-fold selling process have only one aim... to set up the best selling strategy. Specifically, qualifying helps the salesperson obtain insights as to the factors (the customer's needs, concerns, hopes, fears, doubts) which can significantly affect the outcome of the sale. In retail selling, such qualifying normally takes place within a rather limited amount of time. After all, retail selling does not tend to offer the salesperson the luxury outside salespeople have of starting the qualifying process even before actually encountering the customer.
To state all this in more practical terms, the retail salesperson must be able to interpret the information he gets from questions related to the following:
*Is this customer truly interested in buying what she just stated?
*Will she consider spending more than she told me she wanted to if I can demonstrate to her the benefits of a superior product?
*Does this customer really mean it when she says she's not going to buy today, or is she merely saying that to get me to back off?
*Does she really need her husband's permission, as she says, or is she using that objection as a stall?
*Why is this customer asking me about the fabric?
*Did she have an unhappy experience because of a fabric that wore out too quickly?
*Did her sales-person promise her it would wear like iron?
*What kind of fabric did she have trouble with?
*Why is she hesitating to buy this clearance item which is such an evident bargain?
*Was she recently taken in by some slick sales-person who promised her a bargain?
*Is she skeptical?
*Is she indifferent?
*Is she fearful?
*Does she trust me as her salesperson?
*What has she heard about our store?
*Does she trust our store?
*Who referred her?
*What does she mean when she says she can sleep on anything?
*Does she mean she prefers a hard mattress to a plush one?
*Does she mean she's looking for a premium hard mattress or a cheap one.
All these questions-and countless others like them ought to suggest it would be a serious mistake for salespeople to conclude that in the real world, probing and qualifying are the static skills they appear to be in trainers' charts and manuals. Selling is a dynamic process involving an ever-changing communication cycle. Salespeople need to realize that within this dynamic process qualifying is as likely to affect further probing as probing is to affect qualifying. Note the following scenario.
Customer: What's your cheapest twin mattress?
Salesperson: Our least expensive set is $99.00. Mind if I ask who it's for?
Customer: It's for my cabin. Do a lot of hunting and fishing.
Salesperson: Where's your cabin?
Customer: Lake O' The Woods. A long way up north but worth it.
Salesperson: Your retreat from all the madness, I guess.
Customer: Sure is. Like my job, but you gotta get away now and then.
Salesperson: Sure do, how's the mattress you sleep on each night?
Customer: Great. Paid enough for it, too.
Salesperson: Makes a difference, doesn't it.
Customer: You betcha.
Salesperson: Had a guy come in last week. Has a cabin up north. Bought a nice twin set for it. Know what he said?
Salesperson: "I don't drive all the way up there to get a poorer night's sleep than I do at home."
Customer: Got a point there.
Salesperson: Sure does. Also told me something about sleep. He said "Why are people willing to pay more for a better room for one or two night's sleep at a motel and yet try to save that same amount on something they're going to sleep on again and again?" But let me show you what you asked for.
Customer is shown and tries least expensive mattress set. Is not impressed. Salesperson begins to interpret the situation and to qualify him as a customer willing to pay a bit more. His qualifying gets him to do further probing.
Salesperson: Mind if I show you three beds a lot better and not a lot more?
Customer: Depends on what you mean by not a lot more.
Salesperson: Fair enough. (The salesperson then sets up his strategy of three, a strategy we'll go into more in depth in the next article).
Nothing is more damaging to successful selling than a salesperson's stubborn insistence that the qualifying he has already done must not be modified if the situation warrants it. For example, let's say a woman finds a recliner she likes but balks at buying it. "I'll have to come back with my husband." It's a common objection and often, but not always, a mere stall. Recently I had a woman customer who said she needed to bring her husband to the store to see the recliner she liked best. During the sale she told me her husband already owned a recliner he was happy with. The recliner she was looking at would be hers. She also said that the reason she wanted a recliner was because of her sore back. Her husband's recliner was all right but a bit too large. That added information, of course, affected how I qualified her. I now thought that a fair and realistic approach would be to suggest that since she was the one with a sore back, her husband would probably be all too happy and willing to have his wife make a decision all by herself. After all, it was not a decision that would affect him. Besides, she had her own job and could pay for the recliner herself. The approach worked. She bought the recliner.
But what if she had indicated that despite all that, she would never think of buying without her husband's permission? Would it be wise to exert pressure to get her to buy? I think not, despite one trainer's words that master salespeople never fall for that objection. I agree that too many weak salespeople accept that objection without further probing and qualifying. But I am opposed to inflexibility in selling. Aesop's fable about the oak and the reeds is most relevant. The oak, proud of its unbending strength, often scolded the reeds for their constant bending at every breeze. One day a violent storm broke the oak at its trunk; the reeds, by their flexible strength, easily survived the storm. Victories are celebrated only by those who survive.
Inflexibility and qualifying when mixed together produce terrible sales results. Take, for example, the much heralded sell down not up promoted by factory reps and store managers for years. What a contradiction! The same ones who preached that assuming is wrong, qualifying is right, willingly persuaded scores of salespeople to throw qualifying to the winds and opt for assuming that it is always better to sell down than up. The decision to sell down is a selling strategy. No selling strategy should be arrived at by assuming.
In the next issue we shall take a look at the third part of our selling process-Strategizing.
Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications.