View all articles by Peter A. Marino
Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Peter Marino’s new book “It’s Buying Silly,” Published by FURNITURE WORLD MAGAZINE.
One of the byproducts of sales coaching is that you get to see first hand the importance of what I term personalized feature-benefit statements and demonstrations that differ significantly from the kind of feature-benefits found in a manufacturer’s brochure. For example, a furniture manufacturer’s brochure might state the feature of one of its sofas as follows: "Hardwood frames reinforced by dowels together with glued and screwed corner blocks for added strength and durability." A bedding manufacturer might state the feature-benefits of one its mattresses as follows:" This one-sided mattress is turn-free so that it no longer has to be regularly turned." Such feature-benefit statements are fine in a manufacturer’s brochure. After all, manufacturers cannot be expected to include personalized feature-benefit statements. However, salespeople who merely state the manufacturer’s brochures often fall short of being effective. Why is that? Because customers tend to be won over only by personalized feature-benefit statements that are relevant to what really turns them on, namely, their so-called hot buttons. I prefer to add the word personalized to the word relevant, only because the former adds a new emphasis to the salesperson’s need to arrive at what one sales training program calls "a clear, complete, and mutual understanding of the customer’s needs."
How do salespeople arrive at a personalized understanding of the customer’s needs? When should salespeople make personalized feature-benefit statements? Let’s start with the first question. The way to arrive at a personalized understanding of the customer’s needs is through open and closed verbal probing as well as nonverbal probing, which mainly consists of actively listening to the customer’s body language and voice quality.
Regarding verbal probing, one kind is not more important than the other. Professional salespeople should be experts in the use of both open and closed probes, in the same way that pianists are expert in both the white and black keys of a piano. True, too many salespeople tend to depend almost entirely on closed probes, a fact that has misled some sales authors to urge their readers to use 80 percent open probes and 20 percent closed probes. Personally I loathe all mathematical approaches to selling. Selling, because it is dynamic, can never be a numbers game. Each selling situation is dynamically different. For that reason Hank Trisler, the author of "No Bull Selling," was right on the money when he quipped, "The trouble with memorizing our lines is that the customers keep on forgetting theirs!" A simpler and more effective way to handle the matter of probing is to take one’s cue from the situation at hand, that is, to take one’s cue from the customer. So, if the customer says something like, "My recliner is no longer doing it," ask an open probe: "Mind telling me what you mean by that?" If the customer gives you a strong buying signal, use a closed probe to win the customer’s buy in: "Would you feel comfortable going with this one?" If you want to find out how many chairs the client will need in her office, ask her a closed probe: "How many chairs will you need?" Note that all closed probes are not yes-no types. The frequently asked and ill-timed probe with which too many furniture salespeople hit their upholstery customers up front – "What style are you looking for?" – happens to be as closed as a cocoon. That’s why most customers are generally uncomfortable with it up front: they instinctively feel that salespeople who ask that question are trying to force them into a corner before they have the slightest idea about the customer’s situation. Salespeople would be wise to try an open probe at this point, like the following: "Mind telling me what I should know about the room in which you’re going to put your new sofa?" Note that this probe, while it resembles a yes-no closed probe in form, is actually an open probe in intent.
Acquiring a mastery of verbal open and closed probes is more than a skill; it is an art. Nothing is more satisfying to a sales coach than watching a masterful salesperson probe each customer like a fine conductor leading each member of his or her orchestra. Like a skilled conductor, a skilled salesperson should simply do the conducting while the customers do the playing, so to speak. To borrow an analogy from Achieve Global’s "Professional Selling Skills," the salesperson should be the navigator, and the customer the pilot." Only the salesperson who recognizes that his or her role is to practice side by side buying can be comfortable with being the navigator while allowing the customer to be the pilot.
But all probing is not verbal. There is the nonverbal probing by which salespeople stay attuned to their customer’s body language and voice quality. Recently, in a French manual of "Professional Selling Skills," I noticed that the French word for probing is sonder, meaning to sound out. How exciting! All animals and plants communicate messages through sounds and vibrations, through colors, through smell, through touch, and through the entire gamut of their senses – audio, visual, and their sense of feeling or the kinesthetic. Except for training systems like Neurolinguistic Programming, this area has been virtually untapped by most selling systems -even when they superficially mention it.
Regarding when to use personalized feature-benefit statements, a safe rule is to practice what I like to call delayed supporting. If a customer tells you that soon after she purchased her last leather sofa, she experienced a lot of annoyances with such things as sagging cushions, don’t immediately go into a supporting mode. Instead simply acknowledge the customer’s statement, and say something like the following: "In a little while I’ll have something to say about why you won’t likely ever experience that kind of annoyance with our sofas, but first tell me what else you’re looking for in your next sofa." Then wait until you and the customer find one of your sofas she really likes. Then and only then point out that sofa’s excellent quality features.
Why is it inadvisable in this situation to launch immediately into a supporting statement? Because you haven’t yet uncovered the rest of the customer’s needs. Once the customer has found the sofa that supports her other needs, then you can use your delayed supporting to assure her regarding the superior seat construction: "Janet, earlier you mentioned your concern over the sagging cushions. Let me show you why you are not likely to experience that kind of problem with this sofa." By delaying your supporting statement, you are now supporting her sofa, the one she has already bought into, and not just any other one of the sofas your store has. Start doing a better job of sounding out your customer’s complete needs and then waiting for the proper moment to support those needs through personalized feature-benefit statements and, oh yes, through demonstrations. Not shown when told remains unsold. And remember: It’s all in the timing.
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 email@example.com.