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Probe, Don't Pitch

Furniture World Magazine


This article is another in an ongoing series on consultative selling skills for professional retail sales representatives. This column is written by Ron Wolinski, Manager of Sales Education and Director of the Simmons Mattress Business "Academy."

In last month's article, I ended my column with the statement - "Probe, Don't Pitch." Let me begin this month's article with that same phrase, with an explanation.

When a customer enters the store, we are faced with several challenges. First, we must get them to relax and feel comfortable with the store environment. Second, we must establish rapport, empathy and trust to show we are concerned enough with them as individuals and are knowledgeable enough to provide solutions to their bedding or home furnishing needs. Third, we must find out what's important to them and what is on their minds.

What allows us to deal with these challenges successfully is the skill of Probing, or asking questions. Probing encourages customers to become involved in a conversation and develop a dialogue between themselves and you. Remember, Communication is a two-way street. This also provides the customer the opportunity to talk about their most prized possessions - themselves and their home. And, by asking questions, we are showing our interest and our desire to counsel them.

Professional probing techniques also have a behavioral effect on your customer. By asking questions about their thoughts, goals, concerns and interests, we let them know we value what's important to them. In this way, we are really contributing to their "self worth." Good probing techniques also break down barriers, brings the customer closer to us and allow us to create a "win-win" rather than a "win-lose" situation. In the "win-win," we provide solutions rather than sell a product.

It is extremely important to eliminate confusion in the mind of our customer. By probing we better understand what the customer wants to accomplish, and we can narrow our recommendations accordingly, rather than showing too many mattresses, bedrooms, dining rooms or upholstery pieces. If we make it too difficult, the customer will simply walk. We've made the decision too difficult. Thorough probing is much like painting a picture by numbers. The more squares we fill in, the clearer the picture becomes, for us and our customer. Intelligent probing also helps our customers to better organize their own thoughts, goals or objectives and eliminate the "mystique" of investing in home furnishings.

Providing a solution to a clearly defined need has much more impact than "pitching a product." A "pitch" does not consider the specific, individual needs of a customer. It focuses on "selling" the product based on what we think is important, rather than "solving." Keep in mind our customers buy for their reasons, not ours. Knowing how to probe, understanding the different types of probes and what they're designed to accomplish, is important.

There are two basic types of probing techniques, each with different objectives. The first type is the "open probe," which invites the customer to speak his/her mind in their own words. This approach allows the customer to freely express their experiences, values, emotions and concerns. This technique begins with words like "what... when...where...why...who...how...explain...describe..." These key questions encourage the customer to reveal whatever is on his/her mind.

The second type of probe is a "closed probe," which allows you to direct the customer. You choose the subject of discussion. The answers to these probes are a simple "yes" or "no," or a choice of alternatives which you supply. This allows you to focus on areas which you want to discuss. For example, if you ask the question, "What's important to you in a mattress?" you've used an open probe, leaving the customer free to discuss anything he/she chooses. Closed probes, on the other hand, are the best approaches for dealing with unresponsive customers, allowing you to literally pull out information with "yes/no" questions. Some examples of closed probes are: Are you looking for a pillow top or tight top mattress? Is sagging at the edge a problem? Do you have a queen size set now? Would you prefer a king or queen set? Does your partner disturb you when he/she turns or rolls over? By utilizing professional probing techniques and listening carefully to the answers, you will truly establish yourself as a home furnishings consultant who finds what's important, fills those needs with the benefits of a product and makes specific recommendations. Now you're solving, not pitching.

By following this consultative process you truly are a consultant who has gained a long-term client who will return to you, rather than a clerk who simply took an order and didn't establish any credibility or professional

Ron Wolinski is Manager of Simmons Education. Questions can be sent to Ron care of FURNITURE WORLD Magazine at wolinski@furninfo.com.