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The Sales Skill Of Leveling

Furniture World Magazine


Handle potential confrontations between customers, sales/service people; managers and their salespeople.

In her book, "The New Peoplemaking," Virginia Satir discusses five modes of interpersonal communication named after her. These five modes and any combination of them, often affect the manner in which we communicate our values, desires, expectations, and ideas under stress. They are: Placating, Blaming, Distracting, Computing and Leveling.

Three of these modes; placating, blaming, and distracting, most of us learned and practiced since our early childhood. The remaining two, computing and leveling are more sophisticated, though they too are probably learned and practiced in one's early years.

Without education and training most of us readily drift into the modes of blaming, placating and distraction when we are under the stress of having to react to the calls of irate customers or to the objections customers raise, or to the suggestions, opinions, or ideas of co-workers. We have all often experienced the impulse to disagree with, reject or disregard the statements of others when we are under stress. Let's take a look at how managers, for example, might use the Satir Modes in order to react to a worker's statement which they find disagreeable.


Joe is the highest writing salesperson in the company. He frequently uses that fact to try to cover up for his lack of follow-up. Even though he sells lots of product, his customers often feel disappointed with their purchases. Joe has just entered Mary's office to complain about a note she recently sent him regarding his lack of follow-up.

JOE: Mary, I know it's not you, but can't you get the boss off my back? Doesn't he know how much I've been writing? So I make a few mistakes on my follow-up. Big deal!

MARY THE PLACATER: I understand where the boss is coming from and I also understand where you're coming from too. Try a little harder, Joe. You'll see that the boss isn't so bad after all.

MARY THE BLAMER: Listen, Joe. I really don't care how much volume you write. You either shape up or ship out. I've dealt with guys like you before. Grow up. Now get out of my office.

MARY THE DISTRACTER: Look Joe. Do we really have to talk about this now? We've got a big sale coming up. What are you going to do to

make this the best sale we've ever had ?

If these three were the only modes Mary could use, one might understand why she might use any one of them. Fortunately there are two others: computing and leveling. Let's take a look at how Mary might have used computing.

COMPUTING: All bosses would like to see high volume and flawless follow-up and all high-volume salespeople are understandably proud of their productivity. It is also true that the ones who have to handle all the paperwork and irritated calls from angry callers are not usually the ones whose lack of follow-up caused those angry calls in the first place.

In her book, "How to Disagree without Being Disagreeable," Suzette Haden Elgin states that blaming relies on personal and hostile language. She adds that placating, while it avoids hostile language, does create an air of apologetic wimpiness. As for the mode of distracting, Dr. Elgin writes that it merely cycles through the other modes. Therefore, although its language is not hostile, it does create an impression of panic and skirting.

Regarding computing, she writes that while it avoids personally hostile language, its limitations lie in relying too much on indefinite, generic, and abstract language. Its very strength--its neutrality--too often ends up being its weakness--since it too skirts around taking the problem head on.

The mode that avoids hostile language without skirting around responsibility is that of leveling. Let's see how Mary might have handled the situation with Joe by leveling:

LEVELING: Joe. I respect your high volume. You do it through your selling skills, great product knowledge, and hard work. I expect you to apply the same level of skill, knowledge and attitude to the matter of follow-up. Our boss is right to demand that your follow-up attain the level of your volume. Any ideas on how we can get you to do that?

Is there any doubt that Mary the Leveler is a much more professional manager than Mary the Placater, Blamer, Distracter, and Computer?

Next, let's apply the Satir Modes to selling.


Mrs. Jones, a customer, complains to her salesperson who has just informed her that she cannot get the delivery of her two night stands on the next day.

CUSTOMER: Why can't you make room for two little night stands? Don't you guys care about making smaller sales?

SALESPERSON PLACATING: You're right, Mrs. Jones. Gee Whiz, if it were up to me I'd put the two night stands on tomorrow's truck. But you see my point, don't you, Mrs. Jones? I do appreciate your business.

SALESPERSON BLAMING: Sure I want your business, but you're barking up the wrong tree. You can't expect special consideration. That wouldn't be fair? Besides, I'm only doing my job.

SALESPERSON DISTRACTING: Look at it this way, Mrs. Jones. You did get the night stands at twenty percent off and you really love them and they'll look just as lovely when we deliver them next week.

SALESPERSON COMPUTING: Mrs. Jones, I understand. Most customers want their furniture right away. That's a fact. It's also a fact that overloaded trucks cause damage to furniture.

Note that while computing tends to avoid personal and hostile language, it fails to get to the customer's expressed need regarding delivery. Like distraction, it too skirts the issue, but without sounding as weak and wimpy. Now let's see how a salesperson might handle this situation by leveling.

SALESPERSON LEVELING: I understand, Mrs. Jones, why you want to have the night stands delivered tomorrow. I must insist that overloading our trucks risks damaging your furniture and that of the other customers. While we can waive our policy, we can't waive the law of probability of damage on overloaded trucks. Mrs. Jones, why don't we take a look at some of the optional delivery dates we can offer you.

By and large, customers appreciate salespeople who neither throw store policies in their face nor apologize for those policies. They also appreciate salespeople who are able to defend their policies frankly and honestly. In short, they appreciate being leveled with.

Let's take a look at a third situation, this one involving an irate customer who has called a customer service agent.


CSA: Thank you for calling Peerless Furniture. How may I help you?

CUSTOMER: Hello. This is Mrs. Jones. Are you George? I was asked to talk to George.

CSA: Yes, this is George. (bring up Mrs. Jone's delivery on screen) I see today we delivered your sofa, loveseat, and two lamp tables.

CUSTOMER: Yes, and you can tell your driver to take them back. The sofa's a mess. I paid for a sofa and loveseat with flow-match. these have no flow-match. Your drivers are standing here. I want them to take all four pieces back. I also want a refund unless you can get me a new sofa and loveseat with flow-match by tomorrow afternoon.

CSA BLAMING: Mrs. Jones, please be reasonable. How can you expect us to get you another sofa and loveseat by tomorrow if it took us ten weeks to get you the ones we delivered today? Look! If you want a refund, we'll give it to you, but there's no way we can get you a new set in less than ten weeks.

CSA PLACATING: Gee, Mrs. Jones, I'm so sorry. I know you ordered a set with flow-match. I'm looking at your invoice and we did write it up correctly. Gee! What could have gone wrong? You do see my predicament, don't you?

CSA DISTRACTING: Wonder how that happened. We've had only one other case like this all year. Besides, this vendor is so careful! Let me find out what happened. This is so unusual.

CSA COMPUTING: These things do happen from time to time. Even the best quality control can break down.

CSA LEVELING: Nothing I say can ever make up for the disappointment you are feeling at this time, Mrs. Jones. Nor will I defend this situation by saying the mistake was made at the factory and not by us. We're responsible. We're the ones who sold you your furniture. While it's not possible to get a new set any sooner than we did the first time, I would like to discuss some of the options you do have. Would you be willing to discuss those options, Mrs. Jones? You deserve to hear them after what you've been through.

As we have shown, it would be well worth our time to be well versed in how the various Satir Modes affect interpersonal communication. In the next issue we'll take a careful look at what Suzette Haden Elgin writes about choosing one's metaphors. I believe you'll find that topic as useful as this one on the Satir Modes.

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 finney@furninfo.com.