Over 154 Years of Service to the Furniture Industry
 Furniture World Logo

Professional Selling Skills - Part 6 - Handling Customer Indifference

Furniture World Magazine


How can you create a "felt need" where there is none?

The average salesperson's inability to handle customer indifference may be the greatest single factor contributing to our industry's loss of productivity. Accordingly, store owners and managers ought to concentrate more on teaching their salespeople how to handle indifference.

When does a salesperson meet with customer indifference? Every time customers say they need the salesperson's product like a squirrel needs a ladder! What reasons do customers give for their indifference? Several:

  • They allege satisfaction with a product they already have: They might insist on keeping their old boxspring even though they are willing to buy a new mattress.
  • They claim satisfaction with an internally supplied product: They might say they are content to apply fabric protection themselves, instead of opting for a store applied fabric protector.
  • They demonstrate no awareness of how some features of the salesperson's product can satisfy their needs: They might be unaware of how a table pad can protect a solid or veneered wooden surface, or of how purchasing new accessories can compliment their new furniture purchase. They might not know that by spending a little extra to purchase premium bedding, they can get the benefit of healthy, restful sleep, year after year.

We are not here talking about justifiable indifference as when customers are indifferent to adding a server to their new dining room purchase because they have absolutely no room for it. That kind of indifference we should always honor. Rather we are talking about the kind of indifference resulting from the customer's ignorance of product benefits, an ignorance that prevents them from seeing how those benefits can exceed the benefits of a product they presently own.

What is it that makes customer indifference so difficult to handle? It is the fact that all selling is based on need satisfaction. If there is no felt need... there can be no sale. Unless customers feel a need for the benefits your products provide, they cannot be persuaded to buy those products. The old saying, "He can sell ice to an Eskimo" is merely a humorous but falsely based hyperbole that flies in the face of the solid principle of need satisfaction selling.

How can you handle customer indifference? How can you create a felt need where there is none? Finding a practical strategy to deal with indifference is even more difficult than, say, that of handling skepticism or a misunderstanding or a drawback, as we shall see in the seventh and final part of this series. No organization I know of has developed a more practical strategy for handling customer indifference than Learning International, a strategy that demands a complete mastery of its steps.


The first step consists of acknowledging your customer's indifference. Acknowledging the customer's indifference does not mean agreeing with it. for example, you might say to the customer who does not wish to replace his old boxspring:

Salesperson: "I understand that you are happy with your old boxspring and I appreciate your telling me so."


Next, get the customer's permission to take a little of his or her time in order to ask a few questions that the customer might find useful:

Salesperson: "Would you mind if I took some moments of your time to ask a few questions you might find useful?"


If the customer gives you that permission, you then move to the most delicate and critical of the steps. Above all, you should never take the customer's permission to probe as a signal to begin talking about the features and benefits of your product. To do so would be to insult the customer who a moment ago stated satisfaction with his or her present situation. Instead, use the customer's permission to ask the kind of questions that create an awareness of needs by probing into facts, conditions and circumstances surrounding the customer's current situation. For example, you might ask:

Salesperson: "How long do you intend to enjoy your new mattress?" Let's say the customer responds:

Customer: "A long time, at least fifteen years." You continue:

Salesperson: "Most boxsprings wear out before the mattress, much like the shocks on our cars. But let's say your old boxspring happens to be the rare exception. You admit it has already lasted fifteen years. How many more years do you expect it to last?" You pause at this point to allow your worlds to sink in. Then you add:

Salesperson: "How do you feel about knowing that in a relatively short time you'll be needing a new boxspring, not to mention the fact that your already fatigued boxspring is going to be called upon to support your new mattress?" If the customer begins to weaken and show signs of doubt about his old boxspring's capability, say something like this:

Salesperson: "Please understand that I'm not trying to force an unneeded purchase on you. I'm merely interested in being fair with you. No one I know of has ever gone to a junk yard to buy used shocks for his car, or look at it another way. Usually an athlete's legs give out before his or her upper body gives out."

Does this strategy work? Nothing always works, but if you want to handle indifference, you must develop a practical strategy.

You can also use a part of this strategy to bypass indifference. Most salespeople ask for add-ons more or less in the following way:

Salesperson: "May I show you some lamps?" or "May I interest you in the server?" or "Will you be needing occasional tables with your sofa and loveseat?"

Predictably, most customers answer "NO" to closed probes like those. Therefore, my suggestion in these situations is that you skip closed probes and use open probes. For example, you might ask:

Salesperson: "Tell me about the tables you now have in your family room."

As the customer goes on to describe the tables she now has, listen carefully for any circumstances that lead you to probe for opportunities. let's say the customer told you that the tables she had were in a traditional style, but the sofa and loveseat she was purchasing from you was in a contemporary style. You might ask the customer:

Salesperson: "How do you feel about the difference in style between the tables you now have and the sofa and loveseat you are purchasing?"

That kind of question will often get the customer to open up all kinds of opportunities for you to confirm as needs. Try it. It works.

This is also an excellent strategy for selling accessories. Again, omit feeble questions that prompt your customer to show indifference... like:

Salesperson: "Are you interested in accessories?"

Instead, skip that question and immediately ask permission to probe about the accessories the customer currently has. Probe to make the customer aware that her present accessories may not be doing it for her. Then probe further for opportunities to confirm as needs.

Do not be indifferent to this important strategy, master it... and watch how your sales will dramatically increase.

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 Magazine at pmarino@furninfo.com.