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Product Knowledge And Perceived Honesty

Furniture World Magazine


Over-reliance on general product knowledge stops many salespeople from communicating clearly and gaining customer confidence.

Editor's Note: after railing against salespeople who bore customers with too much specific product information (February Furniture World)... Peter Marino looks at the equally severe problem of salespeople who rely too heavily on communicating general product knowledge.

Moments before dying, Goethe is said to have exclaimed these words. "Mehr Licht! Mehr Licht!" (More Light! More Light!). In this article we shall discuss how salespeople can shed more light when communicating with their customers. In a word, this is referred to as Clarity.

What are the factors that prevent salespeople from communicating clearly? The first of these is a too heavy reliance on general terms, a fault especially common among salespeople who have only a general knowledge of their products and those of their competitors.

One of the resulting problems of having only general product knowledge is that it does not at all serve customers who seek the kind of information they need to make the best buying decision. Customers enter our stores already having general product knowledge. They cannot be expected to put their confidence in a salesperson whose product knowledge is more or less the same as theirs. Moreover, customers rarely buy from a salesperson in whom they have little confidence. Confidence means trust. The trust customers put in a salesperson must be two-fold: in his or her honesty and in his or her product knowledge. The two are inter-related. Once customers do not trust the salesperson's product knowledge, they tend to doubt the salesperson's honesty. Why? Because everyone has doubts about the intentions of salespeople who are not qualified to do what they say they'd like to do for us. That is, help us make the best purchase decision. This must explain why our "Can I help you?" is almost always answered with "I'm just looking." Recent research done in Denver, Colorado revealed that when customers hear salespeople saying "Can I help you?" they actually hear "Can I sell you?" By sell, customers who took part in the research stated they heard "How can I take your money and run?" No wonder this same research showed that the reputation for honesty among our salespeople ranked slightly above that among used-car salespeople!

A second problem with having only general product knowledge is linked to the truism that confidence begets confidence. Customers instinctively know if a salesperson lacks the confidence that comes with having specific information about the features of his or her products. Once that confidence is shattered, all hope of the salesperson's hearing a buying signal tends to vanish.

A third problem stemming from general product knowledge is that it is by its very nature un-exciting. For that reason, we are drawn to those speakers who excite us with their specialized knowledge, regardless of the subject matter. I've often asked myself why exciting salespeople's presentations are so predictably successful while those of their counterparts are not. I imagine the reason lies in the fear customers have of making a buying mistake: will they be laughed at, put down, scolded, waste their hard earned money, etc.? Excitement has a consistent way of driving out fear; un-excitement a way of nurturing fear.

A fourth problem rising out of general product knowledge is that it robs the salesperson of all ability to capitalize on answers from customers to their open probes, like "What's the problem, if I may ask?" The answers, which reveal specific problems, logically demand specific answers. Salespeople with general product knowledge are limited to giving general answers, which leave customers groping in the dark, so to speak, for the information which consists of a clear presentation of the features of their products. True, customers don't buy features, they buy benefits. But unless salespeople know the specific features of their products, they won't know what it is in their product line that makes those benefits possible. In plain words, the solutions to the customer's problems lies in the much maligned features often called "nuts and bolts.' The weak salesperson refers to those features as dowels, plugs, frames, fabric, coils, grains, etc.; the professional salesperson refers to them as polarized blade, double-doweled and corner blocked kiln dried frames, polyester, olefin, rayon, nylon, acrylic, cellulostic, protein fabrics, offset coils, 8-way hand-tied coils, herringbone and diamond shaped figures. Only by achieving mastery of this information can the professional go on to tell the customer which of these features can 'do it' for the customer. Weak salespeople say, "Look. When was the last time someone came through your entrance and asked to see an offset coil, an 8-way hand-tied sofa or a triple doweled chair? Why, pretty soon you'll have us believing it's important to know that a dowel is fluted!" My reply to them is that it is true customers do not ask for the specific features of our products. But I would remind these salespeople that customers do come into our stores every day in need of the features that can provide the solution for furniture problems like fabrics that wear out too quickly, frames that don't hold up, sofas not quite comfortable enough, and on and on. While we're on the subject of fluted dowels, allow me to comment on an experience Mary, one of my salespeople, had. She had just finished selling a dining room for over $5,000. "It was the fluted dowels that did it," she insisted. "The fluted dowels?" I asked, "Yes, the fluted dowels." I begged her to tell me how. "Well, Peter, this great big man came in looking for a dining room set. Said the chairs on his set kept breaking down. I showed him one of my fine sets." "Too much money," he complained. I answered that I realized he wanted to save money, but I had a feeling he wanted to solve his problem even more. To which he replied, "What problem?" I shot back, "The problem with your chairs. That is the reason you're shopping, right? You need the kind of chairs that can take that big muscular frame of yours." Mary then told me how she proceeded to talk about every feature she could think of in those chairs that might convince that bulk of a man they were reliable; triple doweled, corner blocked, kiln dried oak. "I could see by looking in his eyes that he was almost won over, but not quite," Mary said, "but I hit him with the clincher." "And what was that?" I inquired. "The fluted dowels," she answered proudly. I raised my eyebrows and bade her continue. "Yes, Peter, I looked that magnificent specimen in his skeptical eyeballs and told him one more thing' that these chairs had fluted dowels (I showed him an example) that allowed the glue to hold along their entire length." "Did he go for it?" I inquired. Mary answered, "When I told him what the fluted dowel meant for him, that he'd never have to worry about getting those chairs fixed, he decided to give me the sale."

Testimonials like that one should convince even the die-hards that product knowledge is indispensable to successful selling.

To repeat, general product knowledge prevents the salesperson from presenting specific solutions to the customer's problems. The specific solutions to those problems lie, of course, in specialized information. That's why Mary was successful in giving her customer the answer to his chair problems. Other specific furniture problems like a split cannon ball on a cheaper imported headboard, fabrics that wear too quickly, sticky extension mechanisms on dinette tables, and recliners with ottomans which keep on slipping under the weight of the user's legs, can only be understood and solved by salespeople with specialized knowledge. Those without the knowledge can only talk in general terms which quickly lose the customer's trust.

A second factor that leads to unclear communication with customers is a poor vocabulary. By poor I do not mean that a salesperson's vocabulary should be measured by the length of his or her words. The answer does not lie in the consistent use of SESQUIPEDALIAN words; literally words a foot and a half long. Such words, when used solely to impress with their length, end up turning the listener off. Words should be viewed like a carpenter's tools. The criterion for their use lies in how well they fit the situation. So, too, should professional salespeople continuously work on their vocabulary with an eye to communicating with their customers more clearly. One way to build a more powerful vocabulary is to develop the habit of reading for at least half an hour a day and to look up new words in a dictionary. Your library probably has excellent books and tapes on how to improve your vocabulary.

Take these suggestions to heart and I assure you that you'll become masters at communicating with your customers and doing so with Mehr Light!

Corporate trainer and educator Peter A Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. He is also a noted speaker and group leader. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to Peter care of FURNITURE WORLD at pmarino@furninfo.com.