Preconditioning is an effective way to lubricate the sale.
For sometime, sales trainers have been aware of the technique of preempting or anticipating objections. That technique teaches salespeople to bring up ahead of time those objections which tend to come up frequently. Experienced salespeople know that certain objections have a consistent way of coming up at the most inconvenient time in the selling sequence, usually at the point of the close.
The following are examples of what these objections often sound like:
Customer: I'd buy it if a tri-fold mirror came with it instead of this one.
Customer: But how can I be sure this mattress will feel comfortable when I get it home?
Customer: It looks great here, but will it go with what I already have?
Customer: But isn't there some way I can actually see what the sofa looks like before we order it from a catalog?
Customer: But do you have a matching chair in the same fabric?
Customer: This is exactly what we're looking for. Do the chairs come in another fabric?
Customer: I like it a lot, but I don't think my bedroom will hold a wall unit this large.
THE KILLER OBJECTIONS
Then there are the killer objections the so-called friend of the one buying seems to relish making:
Customer: "I'd wait, Mary. You don't have to make a decision today," or...
Customer: "I'd shop a bit more, Mary. You don't make a purchase like this every day."
EVERY SALESPERSON'S EXPERIENCE
Is there an experienced salesperson who has never been undone by these kinds of objections just when he or she thought the sale was in the bag? Is there an experienced salesperson who wouldn't like to learn a technique for handling such objections? I believe Doug Huseby, owner of Becker Furniture World in Becker, Minnesota, has come up with just such a technique. He calls it Preconditioning the Customer. Doug has taken the technique of pre-empting anticipated objections and developed it into an art form. Till Doug came up with his technique of preconditioning, sales trainers had merely handled it as an after-thought.
I can still remember the day, several years ago, when Doug approached me after one of my sales sessions with his staff. He began to lament how often salespeople are "struck down" by customer objections which have a way of coming up at the most inopportune time. Concerned about this, Doug asked me if I had anything in my sales system to help with these frequent and inopportune objections. I proceeded to tell him about the technique of preempting or anticipating objections. "That's good," he said, "but do you teach preconditioning to your salespeople?" He then went on to talk about preconditioning. The more he talked, the more interested I became. As a student of Learning International's "Professional Selling Skills" seminar, I knew a lot about how outside salespeople can be taught the technique of opening the sale or positioning themselves for the sale. While I applauded that technique for outside salespeople, I knew fully well that it was too sophisticated, too contrived, to work on a furniture floor. No customer would stand still at the store entrance while a salesperson recited his or her opening lines. Author Hank Trisler had long ago prepared me against such folly when I read the statement in his book, "No Bull Selling, "that the problem with memorizing our lines is that the customers keep on forgetting theirs. What retail salespeople needed was a much less formal and hoaky way to open the sale. I immediately felt that Doug had ingeniously stumbled onto the way to anticipate a host of frequent customer objections. The truth is that Doug has an uncanny way of stumbling onto what some authors call "ah hah's" ...those insights inquisitive minds tend to have.
Doug continued: "Salespeople need to be trained to be prepared ahead of time to handle the kinds of objections that are killing them when they try to sell dinettes, dining rooms, living rooms, recliners, and every other category of furniture in their store. They do all the hard work and then lose the sale at the end." I listened intently. He then added: "You've got to prepare customers to make a sensible compromise." I asked him what he meant by a sensible compromise.
"Customers," he explained, "will drive you bananas if you don't prepare them for a sensible compromise. They like this but they don't like that, they like that but they don't like this. You know what I mean?" I knew exactly what he meant. "Haven't you had the following experience lots of times?" Doug asked me. "You show them a bedroom. They like the headboard, the night stands, the dresser, and the chest, but they don't like the landscape mirror. Or they like the landscape mirror, but they don't like the chest. They want an armoire instead. They like the sofa and the loveseat, but they want a matching chair. They like this but not that, that but not this."
What a stroke of genius. True, most sales trainers would answer that salespeople should probe to find out what the customer likes. But by then it's too late! Once the customer tells you that the bedroom they're looking for must have and armoire, you're at the customer's mercy. It makes much better sense to try to get the customer preconditioned not to insist on something that absolutely fits his or her mindset. There isn't a furniture store in the world that has enough furniture to do that absolutely, even with special orders. Too often the factories simply (and understandably) do not offer the myriad of possibilities customers bring up.
"But, Peter," someone might object at this point, "shouldn't we base our selling on the needs of our customers?" Why yes, we should, of course. If, despite our preconditioning, we understand that our customer can only be satisfied with a bedroom that has an armoire instead of a drawer chest then we are ethically obligated to help the customer find exactly what the customer wants... if we can. That was the greatness of Sears when it first got started with its slogan of "Give the Lady What She Wants." But how about the many, many customers who come into our stores looking for a bedroom without a firm idea of exactly what the bedroom they need and want? Unless we precondition them to know what to expect to see in our stores, won't we continue to hear the common objections we mentioned earlier? Aren't we salespeople obligated first to sell the merchandise we have in our stores, and only second to direct customers to another store once we are absolutely convinced we cannot satisfy the customer's needs in our own store?
Intrigued with Doug's technique of preconditioning, I asked him to give me an example of how he wanted his salespeople to practice that technique. Here is the gist of what he told me. We should wait until we find ourselves with our customers in the very area of furniture they're interested in. Then, and only then, we should point out the differences generally found in that category of furniture. Take dining rooms, for example. We should point out the different kinds of table tops: wood, glass, high pressure laminate, the different kinds of support systems, legs, pedestals, etc.; the different kinds of buffets and decks. At that point Doug suggests the salesperson add something like the following:
Salesperson: "Most customers know that they'll never find the set that has every last detail they'd like to have, but wisely make up their minds to get the one that best meets their needs. Doesn't that make a lot of sense?"
I think it does, and I'm sure that if salespeople practice the technique until it becomes a real skill, they'll close a lot more sales and do so by helping customers make the best buying decision--in their stores.
There is a further advantage to preconditioning It allows the salesperson to present the merchandise in his or her store as a benefit before the customer brings up something negative about the merchandise as an objection. Customers buy benefits, not the absence of benefits, and that is the reason why I call preconditioning a way to lubricate the sale.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.