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Uncovering Your Customers’ Hierarchy Of Furniture Buying Needs

Furniture World Magazine


Making a case for why bedding and furniture salespeople need to probe deeper to uncover each customer’s true level of need.

While Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs – basic, security, social, ego, and self-actualization – is often used in motivational seminars for managers, it is significantly less often used in sales seminars, even though managers and salespeople share the common goal of winning commitment based on needs.

One of the most practical applications of Maslow’s needs is in the area of probing for customer needs.

Although I do most of my work in furniture stores, I recently did some sales coaching for a small group of car salespeople in Bemidji, Minnesota. One of the salespeople volunteered the following statement: “I don’t ask my customers many questions. Over the years, I’ve noticed they’re all looking for the same things: What my bottom price is, how much they’re going to get on their trade-in, and what kind of payments they’ll be making.”

Assuming that all customers are looking for the same things is to assume that all customers have the same needs. Clearly that is a false assumption. Besides, even in the case of those customers who have the same needs, salespeople still face the challenge of prioritizing those needs. Furthermore, in a given sales sequence, customers often rearrange the priority of needs with which they start. Finally, the circumstances surrounding each customer’s needs vary significantly. Take the case of a family looking to replace every mattress in its home because it lost all its furniture in a fire, versus a family that is replacing its mattresses because the children have outgrown their twin mattresses and the husband and wife want a king size to replace their queen mattress. The circumstances affecting the two families are quite different. It is in the circumstances surrounding a customer’s needs that Maslow’s pyramid of needs becomes most applicable.

Consider the following example, a highly exceptional one. Once when I was assisting the salesperson in a sleep shop, I took a phone call from a man looking for six of the “smooth tops” listed in our ad. “If I came into your store in the next half hour, would you have six of the cheapest twin mattresses in your ad for me to pick up” “Yes, I would, but …” I replied, but he interrupted the rest of my question. “I have six foreign students who will be staying with our family. At the end of the six weeks, we’ll be giving the six mattresses to Good Will.” He hung up. Half an hour later, he came in to pick up the six mattresses.

To this day, I say that customer’s main need for a mattress was at the lowest of Maslow’s five needs. That’s why he bought the six mattresses before he saw them. His needs were basic. Were they also social and ego needs? Perhaps, since he didn’t buy six used mattresses at the Salvation Army. After all, he wanted to please his guests and satisfy his ego for having done the proper thing.

Besides, his time was precious. He did all his shopping on the phone. Was it not one of the great “points” of yesteryear salesman Elmer Wheeler, that people love to save steps. That’s an ego need too. Or perhaps those six guests, depending on how poor they were, took a quantum leap on those mattresses and landed on the fifth level of self-actualization when they had the most comfortable sleep of their lives. After all, there is no such thing as a comfortable mattress, only a comfortable person who happens to sleep on it.

All mattress sales are not that simple. Take the customer who is experiencing severe back pain. After a careful examination, the doctor informs him that he has several inoperable, degenerative disks. When he shopped for a mattress, he disregarded the salesperson’s advice to buy one of his premium mattresses and bought a mattress lacking the quality his condition required. Six months later, he is shopping for a new mattress in another sleep shop. Unless the salesperson probes to find out the set of circumstances that drove the customer to shop for a new mattress, the salesperson may end up recommending the wrong mattress. For salespeople to assume all customers will share such information unsolicited is foolish. Salespeople must probe for the circumstance surrounding a customer’s needs.

Nor is it ever enough to stop probing once the salesperson has found one of the customer’s hot buttons. Maslow made it clear that no sooner is one level of need satisfied, than another level takes over. Let’s say a customer comes into your store with the hot button of needing a free delivery. She has just come from a store that charged for delivery. It is naïve to think that as soon as she has satisfied her need for a free delivery, the salesperson will automatically get the sale. Perhaps the need for a free delivery was one of her ego needs. But now another need comes up. She is an engineer and doesn’t buy anything without a strong guarantee attached. She has that security need for guarantees. All she needs is the queen mattress because she has a platform bed. The salesperson tells her he can sell her the mattress, but he can’t warrantee the mattress alone unless it is sold with its box spring.

She refuses to buy the mattress. The salesperson calls his manager. The manager somehow tells the salesperson to tell the customer the store will honor the warrantee. But when the customer discovers that the mattress alone sells for 60 percent of the sale price, she hedges: “I’m not going to pay 60 percent of the sale price. Your ad didn’t warn me about that.” When the salesperson shows her the ad in which the terms are clearly spelled out provided she has a jeweler’s eye, she leaves the store in a rage.

Or consider the woman shopping for a queen size mattress. She finds one she seems to like a lot. “Shall we write it up?” the salesperson asks. “I’m not ready to purchase it yet,” she replies, “This is the first store I’ve been to.” “Here’s my card, Ma’am,” the salesman says. “Be sure to ask for me when you come back with your husband.” This happens to be a single, career woman commanding a CEO’s position. The salesperson made some rash conclusions about her social status, her level of financial security, and her level of self-actualization. He also made the mistake of addressing her as “Ma’am.” She takes pride in her self-reliance, in her economic social status. At what level of Maslow’s pyramid of needs do you believe this customer was? At what level was the salesperson?

Clearly the nature of Maslow’s needs should make it perfectly clear that few customers shopping for a mattress have only one need. If nothing else, there is the omnipresent factor of price.

Regarding price, here is a corollary you can take to the bank. The more salespeople uncover regarding the complexity of a customer’s needs and the priority of those needs, the less “hot” a button price becomes; the less salespeople appeal to the complexity of a customer’s needs, the “hotter” a button price becomes.

Someone once wrote that “most salespeople who fail, do so not because they aim high and miss the mark, but because they aim low and hit it.” That is the salesperson’s capital sin of mediocrity.

More than one psychologist has noted that the lower needs are not the strong motivators the two top levels of Maslow’s hierarchy are. Now, I happen to be in the company of those that believe our highest needs for a restful night’s sleep can best be satisfied at the highest levels of a store’s premium mattresses. You might wish to ask yourself which of your mattresses you mainly sell. And if you are not doing so well, perhaps it may be because you are spending your days and nights on the lower levels of the pyramid. In short, you may be failing not because you aim high and miss the mark, but because you aim low and hit it.

John Lawhon is fond of citing an old motto: “Fan the fires of their desires and you’ll not fail to make the sale.” You are not going to be doing much fanning if you reduce Maslow’s marvelous pyramid to a mastaba, the one-tiered construction that predated the pyramid. Sell at every level of that pyramid. And then watch your sales grow.

Trainer, educator and group leader Dr. Peter A. Marino writes extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. He has deep experience as a top salesman, sales manager, corporate trainer and consultant. Dr. Marino has undergraduate degrees in English and philosophy and a Ph. D. in ancient Greek and Latin. His books include “The Golden Rules of Selling Bedding”, “Stop Losing Those Bedding Sales” and “It’s Buying, Silly!” available through FURNITURE WORLD. Questions can be sent to Peter Marino at pmarino@furninfo.com. You can read all of Dr. Marino’s articles on furninfo.com in the Sales Skill article archive.