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“I’ll Know It When...

Furniture World Magazine


How should you respond to customers who say that they don’t want sales assistance?

Sales Skills By Dr. Peter A. Marino

While there are instances in which the words “I’ll know it when I see it” are based on logic, there are other instances in which logic is totally lacking in this so-called common sense dictum.

Take the example of an instance in which the dictum is logical. Let’s say you lost your glasses while working in your garden. You can say with absolute logic you’ll know your glasses when you see them (if you can see them without your glasses).


Let’s apply this dictum to a customer shopping for a sofa who, up front, has just told her salesperson, “I’ll know it when I see it.” The customer may have been searching the internet and found something that looks appropriate. And if the customer’s most important need is based on something visible like color, style, or size, she may have a valid point. For that reason, you might reply by saying something like the following: “Since you seem to be looking for something in a sofa having to do with how it looks, would you mind if I asked you a few questions about what you’re hoping to see in the sofa you are looking for?” Having gained the customer’s permission, you can proceed to inquire about such things as the color, style, and size the customer might have in mind.

More often than not, however, what the customer is looking for is not based on color, style, or size. Instead, it is based on comfort or durability or both, qualities that do not reveal themselves to a merely external visual examination. In other words, some features customers are looking for have to do with the valence factors – a term that address the very personalized or relevant benefits that a customer requires. Experienced salespeople are fully aware that the valence factors customers consciously seek in a mattress, for example, vary considerably from those they seek in upholstered goods. Meanwhile the valence factors customers seek in case goods vary considerably from those they seek either in a mattress or in an upholstered item. But the main reason salespeople should not handle the “I’ll know it when I see it” with resigned reticence is that to do so is to betray their role as consultants. There is more to furniture than meets the eye. And while it is true the average customer shopping for furniture is not looking for a salesperson to tell them how to build a given piece of furniture, the following saying popularized among yesteryear’s salespeople is apropos: “You can never know too much about your product, but you can talk too much about it.” It is the first part of that compound sentence that too many salespeople disregard.

Nor is the glib expression that furniture is not rocket science the final verdict on whether salespeople should have a specialized knowledge of their product. The techniques required to make the coils in our premium mattresses required a lot of serious research. The stress tests the best chairs are subjected to are impressive indeed. And the sheer knowledge of chemistry imbedded in the dyes that color the more precious fabrics on upholstered goods is highly sophisticated.

Because furniture is complicated, customers require knowledgeable salespeople who truly are consultants. As consultants, salespeople must uncover the hidden needs of their customers. That calls for subtle probing skills. The best salespeople in every industry are wizards at probing for customer needs: what the customer is specifically looking for, the customer’s complete needs, and the priority of those needs.

These wizards don’t interrogate; instead, like whales, they sound out a customer’s needs. Interestingly, the French word for probing is sonder, to sound out.

A blogger on the creative-brand.com website noted his concern with the glib saying, “I’ll know it when I see it.” Although that site focuses on another industry, his comments are apropos for ours as well. He states that, “I’ll know it when I see it” means that you have no clear idea of what you’re trying to accomplish with your work – no criteria for your decisions. Therefore, you have no criteria to evaluate them against… Instead, here’s what happens: you end up evaluating your options by simply looking for something that happens to strike a chord and look nice to you. Doing this reduces your evaluation of ideas from strategic to aesthetic. Instead of looking for the right strategic solution, you end up looking for what’s pretty.”

If your store is designed and merchandised in a way that spurs a positive emotional response in customers, then a different approach may be called for. If a high percentage of them “see it” in your store and “know it,”?and if customers who are just looking, can get help quickly when they need it, then the skillful and early sounding out of customer needs may not be appropriate. If not, then the next time one of your customers tells you, “I’ll know it when I see it,” be a wizard, a Sherlock Holmes. Try to get to the bottom of what that customer is telling you without annoying them. Your response calls for more than rocket science, since many customers simply don’t know enough about furniture features and how these features will meet their needs, to know it when they see it. They won’t know simply by looking at a recliner that it has a built-in mechanism for assuring the recliner will hold a given comfortable position for years to come. They won’t know that a mattress is not to be judged by the number of its coils alone, or that a proper comfort test is necessary to pick the right set. They won’t know that, depending on a customer’s personalized needs, a fabric that is a blend may be superior to a fabric consisting of, say, Olefin alone or of Nylon alone. In other words, the average customer requires a consultant’s eyes, backed up by specialized product knowledge.

For all salespeople there will remain these three requirements: product knowledge, selling skills, and attitude. How well you can provide your customers with the consultation they require will always depend on how well you can recommend the best product, once you have uncovered the customer’s personalized needs. Only with your help does the customer have a real chance of knowing it when he or she sees it.

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 archives.