This article will discuss why we need to qualify and present a methodology and plan to correctly qualify.
What do we mean by the term “qualifying” or “to qualify”? The Oxford English Dictionary lists thirteen different definitions of the word, and none of them satisfactorily describe how we qualify in retail sales. The basic dictionary definition of “To qualify” means to determine the value or usefulness or fitness of a given subject for further consideration.
When a retail salesperson (RSA) “qualifies” an “up,” he must find answers to the following questions:
- Is the up a potential customer?
- What is the up looking for?
- Can my store satisfy what the customer needs and wants?
- How can I maximize the value of this particular up? (This means simply, stepping up and adding on to increase the value of the sales ticket, while at the same time making a happy customer who will come back and buy, year after year.)
So, the simple definition of “qualifying” is: asking questions. The RSA asks questions and hopes to get answers. These questions are called “qualifying questions.” I know this sounds simple-minded, but the reason I spell it out this way is because so many RSAs fail to ask even the most fundamental qualifying questions.
Why does the RSA need to ask questions? Obviously, the main reason is to find out what the customer is looking for. Only rarely will the customer volunteer to give a detailed list of his furniture problems and home decorating or bedding aspirations. The customer usually says something like, “I’m just looking for ideas.” If you accept that statement at face value, and fail to ask qualifying questions, the customer will exit the store a few minutes later, still “looking for ideas.”
NOTE: When a customer says “I’m just looking for ideas”, don’t hang your head and walk dejectedly back to the desk. This is your cue to take action. GIVE him some ideas. Help him with ideas. That is your job, after all. You should answer, “Great, this store is full of ideas and designs by some of the greatest furniture minds in the business. Help me out a minute. Let’s find out what it is you are hoping to accomplish in furnishing your home. This place is practically an idea factory, especially if we have your thoughts on how you would like to decorate your home.”
Let me also make another important point. When the customer says he/she is “looking for ideas,” that usually means he/she DOES NOT HAVE any ideas. In other words, much of the time, when a customer walks in your store, she has, at best, only a very dim idea of what she wants or needs. Very few people are design geniuses. Almost all customers need help. The RSA, through training and expertise, should be the source of that help and those ideas.
Qualifying is not just about discovering what is on the customer’s mind. A professional RSA who is thorough and thoughtful will also build confidence in the customer’s mind. People like to buy from knowledgeable and professional salespersons. Carefully executing the Qualifying step demonstrates the professionalism that customers appreciate, and unfortunately, rarely find.
Another benefit of careful qualifying is that the more the RSA knows about the customer and his needs, the fewer objections the customer will raise when the RSA makes an attempt to close the sale. Good qualifying by an experienced professional RSA can anticipate many common objections. (We will cover customer objections in a future article.)
Thorough qualifying also increases the probability of making add-on sales. Customers usually have more than just one thing on their mind when they visit your store. They may be thinking about every room in the house, but today, they need a new guest room mattress. If the RSA stops at the mattress, he may miss a sale for an entire house full of furniture.
How does the RSA prepare to become a good qualifier? For the mattress and bedding RSA, this means learning all your beds. For the RSA selling a full line of furniture, I’d like to suggest that you spend your down time studying the fundamentals of home furnishings design and decoration. And, learn all the furniture and bedding on your showroom floor. The more you know about product knowledge, the better you will be at qualifying.
Planning Your Qualifying
Proper qualifying requires some planning. Your customer not only has a home furnishings problem of some sort, he probably has budget constraints as well, and fears making a mistake. Everybody has made a costly buying mistake. Your customer is no different. When he comes in your store, he does not want to make another one. In the next issue, we will list many qualifying questions and when and how to ask them. For now, we must understand that the RSA must have a ready arsenal of qualifying questions and know when to ask them. Many questions have a correct sequence and context in which they should be asked.
7 Principles Of Qualifying
The last time I counted, there were seven important principles to remember when qualifying your new “up.”
- Know your questions ahead of time, and know the context and sequence in which they should be asked. (However, be prepared to spontaneously develop new follow-up questions as the need arises.)
- Actually ask the questions. This may sound redundant, but it is possible to know the questions and then fail to ask them. It happens all the time.
- Remain silent and attentive while the customer is answering your questions.
- Listen carefully to the customer’s responses. Just remaining silent doesn’t mean you are listening.
- Acknowledge that you heard and understood your customer’s responses.
- Then REMEMBER the answers so you don’t have to ask them the same question again. Remembering also helps prompt you to ask follow-up questions. This remembering principle is one of the most violated of the qualifying principles. So many times I have heard an RSA ask the customer; “What size were you looking for, again?”
Let me say one more thing about remembering. If you have trouble remembering the customer’s answers and responses, keep a notebook or clipboard handy to take notes as the customer speaks.
- Use the customer’s answers to prompt more follow-up questions and ultimately to solve his or her problem.
When Does The RSA Stop Qualifying?
Is “qualifying” a step that has a beginning and an ending? Yes, and yes. Qualifying begins immediately after greeting the customer and ends when the customer gets in his car and backs out of his parking space. The step of Qualifying, while it has a discrete beginning if done correctly and thoroughly, continues through the rest of the sale. It keeps going even after the sale, with a follow-up program. But, we’ll save follow-up for a future article.
Doesn’t Qualifying Annoy The Customer?
A lot of RSAs don’t like to be perceived as “pushy.” Or, at least that’s what they say. They think that asking a lot of questions makes them seem like a high pressure salesperson to the customer. I understand why RSA’s don’t want to seem pushy. Very few people like an aggressive, in-your-face, high-pressure refugee from a used car lot in a bad part of town. But, look at it this way. The customer only rarely knows what he wants. Most people like to talk about themselves. The RSA’s questioning process should make them feel like the center of attention; like they are special. The RSA who adopts a helpful, friendly attitude, and who genuinely cares about the customer’s home furnishings or bedding problem, plus demonstrates this by concerned questioning, should be welcomed by any serious customer.
Have you ever read an interview of a famous person, or for that matter, an infamous one? What does the interviewer do? He asks questions to draw out interesting responses from the interviewee, doesn’t he? An experienced interviewer also organizes his questions to develop the interview into a narrative that leads to a reasonably satisfying end. The result being that we know and maybe care a lot more about the interviewee by the end of the article.
Don’t forget one other surprising little phenomenon. The more you learn about a customer and his problems, the more interesting he becomes to you. His interests, needs and wants become more interesting, as well. Sort of like a well-done magazine interview. The more you read, the more interested you get.
To qualify as well as a skilled interviewer you need to ask enough questions, the right questions, with answers that lead to a satisfying end. That end being solving your customer’s problem, making the sale and gaining a customer-for-life.
What if you pick up a magazine and find a feature article about a celebrity you admire. Let’s imagine that the interview starts with the interviewer saying, “I know you don’t want to be bothered with a bunch of invasive questions. I’m just going to let you talk (or not talk) about anything that is on your mind. If you say something that our readers might be interested in, I’ll make a note of it. In fact, while you’re talking, I’m going to go get a cup of coffee and clean up some loose ends from last week’s articles. If you have any questions, I’ll be over there at the desk.” How many RSAs do something similar as a substitute for qualifying their customers?
A Couple Of Examples
Let’s use a couple of examples. In one example we’ll demonstrate an RSA who qualifies his up and correctly interprets his answers, and in the second, we’ll show one who takes the customer’s answers literally, without interpretation.
The Good RSA
It is a fine Saturday morning. A car pulls up, a person gets out and walks in the front door. The RSA, after waiting the “polite” thirty seconds, approaches and greets the newly arrived “up.”
“Good morning, how are you today? Before we get started, in case you didn’t know, some of the store was re-merchandised last night to make room for our new bedding line from Awesome-pedic. Have you heard about their newest products?”
“No, I just bought a new bed last year. We have a new game room and I’m just looking for ideas for casual or outdoor type furniture.”
“Really? I love outdoor furniture. Is the furniture going to be inside, or will it be exposed occasionally to weather conditions?
“It’s going to be a combination of both.”
“Let’s head to our outdoor furniture department. We’ve just received some new groups and they are nice looking, casual with rugged construction that will withstand even rain and summer heat.”
Let’s hope that the RSA has an intense knowledge of outdoor furniture, including design principles and construction. If so, this RSA, having established a rapport with the customer, is probably asking qualifying questions as they make their way to the casual furniture display.
The Not-So-Good RSA
It’s the same Saturday morning. Another customer pulls up, gets out of the car and comes in.
“Good morning, how can we help you today?”
“We have a new game room and I’m just looking for ideas for casual or outdoor-type furniture.”
(Thinking to himself; “Oh, man, outdoor furniture! That stuff is outside in the patio display area and it has got to be 85 degrees out there by now, and 90 percent humidity. I don’t know why anybody buys outdoor furniture in this part of the country to begin with, in this heat. That’s probably the reason I haven’t learned the first thing about that stuff.”) While pointing, he says “Yes, ma’am, please head down that long aisle over there, turn right at the big pool table and out the door with the Exit sign, We have all our outdoor stuff out there. Here is my card. Ask for me if you have any questions.”
“Thanks so much.” She is also thinking, “I don’t know why I came in this store. I can never get any help. Nobody here knows anything, anyway.”
Who has now lost a turn in the rotation, thinks, “Another one getting ideas! No wonder my sales are off. I can’t beg, borrow or steal a good up!”
A Brief Review and Analysis
Remember the four questions from the first page of this article? How did each RSA do? Both RSAs discovered that the Up was a potential customer, although the second RSA did so by accident. Both RSAs discovered why the Up came into the store, although, again, the Up volunteered the information to both RSAs. Regarding whether the store had the merchandise to satisfy the customer’s needs, however, the second began to fall down on the job. He admitted his product knowledge was weak, which means he wouldn’t know what follow-up qualifying questions to ask, even if he had been willing to brave the heat to go outside with the customer.
Lastly, the first RSA, because he had exceptionally good product knowledge, knew the right qualifying questions to ask. He was much more likely to maximize the value of the customer by helping to create a game room environment that the customer would be proud to display in her home.
In a nutshell, the first RSAs attitude was, “Let’s find out what will work for you.” The second RSA’s attitude was, “If you find something that works for you, I’ll be inside. Come back in and find me and I’ll write it up.”
The first RSA had Enthusiasm and Empathy. The second RSA had Excuses.
Did you also notice that the “good” RSA had a strong, informative, control and attention grabbing greeting? This is a variety of the General Benefit Statement greeting we discussed in the last issue.
The perceptive reader should be able to see that all of this ties together. Product knowledge is absolutely essential to being a good qualifier. A good Meet and Greet is necessary to warm up the customer for the Qualifying step. Nothing in retail sales works in a vacuum. You can’t just say, “Okay, since it’s the most important step of the sale, I’ll just learn to qualify and not bother with all that other stuff.”
You can’t be a good qualifier if you don’t know your store’s products, advertising, policies, inventory and financing, too.
In the next article, we will discuss qualifying again, but next time we will get much more specific and focus on mattresses and bedding in particular. We’ll discuss a series of different qualifying questions and why and when they can be used.