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Are Your Sales Strategies Working?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Are Your Sales Strategies Working?(GIFTBEAT)

Understanding the selling process, customer needs and dealing with dissatisfied customers isn't the retailing cakewalk that some store owners imagine. This month, contributing editor Sharon Bopp discusses these important topics with Lynne Peer, owner/president of South Carolina-based Peer Resource Group. The consulting firm’s problem-solving business capabilities include training, business development, sales, marketing and advertising.

Q. How can independent retailers benefit from learning more about selling?

A. When you're a small business owner, you have to wear so many different hats. There's bookkeeping, stocking shelves, doing the ordering and so many things that take your time. You may not feel that you need instruction in how to deal with customers. I look [at training] as a refresher to help you get through situations that you may not have encountered when you first opened your business. Consumers are getting pickier, savvier [and] they're doing Internet research. You have to upgrade your skills to be able to accommodate a more informed consumer.

A lot of retailers are entrepreneurs who got into business because they had a good idea or decided to buy an existing business. They may have never received any training about how to manage a business, or had no formal training—especially in sales. Because they are so entrepreneurial they just start a business and say, "I can do this!" It's their entrepreneurial nature. The best salespeople have had a lot of good training. It's not just a matter of being able to talk to people. There are many techniques to use when you're really a serious salesperson.

Probing is the most important. That is asking the right kinds of questions to get the customer talking in order to find out what the customer’s needs are. A salesperson LEARNS the most when she is LISTENING and not TALKING. So asking open-ended questions allows the customer to open up and give lots of information. These questions often begin with who, what, when, why or how, and cannot typically be answered with a simple "Yes" or "No." Ask follow-up questions until you fully understand the customer's need. When salespeople learn what is important to customers, they can then direct customers to a product or service that will meet their needs.

In any retail environment, things are great when they go smoothly. You have what the customer wants, she buys it and you go on to the next sale. However, any situation that frustrates the salesperson is going to cast a negative atmosphere on the day, and oftentimes other customers in the store hear what’s happening. Therefore, it’s essential to be able to deal with situations in a way that makes the customer feel you listened to her, that you were focused on customer satisfaction and that you are always focused on making every sales interaction a positive one.

Q. What selling mistakes can retailers begin to make over time?

A. [Retailers can begin to] do what I call "product dumping." They want to tell a customer everything about a product's features without talking about its benefit to the customer. They often talk about things customers are not interested in. The reason this is a problem is because [retailers] know their products and services. This makes it more likely that they will not uncover customer needs first. Customers buy based on their needs. They want to know what the product can do for them.

Sometimes retailers don't listen well enough to ask good questions and uncover those customer needs. They either make assumptions, or they don't ask probing questions to get the customer talking. When they try to sell something that doesn't meet their customers' needs, they're not showing that they really care for those customers.

Q. What can you tell Giftbeat readers about customer needs, including how they've changed with the down economy?

A. A lot of research focuses on what aspect of customer service means the most to customers. A knowledgeable staff is one of the most important. Customers want help through the buying process. They want to be treated like they're special when they come into the store, and they're looking for a friendly staff that knows their needs.

As the economy has worsened, customers are taking longer and longer to make buying decisions. They also need help buying important gifts for others because with the economy as it is, their dollars need to go further.

Gift shops need to offer something special that customers cannot get over the Internet. That could be beautiful packaging, help selecting the perfect gift or free enclosure cards - something that helps the shopper think "Well, I could buy this at Amazon but it won't be as beautifully delivered or as unique as what I can get in a specialty store." Retailers also need to help customers understand that they go to market to find product with their customers in mind. They try to select products that will be appropriate for who their customers are.

When researchers look at the psychological behavior of customers, [they find that] there are a lot of things customers want to know about your business on the lowest level. All of these are things that you as a store owner control. They want to know whether or not goods are durable, if it's safe to shop at your store and is the parking area lighted. From that, customers want to know that their social needs are being met. Do they feel good when they shop your store? Are employees friendly? Do people use their name?

Customers also want their self esteem needs to be met. Will I be treated as an individual? Do employees appreciate my business? Will I feel good that I bought this product from this store and feel proud to give it as a gift? Will I look good for having selected this perfect gift?

Q. How should retailers handle dissatisfied customers?

A. These customers are dissatisfied about a product or service. They may be mildly unhappy about something, or they may be angry. They may want to argue with the salesperson or store owner. Most people don't know how to handle dissatisfied customers, so a confrontation becomes a win/lose situation. Retailers will be defensive as opposed to trying to get to the issue that the customer is really concerned about.

There are different levels of dealing with an upset customer. But the main, overarching thing is: Do not argue with that customer. Try your best to remain calm. Try to get past your anger. Typically what escalates an argument in a store is if the salesperson [or owner] comes back with a snappy answer. Realize that typically the customer is angry at a situation and not specifically at you. Sometimes [their anger] doesn't even have to do with the store. Lower your voice and talk at a normal pace. Acknowledge that the customer is upset. Use "we" language like "I realize you're upset. Let's see if we can get to the bottom of this." Stress "This is what I can do," not what you can't do. Try to negotiate a solution such as "Would it help if we offer free gift wrapping?"

Watch phrasing like "It's not our policy…" Salespeople have been told the policies of the store. Customers don't really care about your policies and procedures. [Avoid] accusatory phrasing like "Did you bring your receipt back?" Say "Are you able to provide your receipt?"

You have to phrase [your comments] in a way that sounds like you're eager to serve and that you want to keep that customer for life. You don't want to anger that customer so she leaves your store and tells 25 other people what a bad experience she had in your store. An angry confrontation can do that. It can lose you business that you never even know about. If you handle [a dissatisfied customer] well, you can make a more loyal customer because you worked with her to handle the situation.

[Ultimately] it's the store owner's responsibility to manage the customer interaction tactfully, even if she/he doesn't want to. [In my seminars I tell attendees] "You may not want to deal with a negative situation, but that's your job. It's your store and if they talk bad about you, you're the one who's going to be hurt."

Note: Peer can be reached at or (843) 525-9181.

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