“Now let’s see. We’ve been together about 30 minutes. I can tell you know nothing about me, my home, my lifestyle or what I like. What was it you were trying to sell me again?”
– A Buyer’s Point of View. 

Many authors of the traditional selling approach would likely have titled this article simply “Qualifying” instead of “Relating.” One may argue that terms qualifying and relating mean essentially the same thing. However, there are subtle—yet important—differences in these two words that may change how we perceive communication with our prospect.

Customers today don’t want to feel qualified. They want the salesperson to relate to them as individuals and understand their unique needs. Your clientele does not want to be a part of your personalized checklist of questions in order to make the sale.

Much, much earlier in my sales career, I encountered a male customer whereby (not so inadvertently) we discussed the prerequisite need to qualify a customer’s desires. At the time, I was holding a clipboard of important questions to ask the consumer based on the misguided advice of a “How to Qualify” sales tape. Not surprisingly, at some point in the discussion, he asked why I was carrying a clipboard and firing questions at him. I said, “I think it is important to qualify a customer’s needs.” Obviously offended, he stated, “I don’t want to be qualified.”

Initially, his statement confounded me, but after some thoughtful reflection, I understood how he felt. Customers do not want to feel qualified, closed, sold or anything like that. Selling, for the most part, is an emotional experience; they simply want to feel like you care about them.

Honest relationships go deeper than just qualifying our customer. Selling relationships today need to be interdependent in nature in order to be successful. Relationship-selling involves a partnership with the capacity to express empathy—to search for the other person’s real position and feelings.

Ask Questions

Your goal is a satisfied customer. Obviously, the better you meet your customer’s aspirations, the more satisfied she will be. When you ask your prospect about their dreams, you make them consciously aware of their thoughts and imagination. Do you suppose that she dreams that new floor covering will make her room(s) more appealing? If so, her basic concern is fashion and function. Fashion and function define good interior design. Interior design includes color, style and the purpose of the room—plus a little inspiration.

Nevertheless, in order to relate, you must ask questions. Asking questions puts you in control. The person asking the questions is usually in control. Think about it: if your customer is firing questions at you, who is really in control? You would want to regain control without appearing to be calculating or manipulative. Obviously, you need to ask questions too. Ask! Questions are used to learn more and put you in a concerned control.

By questioning, you are in essence telling her that you are genuinely interested. How can you show her what she wants when you don’t know what she needs or desires? Asking questions is similar to painting a picture. The right questions create an open involvement of her viewpoint along with an attitude of sincerity towards your customer. “Recipe for selling: Find out what’ll make them happy, then talk about it.” –Murray, Derby Food Co.

Furthermore, you can find out a lot about the customers objections by simply asking about prior purchases of flooring. What went right and what went wrong? What were the most important criteria at that time? What do they expect to be different this time? This allows you to understand the prospect’s buying criteria and ensure you meet those standards better than your competition. Of course, I would not just jump right into this conversation, but at some point, you might ask about their previous flooring experiences.

Importantly, do not interrogate your customer; ask questions only with sincere interest. Give the customer the opportunity to tell you about her needs, concerns and desires—and listen. “If you just listen, there is a great power in that.” –Robin Williams. Listening builds trust!

Always be adaptable in the questions you ask and again listen to your prospect and let her expound. Listen for changes in voice inflection and watch for accompanying changes in eye contact. Be sincere! Ask questions concerning greater detail of her answers, but never interrupt. People love to talk about themselves. “Remember that the man (or woman) you are talking to is a hundred times more interested in himself and his problems than he is in you and your problems.” –Dale Carnegie.

Listen and Discover

Many salespeople fail to make a favorable impression because they don’t listen attentively. Realistically, at least 50% (but, necessarily not 80%) of selling is listening. Listening is hearing. If you aren’t listening, you aren’t communicating and you will never understand the buyer’s perception. Listening is discovering your prospect. Listening allows the salesperson to understand what the customer wants and not what you want to sell them. The brilliance of selling today is paying attention to what your customer has to say. Rarely is someone born with this ability. If you are in sales, you are in the listening business.

Listening is the discovery stage of selling and is best suited to open-ended questions. Usually, the responses are more crucial and longer. Therefore, your initial qualifying questions will generally be open-ended (who, how, what, where and the reason). In other words, questions that cannot be easily answered with a simple “yes” or “no” but require some thought, imagination and a sincere answer. Open-ended questions develop trust. They are perceived as less threatening and allow an unrestrained or free response. Example: “Do you have a color in mind?” or “What rooms are you redecorating?”

As the term implies, these are listener responses that invite the customer to open up to talk about their needs, wants and concerns. They are hopefully “dream questions” or “door openers.” Effective door openers expound upon emotions and include expressions such as:

  • “Tell me more about that.”
  • “What I really hear you saying is that…”
  • “Correct me if I am wrong, but…”
  • “So you feel…”
  • “Is it possible that…?”
  • “How do you want your home to look when we are finished?”

On the other hand, closed-ended questions allow your customer to answer quickly and to the point. Closed-ended questions tend to be presuming, probing or leading questions. They extract simple and specific facts and may be used throughout the dialog as needed. They are useful to gain commitments and direct the conversation in a specific direction. Example: “Have you searched elsewhere? Would you like to set up a measure?”

The problem with closed-ended questions, though needed at times, is that things are not always black or white or yes or no. Open-ended questions increase dialog by drawing out the prospect and help her discover things for herself.

Finally, demonstrate to the customer that you are paying attention; listening is a whole-body effort. Always keep an open body posture and look directly at the customer. We have all experienced the frustration of talking to someone who appears to be concentrating on other things. When the other person is speaking, stay silent and never jump in during momentary pauses in her dialog to interject your own thoughts. Listen carefully as if you need to take essential notes. You do!

From time to time, acknowledge that what she is saying is important by nodding, leaning forward slightly or occasionally using expressions like “Really,” “I see,” “Go on,” or “Uh huh,” or simply “Oh.” The inflection in your voice and facial expressions as you utter “Oh” or similar reciprocating words is essential to sincerity. Appropriately, active listening includes reciprocating so that communication is heard and understood, but be careful not to overdo this type of feedback so that you might appear patronizing.

“All things being equal, (and they never are equal) most people will buy strictly on the best price. The salesperson’s job is to help the customer see that things are unequal. We do this by asking the right questions at the right time and presenting the right solutions in the right way.” – The Sales Advantage by J. Oliver Crom and Michael Crom (2003).

Also, if you carry a clipboard, lose it.