What IS Your Job?

We’ve mentioned Bob and Susan Negin here before.  Their book, Marketing Your Retail Store in the Internet Age is a must-read for any serious retailer.  Bob sends out a weekly email (subscribe here) with helpful tips.  Last week’s tip involved his attempt to purchase a butter dish as a gift for a friend.  To make a long story short, in the first store he visited he asked if they had any butter dishes and was told, "Sorry, no we don’t."  End of conversation.

In the second store when he asked the same question the salesperson (my emphasis because the first person could hardly be called anything more than a ‘clerk’) answered that no, she didn’t have any butter dishes but then proceeded to ask a series of questions that led to suggestions for other possible gift items and finally to a sale.

Thinking about the big picture, the story made me think, "Just what is our job, anyway?"  Big companies have lots of people doing lots of jobs.  But, as an entrepreneur you wear a lot of hats.  You’re a buyer.  You look into your crystal ball and try to anticipate what your customers are going to want and order accordingly.  Obviously, it’s very important that you "get it right" when you’re doing the buying.  You order the items that you believe will satisfy the needs of most of your customers.

Then, you take off that hat and put on your salesperson hat.  Your job changes.  Now, you have to find out what your customer needs and match those needs to the products you have in stock.  Notice I said "what the customer needs", not "what the customer wants."  They’re not necessarily one and the same.  Bob "wanted" a butter dish, but he "needed" a gift for his friend.  He ended up with something entirely different from what he thought he wanted, but he did get what he needed.

Whatever you’re selling, you’re the expert.  You know what products satisfy what needs.  Your main job as a salesperson is to find out what those needs are and match them to a product that you carry.  As the old saying goes, nobody really wants a quarter inch drill.  They want quarter inch holes.  The best power saw in the world isn’t going to do the job. 

The customer may ask for product  A,  but you  know very well that product B is a better choice for the customers needs.  But, and this is important, you’ll never know what those needs are until you ask.  The stereotype of the smooth-talking salesman, the Professor Harold Hill/Herb TarlekMusicman1

type is a thing of the past.  The best salesperson is the one who’s the best at asking the right questions.  The "gift of gab" may have worked in our grandparents’ day, but today, not so much. 

Of course, if the customer walks in and asks for a Super Widget and you have a back room full of the things, it’s tempting to take the money and run.  But how do you know that a Super Widget will satisfy that customer’s needs.  You may make a quick sale and shrink that annoying pile of Super Widgets, but have you really done the customer a favor?  Maybe you have, but you’re not really sure, are you?  What if a Mediocre Widget would have done a better job for the customer and saved her some money at the same time? 

Worse, what if the customer didn’t really need a widget at all.  Maybe a Doo Hickey would have been a better choice.  How will that customer react when she realizes that you "sold" her the wrong thing?  You can bet it won’t be pretty.  If you’re lucky she’ll bring it back and exchange it for what she really needs.  If you’re not so lucky, she’ll be mad at you, never come back into your store again, and tell everyone she can get to listen that the Super Widget she bought from you is useless and you’re a scoundrel for selling it to her.

There’s a reason why retailing is called a "service industry".  The "service" is matching the customer’s needs to the right product.  The first step in the process is ordering the right merchandise and that’s critical.  But the rubber meets the road when you provide the customer with the right item to satisfy her needs.


2 Responses

  1. If you don’t have what they want send them to where they can get it. My repairmen could not believe how hard I was trying to send a customer to another store to buy a Vacuum that we did not carry but they did. What the customer needed was a shop vac. The repair person kept telling the customer while I stood there that the canisters we had would work for construction if she was carefull, I knew it would not work and the customer did not want to shop at the big box I was trying to send her. Just as I had figured she was back in less than 30 minutes with a cloged hose. The repair person tried to convince me to charge a return fee. I then explaind that I knew it would not work to begin with and it was only because he said it would work that the deal even happened. She wanted her money back and she was angry, even though I told them it would not work for what she was doing.I then told the repair person that when I’m trying to send someone somewhere else there is a reason and it would probably be best if he just stayed out of it. Sometimes it really hurts to have an employee learn customer service.

  2. Ralph,

    Thanks for the comment. You make an excellent point. Clearly the idea of selling them what you have in stock does have limitations and there’s tremendous PR value to helping the customer make the purchase when there’s no chance for you to make the sale. Remember “Miracle on 34th Street”?

    One small point: I’d be very careful about where I sent the customer. Rather than pointing her to a BBS, I might try to direct her toward another independent. For a shop vac, I might refer her to a local hardware store or even a rental center. You don’t want her to stumble over a pile of sewing machines or household vacs at Wally World.

    You might even make a list of items that your customers may ask for and decide, in advance, where you would send them. Then see if you can work out an arrangement with that dealer. “I’ll send you my shop vac customers if you refer your h/h customers to me.”

    Your right that all learning has a price and sometimes it can be painful. Anyone with cans can feel your pain.

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