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Industry Updates

How to Uncover the Retail Customer’s Real Issue


When a retail customer asks you a question, do you immediately supply the best and most accurate answer you can? If so, you may be reducing the chance that the person will make a decision to buy.

Consider the case of a walk-in customer you’ve never talked to before and have no known buying history with. This person stops in front of the jewelry case, studies a pair of earrings intently, and then asks you: “Would these go well with a blue outfit?”

Most of the salespeople I work with would be strongly tempted to answer that question immediately with a “yes” or “no” response (whichever they believe to be accurate) and then start some kind of monologue about all the jewelry in the store that might match up well with something blue. Guess what? That’s a losing game.

Why? Because it surrenders control of the conversation. When we respond instantly to the apparent purpose of the question — without doing any meaningful inquiry that might point us toward its true purpose — we lose.

You and I are in the reality business: It’s our mission to identify the reality that’s driving the prospective buyer’s decision-making. When we give a quick, knee-jerk response to a yes-or-no question, and we then follow that response up with a monologue based on what we think the reality is (without any evidence), we are committing sales malpractice.

We know there’s a problem or issue, because the person asked a question, but we are making zero effort to determine what that problem or issue is. Suppose the reason the person is asking us this question is that her husband has told her she doesn’t look good in blue and should therefore choose red outfits, with jewelry to match? Oops!

Getting to the Root of the Problem

Any time a prospective buyer asks us a question, we can rest assured that there is some issue or problem that lies behind that question. Our job as professional retail salespeople is to make an appropriate, due-diligence effort to determine what that issue or problem really is.

Fortunately, there is a simple, four-step process (invented by legendary sales process pioneer David Sandler) for getting a fix on the reality that motivates retail customers to ask us questions. Here’s what that process looks like: Stroke. Repeat. Reverse. Pause. This simple, powerful sequence enables us to move beyond the question that’s being asked so we can start a deeper conversation about what’s really going on in the prospective buyer’s world. And isn’t that what we really want?

So, how can we respond to the question in such a way that we learn more, not less, about what’s really going on in the buyer’s world? Here’s how the exchange plays out when an experienced, professional retail salesperson is behind the counter:
Customer: Would this go well with a blue outfit?

Salesperson: That’s a great question. I’m glad you brought it up. This kind of positive Stroke buys the salesperson a second or two to collect his or her thoughts, and, even more importantly, gives positive reinforcement to the prospective buyer.

Salesperson: So: “Does it go well with a blue outfit?” Notice that we just Repeated the question, rephrasing it very slightly. Paraphrasing what we just heard demonstrates respectfully that we are listening in the present tense, that we are tuned in. When we replay what the other person just said, we make a point of saying it in a way that doesn’t sound mechanical.

Salesperson: I’m thinking you must be asking that for a reason. Do you mind if I ask what that reason is? We “Reverse” the question by answering it with a question of our own. This gives the person a chance to engage with us and elaborate, so we can get a clearer picture of what’s really going on. By the way, another great reverse is: “It sounds like that’s important to you. Can you help me understand why?”

Salesperson: (Says absolutely nothing.) This step is extremely important. We stop talking. We let the other person fill the conversational gap. Yes, this may take some practice. But it has to happen if we are going to uncover the reality of the situation.

Customer: My husband says the event is a bit formal and I’m not sure what color would be best for me to wear.

Salesperson: Interesting. Tell me more.

Victory! Now you’ve got a conversation. That’s what the best retail sales professionals deliver that others don’t: Conversations that uncover hidden issues by uncovering the reality in the other person’s world.

Follow the process: Stroke. Repeat. Reverse. Pause. Make the conversation happen!

Rob Fishman is the author of “RETAIL SUCCESS IN AN ONLINE WORLD: How To Compete — And Win — In the Amazon Era.” He is an experienced Sandler trainer who plays an important role in Sandler’s worldwide organization. He currently heads a Sandler Training Center on Long Island, N.Y. For more information, visit www.Sandler.com.