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Professional Selling Skills - Part 3- Opening

Furniture World Magazine


Sales systems that present only open and closed proves only teach half of the skill.

Amazingly, many salespeople do far too little probing to uncover their customers' needs. Meanwhile, many others misdirect their probing they so that the end result of their asking questions fails to uncover customer needs. I believe that such failures are the result of two things:

  • Poor understanding of how to probe skillfully.
  • Lack of perception as to just how essential it is to uncover customer needs.

I believe that the first failure-a lack of understanding of how to probe skillfully is caused by two conditions.

First, too many salespeople have only a modest understanding of probing. The consequences of that modest understanding is illustrated by Alexander Pope's words-"A little learning is a dangerous thing."

Second, training systems fail to teach the wholeness of probing. The result is that the students of those systems come away understanding only verbal probing skills, better known as open and closed probes. To know only verbal probing is to understand only half of the skill. It is an essential half, but still only a half truth. Does not Gilbert and Sullivan's "Mikado" warn against that when Katisha sings: "Oh rash that judges from half the whole?" Verbal probing alone is about as useless as a car's unmounted tires. To function properly, verbal probing must work hand in glove with the other half of probing, the kind I call audio-visual probing, more commonly called listening. It is only when mouth, eyes, and ears work together as harmonious probers that salespeople can consistently uncover what Learning International, Inc. calls "a clear, complete, mutual understanding of the customer's needs."

I was inspired to perceive that listening is probing when recently I reflected that our ears and eyes, not just our voices, are probing instruments. That same kind of reflection led me to conjure up the idea of an imaginary lake-Lac Qui Ecoute (The Lake That Listens) and to compare it to what is an actual lake in Minnesota-Lac Qui Parle (The Lake That Talks). It is those two lakes which the heroine of my unpublished novelette, "Alice In Furnitureland," visits. How different the two lakes! Lac Qui Parle is a toxic body of sulfuric waters whose shores are strewn with the bleached bones of countless salespeople who talked themselves and their customers to death. Alice is forced by the toxic airs to leave Lac Qui Parle at once. How different Alice finds Lac Qui Ecoute-The Lake That Listens-whose pure water bathes the roots of trees which gird the shores with the most pleasantly odiferous blossoms. So peaceful does Alice find this tranquil lake, that she remains there for several hours wrapped in meditation. The symbolism of the two lakes is not entirely new. Did not someone write many years ago that Samson slew thousands of Philistines with the jawbone of an ass and that every day countless salespeople slay thousands of customers in the same way?

A word or two about the second failure-a lack of perception on the part of many salespeople as to just how essential it is to uncover customer needs. So clearly did the original authors of Professional Selling Skills understand the importance of uncovering customer needs that to this day the seminar continues to be called "Need Satisfaction Selling." A fitting title indeed, especially since it relates so well to the salesperson's role of problem solver. For it is not possible for salespeople to be problem solvers without the skill of uncovering a clear, complete, mutual understanding of the customer's needs. This is so because the relationship between salesperson and customer parallels that between doctor and patient, as John F. Lawhon points out. No doctor worth his or her salt would dare to prescribe before doing the necessary diagnostic work. So too, no salesperson worth his or her salt would dare to attempt to support a customer's needs before doing a thorough job of probing.

In the next issue, we shall take a look at the fourth part of this series, supporting, better known to Lawhon's readers as presenting, In the meantime it might profit all of us to spend some time meditating on the lines of the poem I wrote about listening.


The sound of silence, quiet as the gliding gull's
Weightless whiteness of pure form.
Listen...and learn how to fly.
The speech of silence, language of the voiceless stars
Spoken at the speed of light.
Listen...and speak like the sun.
The peace of silence, in the stillness of the night
Playing cleftless melodies.
Listen...to songs of the soul.
The wondrous silence; signing fingers of the deaf
Angels each of tongueless thoughts.
Listen...to language for eyes.
As eloquent as nature is,
Her voice is only heard
By those who listen as she speaks
And never say a word.

Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to FURNITURE WORLD at pmarino@furninfo.com.