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The Threefold Selling Process - Part 1- Probing

Furniture World Magazine


In the last issue of Furniture World we discussed haw Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs was the key to successful selling. In this issue we shall discuss probing, one part of a threefold selling process.

Most manuals on selling handle either probing or qualifying. None I know of notes how the two differ. Many sales trainers seem to believe that the two are one and the same. Learning International, Inc.'s foremost seminar, Professional Selling Skills, makes no mention of qualifying. In that seminar, probing continues to be one of the key selling skills.

After considerable reflection I have concluded that probing and qualifying are two distinct aspects of a three-fold selling process: probing, qualifying, and strategizing, to coin a word. The purpose of that selling process is to make it easier for the customer to perceive what is the best buying decision.

Primarily, probing is the skill by which the salesperson gathers information and finds out the customer's levels of need. Mixed in with the idea of need are the customer's concerns: their hopes, their fears, their doubts. Secondarily, but still important, probing can be used to obtain the customer's commitment. There are two kinds of probes, closed and open. Closed probes are used in three different ways.

To win a simple yes or no, but without intending to win confirmation of a need or agreement from the customer.


  • First time in out store?
  • Seen our ad?
  • New to our city?
  • Aware of our credit system?
  • Been in recently?

To win a yes or a no in order to confirm the customer's need or to win his agreement.


  • So what you're looking for are chairs that'll last a long time, right.
  • Let's see if I have this right. You want the sofa, but not the loveseat. You can use the two lamp tables but can't use the coffee table because it just won't fit.
  • And you agree to be there this Friday to let the drivers in, right?
  • So what you're telling me is you'll buy the floor sample provided it comes with its normal warranty.
  • Would you be willing to take the floor model if we took off ten percent?

To win the customer's buy-in through an alternate of choice.


  • Want to take it with you or do you want us to deliver it?
  • Will that be cash or credit, Mr. Peters?
  • Want the floor sample or shall we special order one for you sir?

Note: that while the alternate of choice is most often used as a closing technique, it is also helpful in other phases of the sale. For example, a store receptionist might ask a customer after welcoming her: "Would you like me to direct you to a section of the store or would you prefer I get a salesperson to take you there?

Open probes are meant to encourage the customer to talk freely as shown in the following examples.

  • Mind telling me what's wrong with your present set?
  • I'd appreciate knowing why you feel that way.
  • How did that happen?
  • Mind if I ask what went wrong with the last fabric you bought?

Note: that with the exception of the interrogative words How and Why, the others like What, Where, and When can introduce either open or closed probes, a fact missed by other sales training systems. I believe the following examples help to illustrate this.

  • What kind of car did the dealer sell you? (Answer: Let me tell you what that good for nothing sold me. La-di-da-di-da.)
  • Where did we go wrong? (Answer: Do you have a couple of hours? La-di-da-di-da.)
  • When did you first notice that? (Answer: Where do I begin? La-di-da-di-da.)

  • What kind of car do you own? (Answer: A Chevy.)
  • Where do you live? (Answer: In the South side on Grand Avenue.)
  • When do you get home from work? (Answer: Four in the afternoon.)

Too many selling systems insist that unless salespeople use more open than closed probes, they won't be successful. One of them even insists on the 80-20 rule in favor of open probes. I disagree. The best rule is to use the probe the situation calls for. When selling sleepsets, for example, the salesperson must quickly use closed probes for specific information: "What size? Is this for you or for the guest bedroom? Mattress, boxspring, and frame? Will you be taking this with you today? What have you seen elsewhere so far that you really like? How much were they asking for it?"

But once the salesperson has that specific information he must ask open probes: "What's wrong with your present set? What are you looking for in your next set?" My point is that selling has never been and never will be a numbers game. One good open probe can outweigh twenty good closed probes when it comes to getting the customers to "spill their guts" or to find out "where their bus is going" or to get to know their "hot buttons," as the following examples show:

  • What exactly are you looking for?
  • In your own words, mind telling me what you feel a dining set must have for you to consider it a bargain?
  • Mind telling me why you feel that way?

There does seem to be universal agreement on one point: Closed probes are limiting; open probes are not. Closed probes get customers to tell what the salesperson wants to hear; open probes allow customers to tell the salesperson what and how they feel.

I'd like to tell two stories that help to put both kinds of probes in proper perspective. The first relates to closed probes, the second to open probes.

It seems that at the start of the Nazi occupation in Poland, a Gestapo officer was authorized to take over an inn which had been owned by the same family for generations. The officer approached the Polish owner and explained that he was there to take over the inn. He ended up by asking him: "Agreed?" The Polish innkeeper responded with cold silence. Some years later when the Germans were about to surrender to the allied forces, that same German officer somehow managed to be fast asleep in one of the confiscated rooms. Throughout the German occupation of Poland, the original owner had been kept on as a servant. Sensing that the war was all but over, the Pole went to the room of the sleeping German, drew the officer's revolver from his holster which was hanging from a hall tree, proceeded to fire three shots into the Nazi's head and then quickly stated in a loud voice, "NO". I believe that's the longest recorded time it has ever taken to answer a closed probe.

The story I like to tell to illustrate open probes is one told me by an uncle from Sicily. There ,whenever a member of the family passed away, it was customary to wine and dine family members and friends for three successive days. On one occasion, the family member in charge of preparing the food and drink for the three day feast knew that one guest in particular was capable of devouring all the food by himself, but he also knew that this glutton was long-winded. So he asked him an open probe about his father who had died several years ago: "Mr Aliota, how did your father pass away?" The long-winded glutton took the bait and ran on for hours with every little detail while the rest of the guests finished off every bit of food and drink.

Seeing his ploy had worked so well, the host thought he'd try it again on the second day: "Mr. Aliota, tell us once again how your father died." Mr. Aliota, still seething from how he had fallen victim to his host's open probe, refused to be taken a second time, so he simply answered, "Quickly!"

The second anecdote has a second lesson in it for us. Customers can and do answer our probes as they see fit. For example, we ask a customer an open probe: "What's important to you in a recliner?" The customer answers, "A recliner is a recliner." Answers like that just go to prove the truth of Hank Trisler's statement in his book, "No Bull Selling," that the trouble with memorizing our lines is that the customers keep on forgetting theirs.

In the next issue we will discuss the second aspect of this three-fold selling process - qualifying.

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.