The feature and benefits described in manufacturer's brochures may not be the appropriate features and benefits your customer is looking for right now.
One of the byproducts of sales coaching is that you get to see first hand the importance of what I term personalized feature-benefit statements and demonstrations. Personalized feature-benefits differ significantly from the kind of feature benefits stated in a manufacturer’s brochure. For example, a manufacturer’s brochure might state the feature benefits of one of its sofas as follows: "Hardwood frames reinforced by dowels, glue, and corner blocks for added strength and durability." A bedding manufacturer might state the feature benefit of one of its mattresses as follows: "This one-sided mattress is turn-free so that it no longer has to be turned." Such statements of feature benefits are fine in manufacturers’ brochures. After all, manufacturers cannot be expected to include personalized feature-benefit statements. However, they fall short when stated by salespeople during a sale. Why is that? Because customers tend to be won over only by personalized feature-benefit statements that are relevant to what really turns them on, namely, their so-called hot buttons. I prefer the word personalized to the word relevant, only because the former emphasizes a bit more strongly the salesperson’s need to have what one sales training program calls "a clear, complete, and mutual understanding of the customer’s needs."
How do salespeople arrive at a personalized understanding of the customer’s needs? When should salespeople make personalized feature-benefit statements? Let’s start with the first question. The way to arrive at a personalized understanding of the customer’s needs is through probing, both verbal and nonverbal. Verbal probes can be either open or closed. Neither verbal probe is more important than the other. Professional salespeople need to make use of both open and closed probes just as pianists need to make use of both black and white keys. Sadly, salespeople tend to depend almost entirely on closed probes, a fact that has led too many sales manuals to urge salespeople to use 80 percent open probes and 20 percent closed probes. Personally I loathe all mathematical approaches to selling. Selling, because it is dynamic, can never be a numbers game. Each selling situation is dynamically different. For that reason salespeople cannot get away with memorizing their lines, as author Hank Trisler pointed out when he wrote that the trouble with memorizing our lines is that the customers keep on forgetting theirs! A simpler and more effective way to handle the matter of probing is to take one’s cue from the situation at hand, that is, to take one’s cue from the customer. So, if the customer says something like, "The mattress we’re sleeping on is no longer doing it," ask an open probe: "Mind telling me what you mean by that?" If the customer gives you a strong buying signal, use a closed probe to win the customer’s buy-in: " Do you feel comfortable going with this mattress?" If you want to find out how many chairs the customer would like with a dinette, use a closed probe: "How many chairs do you have in mind?" Note that all closed probes are not yes-no types. The frequently asked and ill-timed probe with which too many salespeople hit their upholstery customers up front - "What style are you looking for?"- happens to be probe as closed as a cocoon. That’s why customers are not generally comfortable with that question: they instinctively feel that salespeople who ask that question are trying to force them into a corner before they know anything at all about the customer’s situation. Salespeople would be wise to try an open probe like the following: "Mind telling me what I should know about the room in which you’re going to put your new sofa?"
Acquiring a mastery of verbal open and closed probes is more than a skill; it is an art. Nothing is more satisfying than to watch a masterful salesperson who probes each customer like a fine conductor leading each member of his or her orchestra. Like a skilled conductor, a skilled salesperson should simply do the conducting while the customers do the playing so to speak. To borrow one selling system’s analogy, the customer should be the pilot, the salesperson the navigator.
But all probing is not merely verbal. There is the nonverbal probing by which salespeople remain attuned to their customer’s body language and voice quality. Recently, in a French manual of professional selling skills I noticed that the French word for probing is sonder, meaning to sound out. How exciting! All animals and plants sound out messages through sounds and vibrations, through colors, through smell, through touch and through the entire gamut of their senses – audio, visual, and kinesthetic. This area has been virtually untapped in selling, except by Neurolinguistic Programming. Most other selling systems are in the Stone Age, so to speak.
Regarding when to use personalized feature-benefit statements, practice what I like to refer to as delayed supporting. If a customer tells you that soon after he purchased his recliner it began to slip each time he assumed the position he finds most comfortable, don’t make the mistake of telling and showing him how virtually all of your recliners have a built-in mechanism to keep on preventing that irritation for as long as he owns the recliner. Learn to win your bragging rights before bragging. First help him find the recliner that seems to cater to his hot buttons: the right style, the right size, the right fabric, and the right color. Then as you get that customer to sit in that chair, point out how that company – use the company’s name – had customers just like him in mind when it developed a non-slip recliner: "Joe, I’d like you to see and feel what "company x" developed for customers just like you." Then go on to demonstrate the very feature that can "do it" for the customer. For as soon as a feature can do it, it automatically becomes a benefit. And make sure you don’t just talk features; demonstrate them. "Not shown when told remains unsold." You’re not selling some abstract service that only an Einstein can fathom. You are selling furniture that is bursting with features that appeal to the senses: the smell of leather, the luxurious comfort of the latest foams, the smooth touch of a multi-step finish, the silence of coils that do not grate on the nerves, the wonder of all the colors of the spectrum to tease and titillate and tickle every one of your customers’ visual fancies. I cringe every time I watch salespeople selling mattresses as though they were caskets. Our customers go on to find some of their greatest joys and pleasures on the mattresses we sell them, especially when we match the right mattress to their need. Mothers - and fathers too – seat themselves alongside their children’s mattress and read to them at bedtime. Yet too often we continue to sell our children our cheapest mattresses (Are you aware that we lose more teenagers to fatal car accidents owing to sleep deprivation than to alcohol?). Guests enjoy a restful sleep in our homes, provided the guest mattress is not a "guessed wrong" mattress. Is there any furniture item in our homes that is used as many hours as a mattress? And yet, despite the fact that our customers are looking for a revitalizing, restful, and comfortable night’s sleep, too many of us continue to count coils while many of our customers who were sold the wrong mattress continue to count sheep!
Let’s start doing a better job of probing by sounding out our customers’ complete needs and then waiting for the proper moment to support those needs through personalized feature benefit statements and, oh yes, through demonstrations. Not shown when told remains unsold.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.