Dean’s Lesson (Issue 587)

In which we are reminded of the importance of investing a little time to understand buyers’ “stories behind their stories”  before we attempt to sell.

My wife and I were in Nebraska city, Nebraska, a couple of weeks ago for a family wedding. We were there for five days, a mini-vacation and family reunion tacked onto the wedding.

Nebraska City is at town of about 7,000 people. Once a thriving Missouri River gateway through which livestock and goods were shipped to Fort Kearny and Oregon Trail points further west, Nebraska City is now largely a “service” town, stores providing goods and services to the residents and the families whose livelihoods depend on agriculture.

There is also a small tourist trade focused on people who come to the Lied Lodge, a hotel and conference center, and Arbor Day Farm, dedicated to growing and educating people about trees. (J. Sterling Morton, who started Arbor Day, lived in Nebraska City.)

Any way, now that you’ve had your geography lesson… after our Thursday night dinner at Parker’s Smokehouse (a solid and imaginative barbecue restaurant), my wife and I stepped outside Parker’s without a plan for the evening.  Our family had not yet arrived, we had the evening to ourselves, we were tired from the day’s travel, and it was still hot and daylight. Next door to Parker’s, we spotted an antique store which, even from the outside, looked like somebody had poured multiple trailer loads of stuff into a very small space.

My wife is a highly skilled, practiced, veteran browser/buyer who has developed an extraordinary range of knowledge about “stuff”  and she LOVES to browse antique stores. For her, it’s thrill of the hunt plus market research.

So, when Dean, the proprietor of the store, asked, “May I help you find something?”, our answer was (of course), “No, thank you, just looking” to which he responded, “OK, well, let me know if I can help you find something” to which we responded, “OK, we will.”

Had he REALLY been able to peek under the covers, MY answer would have been,  “I am just tagging along after my wife, trying not to irritate her at this point, we’ve had a long day,  I’m bored, and if you had some old Life magazines, I would be gratefully lost for hours.”

My WIFE’s answer  probably would have been, “I’m not really clear about what my nudgy husband and I are going to do this evening,  he has had a pretty big dinner, he will be pretty quiet for about 30 minutes, there’s not much happening in this town tonight, so I’m  killing some time, trying to keep us both moving, plus this is data gathering for me, and maybe I will find something for my children or any of 20 friends to whom I’d love to give a gift.”

That’s what, “no, thanks, I’m just looking” meant when each of us answered the question.

So, when we as business-to-business sales people ask prospects or customers, “what brought you into the branch today?” or “What do you hope to achieve through our meeting today?” or even the shop worn, “May I help you?”, there’s likely more to the story than we’re first told.

For example, “I’m just checking rates” or “We are thinking about changing banks” might mean, “I’m sick to death of working for my brother in law and I’ve reached the point at which I think I’ll leave to start my own business and I need to get smart about banks and banking since he’s done all of that to this point.”

Dean did a great job after his initial, predictable opening. Although he had several customers in the store while we were there, he watched pretty carefully as my wife browsed room to room in his store. Occasionally, as she chose and lifted objects for closer looks, he offered quick  stories about the objects’ histories or said “Isn’t that pretty?”  to engage us, briefly.  In between, he asked us questions about  our home-state antiques, politics, and attitudes.

Over the course of an hour, Dean and my wife sized each other up pretty well.  They developed a little bit of a connection. He found out why we were in town and (for the most part) why we were in his store.  She developed some trust in him and his business. (“He’s a nice man. I like him, and I think he’s honest.”) Based on the conversation, he suggested some other places she might want to look and some things he had seen there recently.

So, we went, and we looked, and, two days after our post barbeque browsing expedition, my wife returned to Dean’s  store and bought several things that she had seen that first evening.  She’d had a chance to process what she’d seen and assess the local market.

As sales people, in both retail and business to business environments,  we’re all under tremendous pressure to generate additional revenue. We’re taught to press in a bit, not accept “just looking” as an answer, ask questions to understand buyers’ objectives, dig into the details, suggest alternatives, move the buying process forward, and close.  Wham, wham, woof, woof.  If they walk out, they’re lost.

Dean’s approach reminds us to consider:  “Engage, invest a little time, show some interest. Offer counsel where you can. Build a connection, generate a little relationship, develop some trust. Draw out the stories behind “just looking.” Allow some time for processing. Then… help people buy.”


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