Small Business

Great (Sales) Expectations


What a seller intends to deliver and what a buyer anticipates to receive can vary widely. Here's how to head off potential problems

When I asked a clerk at a home improvement store for a gallon of blue paint the other day, he just laughed at me. Then he pointed to a wall of color chips, with dozens of shades of blue, and I got his point. They had exotic-sounding names like cerulean, cornflower, and cobalt—and that was just the Cs. To make matters worse, once I decided on a shade, took the paint home and spread it on my walls, it looked more purple than blue.

The experience got me thinking: How often do expectations not match up with reality and result in unhappy customers? Despite the thousands of ways to describe a product or service, experiences like mine happen all too frequently. When we sell, we don't need to overexplain, we need to ask the right questions to determine what a prospect wants. We also need to be aware how easy it is for a prospect to arrive at a different conclusion than we intended.

All About Images

Scientists tell us that we think in pictures, not words. When you say "computer" or "yacht," you mentally see those items. The trouble begins when our words create different pictures in our customers' minds than what we envision.

Problems can also occur when we describe characteristics of our products and services. For example, if you declare your product is "rugged" or "well designed," the picture in your customer's mind may be completely different from what you mean. There can also be a mismatch between you and your customer regarding the expected buying and ownership experience.

This disconnect in expectations is the source of many sales and customer-service problems. Here are three areas worth addressing and four simple solutions.

1. Products and Services. Let's say you sell cars. If a customer says they want to buy a cool car, you may show them a bunch of sexy sports cars, while they were envisioning a spacious, black, full-size sedan. As a result, you waste their time, and maybe even their patience and goodwill.

It's just as much a problem if you sell services. For example, if you sell interior decorating services, and your customer asks you for a "Tuscan" or "English cottage" style, such phrases can conjure different images for the two parties involved. If you start raving about how great certain features associated with these styles would look in their space, and that's not what they meant, you lose credibility.

2. Buying Experience. If your advertising promises a quick buying experience, customers could envision parking close to your front door, getting inside quickly and easily, finding the right department they need without difficulty, checking out swiftly because you have plenty of open registers, and breezing to their cars since you have plenty of help to carry out their purchases. Was that what you meant?

3. Ownership Experience. The difference in expectations also affects your customer's post-sales experience. For example, what you may call great delivery service for a big-screen television, they may call mediocre. Maybe your customers are expecting a well-groomed, knowledgeable team of delivery folks in clean, snappy uniforms who called ahead to confirm what time they would arrive. Imagine if they get a slob who mumbles, shows up long after the agreed-upon delivery window, and then drops the new TV in the driveway.

Don't worry. Here are a few strategies to increase your chances that your customers will be happy with their purchase from you.

1. Use pictures early in the sales process. I was consulting for a group of decorators recently and most said they reached for books of pictures very early in the selling conversation to make sure they understood the general look the customer desired. Don't forget, customers can tell you a lot when they show you pictures or designs that they don't like, too.

Pictures are used in many industries to help clarify the product. Denny's restaurants are famous for their picture-laden menus. I bet they get fewer returns to the kitchen because their customers have agreed up front to buy what was pictured.

2. Use analogies. My grandfather used to ask me if something was "bigger than a breadbox." You can also say your offering is "like an X only with a Y."

3. Use metaphors carefully. Years ago, when I recorded my first CD, the recording engineer asked me if I'd like music between each of the six segments. I hadn't considered music, but agreed to have him create and insert the music. He asked me how I wanted the words and music ordered on the CD, and I told him, "like a quilt."

I've made patchwork quilts, so I could picture the blocks of recording being linked by clips of the same piece of music. What I'd forgotten to consider was this man had probably never made a quilt, let alone a patchwork quilt. He was too polite to ask me to explain what I meant, and I saw the analogy so clearly in my mind that I forgot to make sure he understood me. In the end, it worked out, but I had risked ruining my first CD.

4. Clarify. At the end of a long conversation with a prospective buyer, I will often say something like, "I just want to be sure the picture in my head looks like the picture in yours." This lets us iron out areas of potential dissatisfaction before any time, money, or resources are wasted.

Maybe someday you'll be able to "mind-meld" like Star Trek's Mr. Spock, but for now, make sure expectations are clear on both sides of the table. You'll close faster and have happier customers. Happy selling!

Michelle Nichols is a sales speaker, trainer, and consultant based in Reno, Nev. You can visit her Web site at savvyselling.com She is also the Savvy Selling columnist and podcast host for BusinessWeek.com.

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