September 1, 2019
Close the sale
BY ROD McDONALD
I was buying a new car in Saskatoon, chatting with the salesman who was looking after me. We started talking about closing sales and those times when we don’t. He told me last February, the temperature was so cold it brought shopping at the dealership to a halt. People were just not in the mood to test-drive a new vehicle when it was -36. It was a tough month. There is not all that much difference between his situation and ours. If we don’t sell, we don’t eat.
When there is a week of rain, landscapers don’t work. When it is too cold, greenhouse sales slow down and the same situation applies at the nursery. As often as we take pride in how much business we generate because of our talents, in the final analysis, weather affects so much of our sales. Garfield Marshall, of Advance Nursery fame, was fond of saying, “Just when we think we are so clever, Mother Nature makes fools of us all.” A reminder to control our egos.
While we cannot do much about the weather, all of us can benefit from learning how to be better closers. When I started out in this trade, I was a landscape contractor. The garden centre and greenhouses came later. I was in my 20s, and quite confident in my abilities both as a closer and a contractor. I took great pride in closing the sale for 30 per cent of the estimates that I provided.
Thirty years later, I closed over 90 per cent of the jobs I quoted. I had not become a better salesperson, as much as I had become more efficient at screening for serious customers. I had learned to listen to what people were asking, and to calculate if I could meet their needs. Gone were the days when I would drop everything to drive across town, to quote jobs where customers planned on doing the work themselves, and only wanted ideas from me. I learned to avoid the customer who had contacted 10 other companies for quotes. Let me be clear: neither you nor I are afraid of competition. There is no doubt in our minds that we can hold our own, but why waste our time with someone who is not all that interested in our services? We have only have so much time in the day, and we have learned to spend that time with our most valuable customers. The best hitters in baseball have learned not to chase a ball that is too high or outside the plate. They have learned to swing at the pitches that offer the best chance for a hit. With us, learning to play the percentages makes us better closers — and the success follows.
In my second year of business, a customer asked for a quote to get her yard in order. I arrived at the appointed time, big smile, business card in hand, tape measure and clip board at the ready. She took me on a tour of her yard, which was absolutely gorgeous. I kept asking, “What is it you want me to do for you?” and she kept giving me the tour. She needed no work at all, as she was a master gardener. After an hour, I extricated myself from her grips.
Later that evening, I called an experienced contractor I trusted, described what had happened and asked if he might have an explanation. He laughed. He told me, “She wanted to show off how good of a gardener she was and you were the audience.” I was dumbstruck by his answer. “Does this happen often?” “Not too often, but it does happen every now and again. She will call someone else who is new next year. It was just your turn.” Just my turn, eh?
This is not a unique experience. It happens to salespeople in other businesses as well.
My neighbour is a real estate agent, very reputable, and she told me there are people who have no intention of buying a house. Yet, they call up new salespeople and are driven around to look at what is on the market. Veterans in the office try to warn rookies about the time-wasters, but the ‘tire kickers’ eventually find someone to reel in. Kind of like an urban fishing pond.
Working in a retail situation such as a nursery, greenhouse or garden centre also requires the development of good closing skills. Rest assured, closing sales is a skill set, and not luck. When I started out in this trade in the ‘70s, there was not a greenhouse in our area that actually sold plants to customers. Protocol at that time was to put plants on a bench and to allow gardeners to make their purchase. There were very few labels, prices were only available on a chalkboard at the front cash register and no one was around to assist customers with their needs. That is the way it was in the good old days, 40 years ago. The trade’s attitude, at the time, was growers were doing customers a favour by letting them purchase plants. Customers were supposed to know what they needed and not bother asking the staff. Good luck with that business model today.
Today, a good operator has all plants clearly signed and priced. We have learned that not everyone knows the difference between a perennial and an annual. We have learned to accommodate the novice gardener. We have learned to be information providers.
To close (or to sell), we must have visible staff members who can put on a big smile and ask someone if they are looking for plants for shade or sun? Gleaning information from asking basic questions allow us to direct that person to their best choices. The more successful we make our customers, the more successful we will be ourselves. We learn to offer the customer a minimum of two choices and a maximum of three. Offering a dozen choices usually leads to confusion, a mistake made often by rookie salespeople. It is our job to meet the customer’s needs, not to showboat how much we know.
Never, ever underestimate the power of a consumer-friendly approach to selling. The days of a gruff, “What do you want?” are long gone, or if they do still exist, they exist in an anachronistic, dying business. We had one of those greenhouses here in Regina, years ago. No service, no information, all questions met with disdain or indifference. At one time, they got away with it. I don’t know how or why, but they did. As the business model of the trade changed, they didn’t. That refusal finished them off and no one mourned their demise.
We have learned our lessons when it comes to customer service. We have learned that our businesses thrive when we meet customer needs and it makes closing so much easier. Developing closing skills keeps us on the road to success.
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.