October 1, 2016
Good selling: Technique and attitude


Rod McDonald I was at a function honouring a local, independent shop owner. One of the speakers told a story: when a non-buyer entered the shop, the owner would comment, in a rather loud voice, “another looker.” Some laughed; I was not one of those laughing. After working retail for all of these years, I have heard this attitude before. Staff members and owners muttering “just a lookie-lou” or other disparaging remarks.

I get it. Dealing with the public is difficult. You can get time-wasters who beset you, when you really want to sell. Here is the kick: I, as a customer, have often checked out a store, just to see what product lines they carry. I have no intention of buying that particular day, but I do file their specialities away in my memory bank, and when the time arises, I return. If I am treated poorly — as in, less than respectful — do you think I am anxious to return? Of course I am not willing to return, and neither would you. Yet, here was a store owner announcing “another looker” to all, and people thought it funny!

Lest a reader think I am getting up on a high horse, let me assure all, I have made many (and by many I mean a lot of) mistakes in my time. Many times I have wished for a do-over, a second chance to respond to a customer in a more receptive way. For me, as with you, it is always easy to answer questions when we are well rested, but not so easy at the end of a 12- or 14-hour day, with no supper in sight. Cranky is an understatement.

The challenge for us has always been to ensure when we answer the same question, for the 20th time, we answer as if it were brand new. “How high does this potentilla grow?” “What colour does this lilac bloom?” “If I buy two apple trees, do I get a discount?” I don’t need to write more.

When a new person enters our operations, the question is: Do we want a sale right now, or do we want to build a relationship, a customer for life? If I want to sell something right now, I am going to be pushy and insistent. Even if the customer buys, she might never return.

My wife would avoid a woman’s clothing store near us. She liked the quality, she thought the prices were acceptable (if a little on the high side), but she avoided it because the sales staff pushed and pushed and pushed. A dress could be too small or too large and invariably the comment would be “that looks wonderful on you. I will wrap it up so you can take it home.” The sales staff always wanted to sell her whatever she was trying on, instead of saying, “That’s not really your size. Let me find something more suitable for you. Here’s one I think will look good on you. ”

Trust is the foundation of every business relationship. If trust has been established, sales actually become quite easy. Whether we are selling or buying, the preceding statement holds true. I can walk into my favourite men’s store and be sold a suit, shirt or pair of shoes, based upon the fact they have more than once told me not to purchase an item. They have better fashion sense than I do, and they know the pros and cons of different products. I was thinking of buying a suit and my sales rep told me it was too heavy, except for the coldest days of winter. Most of us want a three-season suit, not a one-day suit.
When dealing with customers, most of us have learned to choose our words carefully. The adage is, “Long after who said what is forgotten, how you were made to feel will be remembered.” For customers, there is no greater insult than to be dismissed.

I was speaking with a garden centre manager (not mine) who complained about a fussy customer. The manager said, “It is not my job to make her happy.” Actually, it was the manager’s job to make the customer happy. The customer had shopped with me many times, and all she wanted was the nicest plants. If you provided her with only the best, she was easy to get along with — but if you tried to include a sub-standard plant in her order, she balked. They are not coming to us for the cheap stuff; our customers want the good stuff. Providing the good stuff is how we make them happy. And if you don’t realize that it’s your job to make your customers happy, then you don’t get it.

Not only is it important to meet customers’ expectations, it is important to exceed those expectations. I am not the first person to have written that statement but it is one of those universal business truths that needs to be put out there again and again.

I am writing this story from Edmonton, not Regina, as we are visiting our children and granddaughter. We had breakfast at a small café along Whyte Avenue yesterday morning. Whyte Avenue is the main drag of Old Strathcona, a lovely part of Edmonton. The waitress taking care of our table was perhaps the most pleasant waitress I have ever had in my life. She was polite, happy and accommodating. I sensed it was her personality, and not just a hustle for tips. I asked her before we left, “Are you always this happy?” She had an excellent response, one that impressed me.

“Most days, I am happy and enjoy life. I really look forward to meeting new people as well as my regular customers. There are days when I don’t feel all that happy but I put on a smile anyways and soon, I feel better.” Wow! Years ago I was told, “When we serve the public, no one wants to know that our dog died that morning.” I wished I could remember to put on a smile even when I don’t feel like it. I know it would make my life easier and better.

I am a good salesperson but not a great one. I am not feeling sorry for myself nor am I putting on an act of false modesty. The reason I know I am only good is that I have worked with great salespeople. I worked with a woman who specialized in selling perennials. Her product knowledge was excellent but it was her big smile and “Hi, how are you?” personality that won people over. If she sensed the customer was a dedicated gardener, she would show the newest introductions. If the customer was a newbie to the world of perennials, she would introduce that person to basics. If a newbie wanted to purchase an expensive plant, she had the decency to explain they should start out with the basics, until they had acquired the skill set and desire to carry on with perennial gardening. People were lined up to talk to her. She sold with great enthusiasm, but she never sold something a gardener was not ready to handle. That is how you build a clientele.

By watching great sales people, I learned how to improve my own skills at selling. Recently, I went along with a landscape contractor who was meeting a customer who wanted some high-end flower beds. I was asked to join the conversation, as the contractor had never planted beds so large. The contractor kept asking the customer which plants he wanted, and communication quickly broke down as the customer was not a dyed-in-the-wool gardener. I had been listening for what was being said, and what was being heard. Over the years, I have learned to listen to my customers, instead of trying to impress them. Salespeople can talk themselves out of jobs easier than they can talk themselves into them.

I stuck my nose into the conversation, saying, “What you really want is a riot of colour.”

“Yes, yes! That’s what I want.”

“And that’s what we will give you, a riot of colour. Now, what are your favourite colours and what colours do you not want?” I never discussed varieties with the customer, only colour. He did not care about varieties. All he wanted was lots and lots of colour in his flower beds. We were to fulfill that request. The sale was now a foregone conclusion.

Finding what it is the customer really wants from you, your products, your operation, is what your job is all about. As to the garden center manager who told me it was not her job to make customers happy, she is no longer a part of our trade — and it was not her choice to leave.

Exceeding expectations and making our customers happy, while not always easy, does keep all of us on the road to success.

Now, please forgive me, but I have to run a race against a three-year-old who thinks she is faster than me. Grampas do those sort of things.     
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.