Avoid pre-qualifying based on appearances

salesBy Reginald Tucker—Most people reading this column know me as a flooring trade magazine editor and journalist. But that wasn’t always the case. I actually spent quite a few years in retail sales —an occupation that, ironically, paid for much of my college education in pursuit of a career in journalism.

One of those retail positions entailed working as a tire salesman and automotive service advisor for a major national retailer. Over the years of working for said company—which prided itself on educating its sales force on not only product knowledge but also interpersonal skills development—I was exposed to countless training opportunities. Some of that instruction came in the form of structured training classes held on a fairly frequent basis throughout the year; other educational opportunities and teachable moments occurred on the job in real-time interactions with customers.

One “on-the-job” teachable moment that stands out in my mind to this day—more than 25 years after I left the automotive industry—was an interaction that involved a customer who walked into the showroom, waiting patiently in line for assistance . He looked quite disheveled in his worn-out, faded blue jeans, stained sweatshirt and frumpy baseball cap that covered the top of his mullet. (Like I said, it was a long time ago.)

At the time when the gentleman walked into the showroom, I was the only salesperson on duty. It was a Sunday afternoon, and we were about an hour or so away from closing time. True to my training, I acknowledged the customer’s presence, even though I was still wrapping up a sale with the previous shopper. I welcomed him to the store, and I told him I would assist him momentarily.

I thanked the customer for waiting patiently, and then I asked how I could be of service. “I need some tires,” he said flatly. “At least two, maybe four.”

In keeping with my training, I always made it a point to go outside and perform a visual inspection of the tires on the vehicle before getting into price. There’s so much you can tell about the condition of a vehicle’s suspension system as well as the driving patterns of the car’s owner simply by the wear patterns on the surface of a tire, which might unlock add-on sales/repair opportunities.

On this particular day, my Jedi automotive training served me well. Had I dismissed the customer based on his appearance, I might have assumed he had some jalopy parked outside. Quite the contrary. Much to my (pleasant) surprise, I walked to the curb to find a sparkling metallic blue Corvette ZR1. My pupils turned into dollar signs immediately. As any automotive enthusiast knows, the wide, beefy, low-profile, high-speed-rated tires on those cars can set you back a few mortgage payments.

A thorough visual inspection of the tires, which included measuring the depth of what little tread remained, resulted in only one conclusion: The customer did indeed require a full set of four tires—plus wheel balancing and new valves. Oh, and a four wheel alignment. When I gave the customer an estimate for the parts and labor, he didn’t even blink.

The moral of the story, good folks, is in business (and in life), you can’t always judge a book by its cover. Having been on the opposite side of the transaction in cases like this, I couldn’t agree more. While many professional salespeople employ some type of “pre-qualification” process—whether it’s subconscious or overt—the risk of offending a customer or losing a sale outright is just too great. This is true whether you’re peddling Michelin tires, kitchen sinks, top-shelf appliances or high-end hardwood flooring.

As Sean McPheat, the famous author and sales trainer, said, “Treat everyone, every prospect, as if they are worth a million dollars.”

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