A view of the industry through the
eyes of independent and chain retailers.
The Fine Art of Asking Questions
The smart questions result in better sales.
by Rich Kizer & Georganne Bender (February 51, 2010)
Last Christmas Eve, Rich walked into the big consumer electronics
store, thankful that in just a few short minutes all of his holiday
shopping would be complete. As he walked through the hundreds of
television sets on display, he was approached by a store associate.
"Whatcha looking for?" asked the associate. Rich replied,
"A TV set …" and before he could finish his sentence,
the associate was off to the races, explaining all about a
particular TV, one that was sure to be perfect in Rich's home, or
the perfect gift. The only problem was that the TV the associate was
bent on selling was a 32" model and Rich wanted a small one
that could be mounted under a kitchen cabinet. When the associate
stopped to take a breath, Rich thanked him and went to another
store, where he bought the TV he was looking for.
Around the same time, Georganne approached an associate in a
craft store and asked what gift she recommended for a 16-year-old
girl. The associate said, "A gift certificate."
Now, you know that we encourage you to sell gift certificates,
but sometimes they aren't appropriate. When your brothers and
sisters are busy playing with their gifts on Christmas morning, a
pile of gift certificates just isn't that much fun.
So Georganne pressed on: "I want to give an actual gift.
What do you recommend?" The associate pointed to a wall of
soap-making components. "How do I use this stuff?"
Georganne asked. The associate suggested that she read the packages.
Frustrated, Georganne left the store and headed for the nearest
Scenarios like this happen in stores across the country everyday,
and we don't want them to happen in yours. Customers are always
looking for the perfect gift; but they have no idea what that
perfect gift actually is. Hopefully, you will have a long list of
perfect gifts to recommend, but that's a lot to ask. After all, the
perfect gift for an avid knitter won't be the same perfect gift for
the person who is just starting out.
That's why each and every one of the people working on your sales
floor needs to master the fine art of asking questions. It's easy to
learn, it helps eliminate stress, and your customers will leave with
exactly the gift they were looking for. Here's how:
Breaking the Ice
First, you have to get the customer to talk to you. We've all
experienced the customer who just won't make eye contact. You barely
open your mouth before the customer responds with a hurried,
"No thanks, I'm just looking." That's because most
customers are expecting you to say, "May I help you?"
Unless a customer comes directly up to you with an "I need help
now!" look on his or her face, you don't get to say, "May
I help you?" or even "How may I help you?" At least
not if you want to make a sale.
Instead, smile at the customer and make eye contact. Say
something brilliant, like, "It's sure cold out there
tonight!" Most customers will agree with you, opening the door
to conversation. If they need help immediately, they will ask for
it. If they don't ask for help, offer a cart or a basket. And you
can always ask, "What brought you to our store today?"
Then if they say, "I'm just looking." answer with
something like, "You sure picked the right store – we have
lots of cool stuff to look at!" Promise to check back later,
and let the customer browse.
Why You Must Ask Questions
It's important to note that most customers respond to associates
who ask questions. Customers like it because it shows that the
associate is focusing directly on them. When you ask questions the
right way, you will engage the customer while building or
strengthening the relationship.
Let's say the customer has asked for your help in choosing a
gift. Your objective here is to get the information you need so that
you can recommend the right kinds of items. Asking the customer
questions does three things: a) It helps you find out what the
customer came in to buy; b) it helps you discover why the customer
wants that particular item; and c) it helps the customer begin to
trust you. After all, you've just met and here you are recommending
a gift for someone they love. Customers have to trust you before
your advice holds any value.
If you haven't introduced yourself yet, now is the perfect time.
Hold out your hand and say, "My name is ________________."
Most people will shake your hand and respond with their own name.
Pay very close attention to how they answer you. If the customer
says, "My name is Mary Smith,." then you must call the
customer Ms. Smith until she says it's okay to call her Mary.
If the customer says "Dr. Smith" or "Captain
Smith" or "Admiral Smith," that is what you are to
call them until they tell you otherwise. And be sure to encourage
your staff to throw in lots of "Sirs" and Ma'ams";
this is especially important with older customers, who are more
formal, and expect to be treated with respect.
Asking Open-Ended Questions
There are two ways to ask questions that will help you search for
more information: open-ended questions and closed-ended questions.
Open-ended questions are particularly helpful because they allow
you to uncover lots of information. Remember when you had to write a
newspaper article as a school assignment? You had to be sure and
include the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How information.
Open-ended questions begin with one of those six words:
"Who are you buying this gift for?" ... "What
kinds of crafts has he/she enjoyed in the past?" ...
"Where does she display her finished projects?" ...
"When did he/she last take a craft class?" ... "Why
don't you think he/she would enjoy this particular kit?" ...
"How often does he/she create a new scrapbook?"
Get the picture? These words are your friends because they will
always help you get detailed answers to the questions that you ask.
Asking Close-Ended Questions
The second type of question is called a close-ended question.
Close-ended questions can only be answered with a simple
"yes" or a "no," so they are a great way to move
the conversation along. Closed-ended questions are best used to
encourage a customer to give feedback during a conversation. They
are not, however, a good way to initially gather information because
the customer will feel like he or she is being grilled.
Closed-ended questions begin with a verb, such as
"Will"; "Are"; "Is", and
"Did": "Will he/she be doing this project by
his/herself?" ... "Is your craft room used by anyone other
than yourself?" ... "Didn't you tell me that your daughter
is six years old?" ... "Have you enjoyed
scrapbooking?" ... "Was the product easy to use?"
And so on. Close-ended questions are great when you need a
specific answer, or when you need the customer to take a stand on a
Closed-ended questions are also the perfect answer to customers
who tend to want to tell you their entire life story, which they
were happy to tell you when you asked your first open-ended
question. When you ask a series of close-ended questions, you can
move the conversation to a closing point. This will come in handy
when the store if full of customers who need your attention – but
never, ever let the customer feel that he or she is being rushed.
Once you have asked enough questions – and you will know when
you have asked enough questions – then you can move on to showing
the customer particular products, what they do, along with
demonstrating how to use them.
Your questioning technique will be uniquely personal to you, but
questions should always be asked in a warm, friendly, and inviting
tone of voice, sprinkled with lots of eye contact. We humans tend to
judge one another in three ways: 55% of what we respond to is body
language; 38% is tone of voice, and just 7% are the words we chose.
The tone of voice you use will affect how the customer responds to
This reminds us of a poem by an unknown author a retailer sent to
us after a seminar we gave on clear communication:
It's not so much what you say,
as the manner in which you say it;
It's not so much the language you use,
as the tone in which you convey it.
Words may be mild and fair,
But the tone may pierce like a dart;
Words may be soft as the summer air,
But the tone may break my heart;
For words come from the mind
Grow by study and art,
But tone leaps from the inner self,
Revealing the state of heart.
Whether you know it or not,
Whether you're mean or care,
Gentleness, kindness, love and hate,
Envy, anger are there.
As soon as you finish this article, schedule a store meeting to
discuss the fine art of asking questions. Explain how to ask both
opened-ended and closed-ended questions, plus the importance of body
language and tone of voice. Practice questioning techniques using
role play. And if you can't get everyone together, then make copies
of this article, and require everyone to read it. That way when your
store is filled with customers, every single associate will be ready
to ask the right questions, the right way. Think of all the customer
relationships you'll build!
(Note: Rich & Georganne will be the keynote speakers
at the NAMTA show, April 15, in Indianapolis. The topic:
"Retail Revolution: Straight Forward Solutions for Uncertain
Times." For a complete description of educational programming,
general trade show information, and online registration, visit www.artmaterialsworld.com/attendee.
Pre-registration ends March 15. For more info, visit www.artmaterialsworld.com
or call 704-892-6244.
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