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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 competitor.

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 particular product.

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 your questions.

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.

To read previous columns, click on the titles in the right-hand column.)

KIZER & BENDER Speaking!

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103 North 11th Ave., Ste. 206, St. Charles, Illinois 60174

Phone: 630-513-8020 | 24/7
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