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by Alice Alessandri e Alberto Aleo

We all know that in sales the person asking the questions takes control; nevertheless, very few salespeople have really developed the ability to ask a question and then listening to the answer. But among sellers, the nightmare salespeople are the worst offenders, and we can divide them into two categories: the fortune-tellers, who know in advance what the customer wants to buy, and the cops who give their customers a third-degree, and then apparently judge them on the answers given. In this second installment of the saga of Nightmare Salespeople, we are going to take a look at the most frequent mistakes made when asking and listening in order to get some handy tips on what NOT to do during an ethical sale.

“He’s a cheapskate: he’s not going to buy anything”

We could write a book full of stories about salespeople who claim to know at a glance whether a customer will buy or not. Sales veterans who whisper an aside to their colleagues, bosses and friends before greeting a customer just to show off their expertise: “This one will make a purchase – just wait and see,” or “No way is she reaching for her wallet – I’m ready to bet on it”. There is a good chance in both cases that their forecast will be correct, but not because they are able to see into the future, rather they have unwittingly contributed to their prediction coming true. If we treat customers with courtesy and attention because we are convinced they are going to make a purchase, then we are actually encouraging them to do so. On the other hand, nobody would buy from a person who considers them a cheapskate.  Sometimes you might suspect that these “fortune-tellers” would rather lose a sale than admit they were wrong; like the man selling posters who first of all complained to us about the crisis and then added, “unfortunately I’ve sold all the best items, so I don’t suppose you’ll find anything you like”! As we were leaving the shop with no purchases, he said goodbye with a bitter smile and commented rather smugly, “I knew you wouldn’t find anything.” Leaving customers space to manoeuvre without being guided by your own prejudices is a gift that only ethical salespeople have, but it can be developed with a specific course.

“Yes, yes, I see!”

Sometimes sellers may ask the right questions but then become distracted and fail to listen to the answer because they are already preparing their next gambit, or else they anticipate what they believe the customer is about to say, hoping to make a good impression, as if to say “add no more, I know what you mean already because I’m so good at my job!” This happened once to Alice when she rang to enrol in an advanced specialization course: every time she tried to explain her needs the over- zealous salesperson stopped her, saying “Yes, of course, I understand” and then suggested something that was completely unsuitable. After several attempts Alice gave up trying to explain what she actually wanted and chose to apply to a different school. Active listening is the basis of sales.

“That beer sucks!”

There is nothing worse than a salesperson who makes the customer feel judged for his/her taste. Alberto once went to a popular beer garden whose owner was well-known for his expertise; thinking he was in good hands, he decided to ask for some advice before ordering. The host started off correctly by asking a series of questions to understand what Alberto’s tastes were, including “What’s your favourite beer?” But the expert in question did not appreciate Alberto’s answer, and responded dismissively “it sucks”. As if that were not enough, and despite Alberto’s evident embarrassment and discomfort, he continued by practically subjecting Alberto to an interrogation, piling question upon question and peppering his utterances with negative and disparaging comments. Asking questions is fine, but be careful about the tone you use. Above all, remember that merely giving an answer involves a relationship of trust: you cannot attack your customers with a barrage of questions.

What about the salesperson in a jewellers who responded to the customer’s opening request, “I want to buy my sister a watch, can you give me some advice?” with an impatient “Go outside and take a look at the window so you have a better idea about what you want”? Or how about the bike dealer who replied to the question “have you got carbon frames?” by looking the customer up and down and sarcastically commenting “and what exactly would you do with a carbon bike”? The art of asking questions and listening with an open mind, avoiding any sort of judgment or prejudice, helps not only when selling but throughout life in general. In fact, the way we see it, an ethical seller is also, and above all, a likeable person.

| partem claram semper aspice |

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Alice Alessandri and Alberto Aleo, a couple in life and work, are founders of the consulting and training company Passodue, which operates in the field of ethical sales and marketing.
Their publications and articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines. In the US since 2013 they collaborate with researchers and professors on the topics of Business Ethics.

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