Probe Like a Pro

May 1998

Four Your Staff: Selling Essentials


Probe Like a Pro

On her second day on the job, our hypothetical sales associate learns the benefits of establishing a rapport with customers, asking them the right questions and listening when they speak

by Christine Anzell and Jack Levenson


Day Two – and I'm ready. I've deliberately come to work early so I can ask questions about the training material I read last night. There's so much information to absorb, but I feel like I'll be a total professional once I complete studying the sales and product knowledge information and observing the pros in this store. After all, the more I know about our company and our product lines, the more confident I'll be – and the more confident the customer will be in me.

After hanging back and "observing" yesterday, I'm going to be "buddied" with Julie today to learn more about the sales process. I'm fortunate to have her as my mentor because she's the store's No. 1 sales associate. 

Establish Rapport

One thing I noticed yesterday is her low-pressure approach to customers. Not that she stands back and waits for the customer to point to an item and say "I'll take it!" If that were the case, she'd wait an awfully long time between sales. She suggests, she persuades, but she never comes off as pushy – I'd call it the difference between assertive and aggressive. People seem not to like aggressive sales associates – that old "used car salesman" image with the plaid sport coat and cigar.

Assertiveness is clearly an important ingredient in this success recipe. It seems to begin with establishing a rapport with customers when they arrive, showing personal interest in their needs. 

Ask Detailed Questions

Once the greeting process has taken place and, we hope, the relationship has begun to flower, we must determine those customer needs so we can guide our client toward the correct piece of merchandise.

I notice that, regardless of the situation, there are always specific pieces of information Julie tries to get from customers. Who are they shopping for? What is the occasion? What type of item, if any, did they have in mind? Here's a good example. This morning's first customer is a woman shopping for her husband's birthday; she's thinking about getting a ring for him.

Once Julie has determined these facts, she wants to know more about the husband. What does he look like? She's not interested in handsome or ugly (at least I don't think she is); she's more interested in size, for example. We wouldn't want to see a hollow promotional size 9 ring presented to a guy with a size 14 finger. Julie then inquires about his occupation. Makes sense. If he's in construction, for instance, she wouldn't recommend a piece with highly set diamonds.

She asks about hobbies, interests, taste and other jewelry owned. I can see her digesting all this information as she narrows the areas from which she will suggest the gift. In this case, the woman tells Julie her husband is an executive and wears a black-dial gold watch on one wrist and a gold bracelet on the other.

As I observe her this morning, there are two things that stand out about the way Julie goes through this "probing" process. Every question she asks requires a descriptive answer, causing the customer to talk more. She deliberately says: " What does your husband look like?" as opposed to "Does he have large hands?" She asks "What other jewelry does he wear?" rather than "Does he wear a gold watch?"

I'll have to get used to this, but it makes sense. Asking open-ended rather than yes/no questions creates a more conversational atmosphere and generates more useful information. I've taught myself a trick to help convert yes/no questions to descriptive ones: whenever possible, start with who, what, why, where or when. These can't be answered yes or no. Another option I've observed is the alternate-choice question: "Is his taste flamboyant or is he more on the conservative side?" No possibility for a "no" response there either. 

Become a Great Listener

The other trait I've noticed about Julie and the other successful sales associates here is something that's really going to take some practice for me. They're great listeners. They have the extraordinary ability to block out the distractions around them and focus on what the customer is saying; this seems to lead to getting a good sense of what will please the customer as well as making that customer feel important.

Right now, the phone is ringing, there are other customers in the immediate area, Joe asks whether anyone has seen the loupe, there's a 3-year-old climbing on the next showcase, but Julie is clearly locked on her customer and her desire to purchase the perfect gift for her husband.

I've read some articles about being a good listener. They pretty much agree you must teach yourself to block out what's happening around you; prevent yourself from being distracted by customers' appearance, accent, or handicap; focus on their words; and listen, listen, listen. It takes practice, and I intend to work on it. 

Avoid the Price Question

In all her "probing" or as some people here prefer to call it, "qualifying" of the customer, there's one question I might have asked that Julie has not – and now I understand why she hasn't. She never said anything like "How much do you want to spend?" or "What's your budget?" Such a question might seem crude or unprofessional, and it might lead the sales associate to show less-expensive merchandise. The customer might leave without having seen a piece she truly loved – and could have afforded or might have been willing to spend the extra dollars for.

It makes more sense to me now. If customers have a price concern, they'll most likely communicate it at the beginning of this process. If price hasn't been discussed, it seems logical to begin by presenting one of the more expensive pieces in the category. If customers don't balk at the price, you've determined their budget without flat-out asking. If the piece is beyond their budget, they'll probably say something like: "It's beautiful, but I only had in mind to spend half that much" or "I love it, but can you show me something for around $1,000 instead?" In that way, I've determined their price range in a much more subtle manner.

Well, now that Julie's asked all these helpful questions and listened very carefully to the responses, let's see what she does next.To be continued... 

Christine Anzell and Jack Levenson are sales trainers and consultants in the retail fine jewelry industry. For information about their sales training seminars, training manuals or their copyright, jewelry-specific Client-Retention Program and Record Keeping Books, contact Anzell & Levenson, P.O. Box 46801, Las Vegas, NV 89114; (800) 887-8902, fax (714) 770-8811, e-mail

Copyright © 1998 by Bond Communications.


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