Asking Leading Questions

Asking the right questions helps create more satisfied customers, and keeps cash registers singing.

Asking Leading Questions

“Something I can do for you?”

“You been helped yet?”

These are some of the less graceful questions I’ve witnessed store employees greet customers with. Such approaches do nothing to put customers at ease or to make them feel appreciated and/or special. The more common “Is there something I can help you find today?” is just a touch better, but only a touch.

Excellent customer service and creative salesmanship is a delicate give and take, tainted by basic human nature and the average customer’s resistance to being “harassed” or “hustled.” You certainly don’t intend to harass or hustle anyone, of course, but this is the subconscious perception many consumers have when entering a retail atmosphere and contemplating the mentally painful event of parting with hard-earned cash. This is especially true for recreational items (sporting goods) purchased with “disposable” income. “Play money” likely spawns more apprehension, as it is viewed as my money, not that regulated to regular overhead and representing other people’s money.

Asking the right questions during a sales pitch is a more involved human interaction and requires more patience and forethought than waylaying a customer with a robotic “How may I help you?” Every sale starts the moment a customer walks through your doors or is encountered on the sales floor. All customers should be greeted with a genuine smile and a non-business greeting: “Hi there, how has your day been going?” or “Good morning/afternoon/evening, having a great day I hope.” These are good ice breakers. Being sincere while greeting customers goes a long way toward gaining trust and setting customers at ease. People like to feel special or at least appreciated.

A little small talk makes a good follow-up. “How about this weather? Sure would like to be out fishing/hunting/hiking!” Or, “Man, the traffic out there is a killer today. Took me an extra half hour to get into work this morning.” Get creative — make customers believe you are interested in knowing them and interacting. This encourages dialog and helps you get to know your customer better — and them to know you. This makes you relatable. Yes, I know, when I was subjected to salesmanship training while working for a five-store sporting-goods chain, I immediately thought, “Yeah right, like I have time to chat up every customer I encounter…”

But giving the matter more thought, I realized these interactions take only seconds, yet that extra effort goes a long way toward helping customers relax, trust you and open themselves to further conversation. It allows you to stealthily transition into salesman mode. The mention of weather and wanting to be out participating in an outdoors activity, for instance, might cause the customer to volunteer that that is exactly why they’ve come in — looking for gear for such activities. The chitchat hopefully turns into dialog about weekend plans, a wish-list item or why they have come into the store to begin with. If this does not occur, calming your customer’s initial suspicions allows you to eventually ask, “So, what brings you in today?”

Look to the brush-off as an opportunity for more conversation.”

You’ll know you’ve rushed the situation if your customer offers the standard “Oh, I’m just looking around.” While this can certainly be the case, other customers simply don’t like to be rushed or feel pressured (real or imagined). Many salespeople give up here, saying something like, “Well, let me know if you have any questions, or if I can help you find something.”

Look to the brush-off as an opportunity for more conversation. You might ask if this is their first visit to the store. If it is an initial exploratory visit, it might present the opportunity to relate the virtues of your shop or store, highlighting customer loyalty programs and pointing out free services such as riflescope mounting and bore sighting, preseason bow checkups or occasional skills seminars. This is a great time to bring up your new-product days or free archery range time, just as quick examples.

As I have hinted, this is a delicate operation. Don’t force yourself on customers or follow them around like overly eager kids deprived of social interaction. Chat them up like an old friend has walked in. Work to put them at ease.

Most convenient are customers who come straight to the point, telling you exactly what they are in the market for. These customers have usually decided to make a purchase. More patient conversation will normally draw out even shy or antisocial shoppers who might only be in the consideration stage and not mentally prepared to make an actual purchase. “I’ve been thinking about upgrading the scope on my deer rifle,” a customer might offer. “My binoculars are getting kinda outdated and beat up,” they may say. Or, “My buddy had a ________ on our last hunt. It was pretty cool, so I wanted to look into them.”

Motivated consumers — those who have made the decision to buy a particular item, or who need a replacement right away — are easier, though the questions should not stop there. You still need to determine which product will best serve their particular needs. Tire kickers can often be delicately coaxed into impulse buys with a savvy sales approach. Still others want the item under discussion, but they are searching for the best deal, and they’re willing to drive all over town burning $20 worth of fuel to save $10. Some enjoy the process more than the actual purchase. A friendly, thorough sales approach can convince these customers to forgo all the running around — or at least bring them back to you at a later date.

Let’s take that first example, of the customer looking for a riflescope upgrade, and run with it. Two common mistakes surface here: the eager salesman that plunks an array of scopes on the counter with a take-your-pick attitude, or the guy (my No. 1 pet peeve) who offers a single model, saying, “This is what I have on my deer rifle.” The first approach wastes the time of all involved. As for the second approach, I couldn’t give two hoots about what you use. I’m not you. The quality sales approach involves asking leading questions, and this especially includes customers buying a product for a birthday, Christmas, anniversary or other special occasion, since the end user isn’t on hand to answer questions directly.

“First off, what kind of rifle do you own?” you ask. AR, bolt, lever gun — with scopes, this often dictates a particular style or magnification range. The customer says he owns a bolt-action rifle in Remington’s Model 700.

“Excellent rifles; very accurate and rugged. What caliber is it chambered in?” A scope for a shoulder-busting .338 Winchester Magnum, just as an example, might require more robust construction than a .243 Winchester at the opposite end of the recoil spectrum. The customer allows that it is chambered in a middle-of-the-road .30-06 Springfield.

“A guy doesn’t really need anything else, does he? I always recommend going with an ought-six — then you’re covered no matter what you’re hunting. So, what type of big game do you pursue most?” The customer might reveal they hunt little more than deer, or that they hunt mostly deer, but also pronghorn, black bear or elk when the occasion arises. The type of game hunted often helps further narrow prospects.

“What kind of terrain or vegetation do you find yourself hunting in most — thick hardwoods or black timber, broken topography, open plains?” Maybe this customer gives it a little thought and says he hunts in a little bit of everything season to season. So that makes a variable-power scope an obvious choice.

“How do you usually hunt: from a stand, still-hunting, spot-and-stalk?” The customer who relates they stand hunt exclusively, or does a lot of still-hunting in thick vegetation, likely doesn’t need a lot of top-end magnification, but low-light transmission might be paramount to success. The spot-and-stalk hunter might crave additional magnification.

You’ll know you’ve rushed the situation if your customer offers the standard ‘Oh, I’m just looking around.’​”

You can see where all of this is going. Other obvious questions might involve how far the customer feels comfortable shooting (long-range shooting is made more precise with a turret scope); how often they hunt; if they are a fair-weather hunter or generally harder on gear (indicating how tough a product should be, or what kind of warranty is required); or if they hold particular brand loyalties. The one question best avoided (unless the customer volunteers a definitive number) is price, as it is best not to box yourself into a specific price point. When some customers relate a budget, they’re serious, while others are only relating what they would like to spend, which may or may not prove realistic.

The point is to solidify your understanding of needs and expectations, while also allowing the customer to clarify the matter for themselves. Only after all involved have gained a firm grasp on what the customer expects and what best will serve their needs should you reach for merchandise. Again, this all comes across as tedious and time-consuming on paper, but in reality, it proceeds pretty briskly.

My usual approach was to present three price points in an appropriate model: a top-end, mid-priced and budget models, careful to avoid labeling one “better” than another based on price alone. “Better” implies another is inferior, subconsciously taking that item off the table. Instead, point out the top selling points of the lower-priced product, working up in price and highlighting what features and benefits are added for the extra money (intimate knowledge of your product lines is pivotal). Presented with information in this manner, discriminating customers might drop a little more coin for a top-drawer item for a perceived edge in the field.

After the sale is wrapped up, take the time to assure your customer that they have made a wise decision and that they are sure to enjoy their new purchase. Great salesmanship is certainly about talking, but asking the right questions is pivotal to the conversation. This assures customers that you care about their input and unique needs and makes for superior customer service and loyal patrons who spread valuable word-of-mouth advertising.


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