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Listen for the sale

A 50-something woman approaches a cosmetics counter in a New York City department store and tells the young makeup artist that the powder-based foundation she uses on her face isn’t working for her anymore. As the woman has gotten older, the powder has started to settle in the fine lines around and under the woman’s […]

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A 50-something woman approaches a cosmetics counter in a New York City department store and tells the young makeup artist that the powder-based foundation she uses on her face isn’t working for her anymore. As the woman has gotten older, the powder has started to settle in the fine lines around and under the woman’s eyes.

She asks if the brand the young woman represents has a foundation that doesn’t require powder or perhaps is formulated for aging skin.

The makeup artist picks up a bottle of liquid foundation and applies it to the woman’s face. The woman is pleased: The creamy solution seems to have filled in her fine lines.

Then she touches her face—ever so slightly. The makeup rubs off onto her fingers and the woman shows the makeup artist, who says: “You need to set this foundation with powder.”

“But I asked for a foundation without powder,” the customer says.

“Just don’t touch your face,” the younger woman replies.

Instead, the customer doesn’t touch her credit card; she leaves it in her wallet and carries it far away from that makeup counter, never to return.

That makeup artist works in a department store, so it seems obvious that she’s supposed to try to sell cosmetics. Perhaps because her official title doesn’t include the word “sales,” she thinks her job isn’t to sell.

But it is. And—she doesn’t sell much of anything.

That’s because she doesn’t listen.

The easiest way to sell anything to anybody is to offer the person something that she actually wants or needs. The only way to know what she wants or needs is to listen to her when she tells you.

The 50-something customer couldn’t have been more clear: no powder. The makeup artist smeared the foundation on her face that requires a topcoat of powder.

Does anybody wonder why that sale didn’t happen?

The older woman left the mall that day and drove to a stand-alone beauty products store. As it turns out, the makeup artist there was repping the same cosmetics brand that the department store clerk applied to her face. But this one heard something the other one didn’t: no powder.

She suggested a formula designed for light coverage without powder. The woman bought it, enjoys wearing it and plans to buy more in the future.

Here’s how to listen for the sale:

1. Ask the customer what she wants. So many salespeople start talking the minute a customer shows up. They talk about what they have to sell. They talk about the things they want to sell. But that doesn’t work because even though most people like to buy stuff, nobody really likes to be sold.

Instead of selling, how about listening? If you listen closely, your customer will tell you exactly what she will buy from you. If you know exactly what she will buy, you can find something in your product line that matches.

In that case, you both get what you want.

2. Stop talking. My Grandma used to say we have two ears and one mouth for a good reason: so we can listen twice as much as we talk.

Customers—all people, really—like to be heard. If you listen to your customer talk about what she wants, what she is looking for and what she is willing to buy, you will show her that you care, that you’re paying attention and that she is more important to you than your sales pitch.

And if you offer products—or services or whatever you have to sell—that reveal how well you were listening, that customer will buy those products.

3. Match your offer to what you heard. Don’t put powder on the face of someone who just said she doesn’t want any powder on her face! You might as well say you don’t care what she wants and save her the trouble of having to wash her face before she posts a scathing online review of you and your brand.

Instead, find several products that you believe will meet her needs. Chances are good that she will buy one of them.

4. Listen with your eyes. Observe your customer’s body language and you will learn even more.

A wince, a frown, a look of distress or a roll of the eyes can indicate that the customer is unhappy with what you are saying, doing or offering. If you notice those things, ask the customer about them.

If you’re being attentive, kind and helpful, a polite customer might agree to buy something out of gratitude, even if it isn’t quite right. If you observe facial expressions, tone of voice and body language, you can stop that sale and make sure she’s buying just the right thing instead of something she will have to return later.

5. Change your mindset. Think of selling not as a money-maker or as a way to meet a quota. Instead, think of selling as a service—and specifically, as a customer service. If you’re in a position to sell, you could change someone’s life for the better. You could make someone happy. You could ease her burden, erase a worry or make her feel better.

The young makeup artist could have done all of that for the woman who wanted a powder-free foundation, simply by showing her the brand’s powder-free foundation, which was right there all along. She could have made the woman feel pretty and look younger. She could have ended the customer’s search for a new foundation.

She could have, but she chose not to listen to what the woman wanted and needed.

She could have made the sale, but she didn’t. Why not?

DR. CINDY MCGOVERN is known as the “First Lady of Sales.” She speaks and consults internationally on sales, interpersonal communication and leadership, and is the author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller Every Job Is a Sales Job: How to Use the Art of Selling to Win at Work. Dr. Cindy is the CEO of Orange Leaf Consulting, a sales management and consulting firm in San Francisco.

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