Cultivate Trust to Build Wood Flooring Sales

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Hf 0402 63

It used to be that your word and a solid handshake were enough to seal a deal. That is no longer the case. Now, everything must be in writing, because it's hard to know who to trust anymore. The events of Sept. 11 certainly did nothing to alter this trend. While no business person wants to admit it, most of us were just plain scared in the weeks following the attack. Many had good reason to be frightened, particularly the airline and hospitality industries, along with the ancillary services supporting these vast enterprises.

The Sept. 11 attack on America not only stirred our emotions, but the aftermath also sent American business a loud wake-up call. Companies discovered their vulnerability, not from without, but from within.

What happened to business in the weeks since Sept. 11 is revealing — and instructive. T.B. Boane, an experienced salesman from Texas, reported that small and mid-sized businesses were "hunkering down." He's not alone, of course. For awhile, it seemed that companies were actually catatonic, unable to make a move or a decision. No one wanted to do anything, because no one knew what might happen next.

But the fear is not confined to Wall Street and a smattering of industries. With a slowdown in sales, uncertainty has penetrated every segment of the economy. It seems as if corporate and consumer priorities changed overnight. Uncertainty was rampant as the business climate remained dismal. And even though the mayor of New York City and the president of the United States constantly urged everyone to "get on with it," the message did not resonate with most people as further "alerts" were sounded.

The attack laid bare the utter dependence of American business on a growth economy for its success. Over the last half decade, what we thought was our business prowess was actually just plain old good luck at being in the right place at the right time.

Simply put, business is now being put to the test, and coming up with a passing score is a challenge. Yet, if we look closely,the attack offers lessons for succeeding in 2002.

1. Looking for the next sale is the sign of serious trouble. The days following the attack served to underscore that most companies are dependent on the next sale for their survival. This is a symptom of the widespread disease known as the "sales-driven business." It is characterized by marshalling the sales force to "get out there and get the orders," a successful system as long as there is an ever-upward demand.

The vulnerability of businesses when it comes to sales is frighteningly clear. "Where are our sales going to come from." was the question that haunted most companies. While just-in-time deliveries make sense in manufacturing, expecting the next sale to come through the door at just the right moment doesn't. Unfortunately, too many companies insist on trying to short circuit the selling process. All they want is the order. When there is a severe disconnect such as the attack or an economic downturn, sales hit the wall. Even worse, for many companies, it appears that they do not bounce back quickly.

The fallout that followed the attack is instructive:"Before you can own the customer's wallet, you must own the customer's head." Or, as Christopher M. Knight, CEO and founder of List-universe.com, states, "You must have mindshare before you can have marketshare." If this is true, then why do so many companies insist on trying to do it backwards. Why do they think that salesmanship — even expert salesmanship — is the solution. Why do they want to make a sale before they actually have a customer.

2. Focus on what you're selling, not what you sell. Believe it or not, what you're selling is not the same as what you sell. Honda Motors is a good example of a company that understands this seemingly contradictory concept. Honda has long recognized that customer trust is the key to selling cars. Honda vehicles are very good, but they are not great. They are, however, what millions of consumers want: a vehicle that's incredibly trustworthy.

Other companies try to do it backwards. They push to build sales before they build customer trust and confidence. They fail to recognize that it is trust that keeps customers buying — no matter the economic environment. Whether it's the entrance of a new competitor or a worsening economic environment, it is trust that pays off, because consumers do not want to take a chance on making the wrong purchase.

Even though the economy falters and new competitors such as Kia, Hyundai and Daewoo have assaulted its market segment, Honda sales continue virtually unaffected. General Motors, Chrysler and Ford are not as fortunate.

The lesson is this: If you don't deliver on trust, the customer won't deliver the order.

3. Don't try to pull the wool over the customer's eyes. Customers are more sophisticated today than they were in the past, primarily due to the availability of information through the Internet. Few companies and even fewer politicians seem to understand the fundamental change that's taken place in the customer's psyche over the last few years. Without question, the events of Sept. 11 were an exercise in consciousness-raising when it comes to truth. We now require it.

The Firestone-Ford tire debacle in 2000 may have contributed to this change. We realized that our lives and those of our families were on the line and we wanted facts, not corporate PR puffery, a lesson Ford learned far faster than Bridgestone Firestone. The attack only escalated this demand for truth.

An address by Acting Governor Jane Swift of Massachusetts in the days following the attack revealed one politician's inability to read the audience. Not realizing the microphone was still on after finishing an unprecedented prime time speech to the citizens of her state, she was heard to ask her speech coach how she "did" and to comment, "They [the constituents] know I'm in a firing mood." A few inappropriate words laid open what was the true purpose of her 10-minute performance: gain a political advantage.

What's the issue. Those who try to mislead customers will be rewarded with a loss of their business. Reality has interposed itself into our lives in ways we never thought possible. Duplicity is out; customers demand the truth.

4. Customers are emboldened. A business executive visited a luggage store shortly after Sept. 11. "With all the changes in baggage requirements, I wanted to buy a new carry-on," he says. "In the past, I would never have asked a retailer for a discount, and I'm not sure why I did it this time. Not only did I get a generous price break, but the sales person included a $35 shaving kit at no charge."

Every business person has noted that customers have become far more aggressive in the last five years, again coinciding perhaps with the arrival of the Internet. The attack, however, seems to have brought out the more serious side in all of us. We've all noted the signs — less small talk, a more no-nonsense attitude, and an even higher value placed on time, if that's possible. We tend to be more direct than we were in the past.

This suggests that we need to be more probing in dealing with customers, letting them talk more than we have in the past. Further, the sales process is enhanced by avoiding the usual "corporate marketing materials" that are likely designed to confuse the facts, avoid competitor qualities, and steer the customer in one direction. What is required today is objective, helpful, and comprehensive information that assists the customer in becoming more productive and successful.

The message is clear: It takes collaborative businesspeople to serve aggressive customers.

5. Take charge of the future. At the moment, with the future the fuzziest it's been in a long time, this may seem like a strange suggestion. But look at what is happening in business. Managing current issues is management's No. 1 priority in most cases, while thinking about the future is not even on the screen. Meeting current quotas, stock analysts' (and shareholders') expectations, and trying to outdo the competition are the pressing concerns.

Whether some business owners recognize it or not, it's the future that fuels the present. To ignore what lies ahead spells trouble for the present. The fact that sales came to a halt on Sept. 11 in so many industries and have been slow to bounce back is particularly challenging. But that's not all. The fact that consumers and business buyers have been so slow to start spending is frustrating and confusing.

Even though they don't dare verbalize their worst fears, many people are wondering if the absence of a rebound may signal that some basic shift is taking place. It's quite possible that people are feeling far more vulnerable and, for the first time, exposed to forces beyond their control.

To avoid the disruptions caused by economic contractions and other changes, the task is to create a constant, long-term flow of new customers. As such, the prospect identification and cultivation process is unending.

The message is clear: Having sales growth today results from making the investment and effort to plant the seeds long in advance of the harvest.

The future can never be known for certain, of course, and unforeseen events — such as the attack — will surely arise, but creating a framework for the future is very much in our hands.

How to Plant the Seeds of Trust

  1. Stay in front of customers with a newsletter, sent quarterly or twice a year. Let customers know why you are unique and demonstrate that what you offer is more than just a commodity.
  2. Be credible. The order may not come for days, weeks or even months, but the sale is made when the customer believes in you. Whether it’s on the phone or on a sales call, it’s your credibility that seals the deal.
  3. Understand that it’s what the customer wants to buy, not what you want to sell. When the customer believes you have a sincere interest in seeing her needs met, she will trust you and buy from you.
  4. Be known for your expertise, not just your product. These days so many sales associates can’t answer even the simplest of questions, so when you’re able to respond quickly with informative answers, customers will trust you and your skills.
  5. Always follow up. Failing to do this loses business. When Mrs. Smith holds a dinner party and gets compliments on her floor, you want her to praise not only the work you’ve done, but also customer service she has received since.
  6. If there is ever a problem with your work, listen to the customer. Too many contractors jump to solutions before they clearly understand the problem. Good communication can help you develop a solution that pleases all parties involved.
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