Find out what your customers REALLY want

My first job was as a 16 year old Saturday girl at Woolworth’s, where, for some strange reason, I usually managed to get what was regarded as the plum role of serving behind the cosmetics counter (this was in the days before self-service and paying at a check out).

I’d work with full-time sales assistants who, for the most part, chatted to each other, took payment from the customers, put in their time and collected their pay at the end of each week.

I figured that if I was going to spend eight hours (give or take) every Saturday behind that counter, I might as well learn as much as possible about the stock carried and the store’s customers.

Taking in whether they were wearing make up was usually enough of a guideline to assess whether the customer was likely to require help on selection or would prefer to to look around in her own time.

I noticed that many of the women who stopped by didn’t wear any make up and discovered by gentle questioning that they generally wouldn’t spend money on what they considered to be frivolities. They were most often wanting to buy a little something for some upcoming special event. Therefore to spend even four shillings (twenty pence) on a small lipstick and matching nail varnish (if they could find one) was a Big Thing. So we’d spend ages selecting the right colour lipstick first (nothing too bold or “brassy”), testing it out on the inside of the customer’s wrist, and then try and match it up with a discreet pearl effect nail varnish.

Sometimes they’d be particularly daring and succumb to some mascara (always brown rather than the harsher black, unless their colouring and skin tone dictated otherwise), and, on rare occasions, a gentle powder eye shadow.

I’m not making fun of these women; that’s the way it was then. And it taught me my first ever sales lesson, though I didn’t think of it in those terms then:

    They weren’t buying a lipstick or nail varnish, they were buying something to give themselves confidence and, together we worked out what would suit them, achieve that desired result, yet let them stay within their comfort zone.

I know that this is a somewhat simplistic example, but what we sell (unless it’s a commodity) is usually what our customers see as a vehicle to achieve a desired end rather than an end in and of itself. If you don’t spend the time discovering what end they want to achieve, chances are your sales activities will be an uphill struggle.

Happy hunting and let’s have your comments!

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