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Words matter, so choose them wisely

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Words matter, so choose them wisely

In the late 1980s, I was asked by my employer, Parnelli Jones, to transition from a wholesale sales person to the retail side of the business. Within two weeks, I was directed to a mandatory training meeting at the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. regional office; the topic, the Five Steps to a Tire Sale.

Several months later I was enrolled in a BF-Goodrich training class where I learned how to talk to customers about tires. The training meetings were full of valuable training material about tires and how to sell them.

I learned a lot, and I began to figure a few things out: How you sell what you sell matters, and how you approach customers is critical.

I also learned that follow-through is important because it’s different in the real world at the retail sales counter than in the classroom.

Good training must be put into practice; it must be practiced and practiced and practiced. Good training takes time to take hold, skills are developed over time, and experimentation builds precision skills. Sloppy execution and negative interactions with customers will instantly lead to negative results.

In this article, I’d like to look at five negative openings or responses, and five positive options.

Here are five things customers don’t like:

They don’t like to be told what you don’t know.

They don’t want to know what you can’t do.

They don’t like to be told what they have to do.

They don’t like to wait.

They don’t like to be told “no.”

All five are potential sales killers. So let’s consider your positive options.

#1. “I don’t know,” vs. “I’ll find out.”

No one knows the answer to every question, but how you reply matters. Customers don’t come to you or pay you to tell them what you don’t know.

“I don’t know” sounds better when you say, “Wow, that’s a good question. May I check for you?” or, “I’ll bet I can find out for you,” or even, “I’d like to do some research before I answer.”

Don’t forget, some customers already feel stupid when asking questions. If you, the expert, don’t know, they may often reply with, “I don’t know much about cars” because they feel awkward. Don’t make customers feel awkward by saying, “I don’t know.”

#2. “I can’t do that,” vs. “Let me see what I can do.”

When you reply to a customer request with, “We can’t do that,” it may be true, but it comes across as harsh. It’s almost like a verbal slap in the face, bam!

There are many customer requests either on the phone or in person that you cannot accommodate, but people don’t call or visit to find out what you can’t do. A soft-sounding reply such as, “Would you like me to research or recommend an alternative?” demonstrates genuine concern.

#3. “You’ll have to,” vs. “Here’s how I can help.”

It’s interesting to me the number of people who don’t have a clue about tires and auto service, yet when you reply to their inquiry, they are very sensitive to being told what to do.

Telling people what to do is tough, at best. People, in general, are overly sensitive. I recommend a reply such as, “Perhaps you might consider,” or, “Here’s an idea that may help.” As an added bonus, I recommend both a positive voice inflection and body language; every little bit helps.

 #4. “Hang on,” vs. “May I place you on hold?”

I love to listen to people on the phone tell me they’ll be with me “in a second,” or ask,”Can you hold for a minute?” Of course, a minute goes by slowly for the caller and quickly for the receiver.

Really, it’s better to be as honest as possible without losing the caller. “We’re very busy at the moment. May I place you on hold?”

Trust me, manners matter. If you are short or curt with the customer, or improperly phrase your comments, you’ll experience negative results.

#5. “No,” vs. “Yes.”

When anyone starts a sentence or reply with the word “no,” it’s a tough one to get around. “No” conveys rejection. “No” is like a huge wall to scale; you can’t get around it, nor can you get over it.  Don’t start a reply with “No.” It’s been my experience that no matter how softly you say “No,” it’s a LOUD word.

To best develop your skills, allow your peers to rate your performance and offer constructive criticism.

Words matter, so choose them wisely.    ■

Wayne Williams is president of ExSell Marketing Inc., a “counter intelligence” firm based in La Habra, Calif. He can be reached at

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