Years ago, I read about the sales strategies employed by a remarkably successful car salesperson.
One of them was to never pre-judge customers.
His fellow salespeople would ignore the scruffy looking guy or the tire-kicking teenager as being poor prospects. He never did that, and said he frequently closed deals when the poorly-dressed guy turned out to be wealthy, or the teenager returned with his dad (and dad’s checkbook) a few hours later.
This seems like sound advice. And, like much advice based on anecdotal evidence, it may be mostly wrong.
(Note: The salesperson in this story might have been Joe Girard, but I wasn’t able to track down the reference. If you’ve encountered this advice, feel free to confirm or correct me in a comment!)
Were the other salespeople wrong to make snap judgments? Perhaps not.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Marketing, the validity of a salesperson’s intuition was demonstrated.
The four month study, conducted in multiple locations of a mattress store chain, both observed salespeople interacting with customers and then followed up with interviews of both parties.
Intuitive vs. Deliberative
The researchers distinguished between two ways that salespeople evaluated the needs of customers. The first was intuitive – the salesperson’s first impression of what the customer needed and how to approach the sales process. The second was deliberative, which was a more reasoned re-appraisal of the situation that emphasized thinking about the interaction and often revising the first impression.
Here’s what the scientists found:
The results reveal that accurate intuitive judgments improve selling performance by enabling more appropriate initial sales strategies. These judgments not only help increase the effectiveness of salespeople’s selling efforts but also reduce the amount of selling time, resulting in improved selling efficiency. However, performance is compromised when inaccurate deliberative judgments follow accurate intuitive judgments.
Customer interactions with salespeople were observed in multiple mattress stores.
The results showed that intuitive sales strategies were effective and efficient. On the other hand, overthinking them tended to result in fewer sales.
There are a few cautions before you turn off your brain and guess your way through the sales process.
First, the accuracy of the intuitive judgments was dependent on experience. A seasoned salesperson familiar with the product and typical customers will have better intuition than a newcomer to the field.
So, it’s possible that the master car salesman I described at the beginning of the article wasn’t wrong – he just had better intuition than the rest of the staff. Perhaps other salespeople had thoughts like, “Kids don’t have enough money to buy a car, and can’t get loans. I won’t waste my time”
Looking at the same teenager, our salesman’s intuition might have suggested that, “This kid looks like he comes from a well-off family, and his shopping style looks serious. I’ll go talk to him.”
The study also found that the most successful salespeople trusted their intuition but further improved results by adding some deliberative thinking.
How to improve your sales intuition
One key finding was that the salesperson’s empathy was a major factor in the accuracy of their intuition. The authors of the study recommend an “empathetic focus” on the customer, observing posture, tone of voice, and other clues to the customer’s emotional state.
While we often think of empathy as being a personal characteristic, or something we either are or aren’t good at, it can be learned.
For example, in Six Habits of Highly Empathic People writer Roman Krznaric suggests practices like developing active listening skills and working on your imagination.
Want to take an empathy test? If you’d like a rough idea of how empathetic you are, try this quiz at Greater Good.
Intuition Cuts Both Ways
Intuition helps salespeople gauge customer needs, but it works the other way, too.
Closing a sale depends on the customer’s perception of the salesperson’s personality, motivation, trustworthiness, and other factors. An interesting at Tufts university showed that salespeople could be evaluated in “thin slices,” i.e., very short samples of observation.
This adds to the wealth of studies showing how important first impressions are, and also suggests that “sales manager intuition” shouldn’t be discounted.
Intuition is Real
Quote attributed to Albert Einstein by author R. Samples. (Image via izquotes.com)
Some claims for intuition belong in the world of parapsychology. For example, there’s no scientific evidence that a person can intuitively predict future events, like that the plane they are boarding will have a mechanical problem.
But, when it comes to evaluating other people, assessing their needs, and even predicting their behaviour, the case for intuition is a lot stronger.
In this case, intuition isn’t a psychic phenomenon, but rather our brain analyzing subtle inputs to arrive at a conclusion or a feeling. As the first study showed, this intuitive processing is mostly non-conscious – over-analyzing the situation consciously resulted in less accurate predictions.
In short, when it comes to an in-person sales process, pay attention to your intuition and don’t overthink it.