Best Practices

The Worst Question You Can Ask Your Customer

The Wrong Question

“When were you hoping to purchase one?”

On the phone or in person, I hear salespeople ask this question all the time.

I am going to share a story in which I was able to learn a valuable lesson early on in my career…

Back in the mid 80’s I was working for a Mazda Volvo dealer as a salesperson. It was a Saturday in early April and the weather outside was that of a summer day. It was the first real nice day after a rough winter. Days like these brought people out of their homes in large numbers. By noon I had closed my first deal of the day. My manager told me: “get back out there and get me another one Thibeau.” That wasn’t very hard to do since the lot was crawling with ups. Considering myself an expert on sizing up the right prospect, I approached a young couple looking at the Volvo’s. After introducing myself, they asked me if they could drive a couple of the different models. I asked them that famous question we salespeople like to ask: “when were you hoping to purchase one?” They replied with, “probably next year.” I instantly went from having a great day, to wondering, “why me?” I made small talk while I thought about having to spend valuable time test driving these folks who had no intentions of purchasing today. Meanwhile my peers were feasting on real customers who were here to buy. Not wanting to be left out of the feeding frenzy that was taking place, I finally said to my customers, “folks, I only get paid if I sell a car and since you’re not here to buy one today, I really need to find somebody who is. If you would like to come back on Monday or Tuesday I’ll be glad to let you take a few cars for a test drive then.” I was quite surprised when the couple told me that they understood. They informed me that they would just look around and come back another day when it wasn’t so busy. So I gave them a card and off I went in search of my next sale. I found another customer and ended up spending the next few hours selling a gentleman a Mazda. During that process I noticed that one of the other salespeople had latched on to the couple I had dusted earlier. I watched as he actually took them on several test drives. What really amused me was the fact that this was a salesperson with whom I often competed with for sale rep of the month honors. While digging through keys at the key board, I actually laughed at him and told him he was wasting his time since these folks were not buying until next year. Well an hour later I see him working numbers with the manager. Shortly after that I see them in the business office talking with the finance manager. I later found out that the young couple I dusted had actually purchased two brand new Volvo’s. Well needless to say my peer was the one laughing and I was left humiliated. Not to mention I ended up losing sale rep of the month honors to him by one unit.

I digested that experience and vowed that I would never make that mistake again. What I had done is let those customers sell me. They changed my way of thinking instead of me changing theirs. When asking “how soon were you planning to purchase one?” you’re allowing the opportunity to ruin your attitude. This will lead you to skipping steps and thus you won’t take your customers seriously. Assume every customer you come in contact with is ready to buy today. When they tell you “no” several or more times, then and only then have you earned the right to ask: “when do you think you’ll be ready to purchase one?”

You’ll also notice I mentioned in my story that I thought I was an expert when it came to sizing up prospects. Well trust me when I tell you, there’s no such thing as an expert when it comes to sizing up prospects. You keep doing that and you’ll get burned sooner or later. They’re all prospects and they should all be given the million dollar presentation.

One would think this story was geared for a salesperson, but there’s also a message here for sales managers. This is probably happening in your dealership today. Often it’s the person you think is your best salesperson. Your best salesperson may be achieving his/her success while blowing through your customers. That’s why it’s so important that we make sure every customer is being logged (including phone-ups) and track true closing percentages. I’ve seen cases where a top salesperson will sell 20 vehicles off 200 prospects and the dealership will put him/her on a pedestal. Where had the dealership taken those 200 prospects and dispersed them to the rest of the salespeople who were achieving a 20 percent closing ratio, the dealership would have actually closed 40 sales instead of the 20. If a salesperson is getting 200 prospects in a month, it’s because the other salespeople are letting him/her get away with it. Normally this is due to laziness and a non competitive environment. As a manager it’s your job to make sure this doesn’t happen in your store. So how are you going to ensure that this doesn’t happen in your store? I could make some suggestions, but I would rather the community share their suggestions in the “comments” section.

Very good insight, Jerry! I am also a walking testament to the futility of that question.

I went shopping for a car last weekend, but the salesman asked me the same question--before I even got into a car. I'm under no pressure to buy a new car (as most people aren't), but I was obviously and enthusiastically enjoying myself in one of his models. In other words, it would have taken very little to get me to sign.

Still, after he asked that question, immediately, the thought of him hounding me every week went through my mind--yet I still didn't know if I liked any of his cars without a test drive--so I replied, "In 3-6 months or so..."

If he had asked me that after my test drive, my response probably would have been, "I don't know... why don't you make me want to buy it today!"

As it was, it was very easy for me to just leave the dealership.

I haven't heard back from him (in my mind, that first call isn't hounding, it's following up), and now I'm visiting another two dealers next weekend.
Great reply Gretchen! I bet that salesperson didn't even log your information. He's probably written you off. You should find out who the manager is and send them a link to this article.

Thanks for the comment!
Thanks for a great post Jerry. So many things can be said to break the deal. Many sales professionals don't even realize it (I use the term "professional" lightly).

They say "words" account for only 7% of the overall message and body language accounts for 55% of the overall message.

I've always challenged that statistic. I think what you say has much more of an impact that 7%. AND in today's position of communication (email, text, IM), the words mean 100%! :)
My goal is disarming customers I meet on the lot immediately by asking them a question they can't say no too (usually) like: "Hi, you folks just kicking tires and shopping around today?".