The customer wants a hole

How well you identify what your customers want will ultimately determine your success as a salesman. You may think that sales is a dirty word, but the fact is, without sales your business won’t survive, much less thrive.


You may have heard the saying that a customer who buys a drill from you isn’t actually buying a drill, they’re buying a hole. They don’t need a drill, they need what a drill provides, which, of course, is a hole. This is equally true for your business regardless of what you believe you are selling. And when it comes to effective and successful lead conversion recognizing this distinction can make all the difference in the world.

In the context of a painting contractor, customers can be buying a lot of different things. They might be buying an exciting new décor, or protection for their home, or maintenance services. In other words, customers buy paint jobs for different reasons.

As a salesman—and we are all salesmen—we must identify what it is that the customer is buying. If we make assumptions and try to fit all customers into the same box, we can find ourselves attempting to sell the wrong thing. You might be trying to sell a plug, when the customer really wants a hole.

The primary cause for this mistake is poor communications. This can occur in either direction. Many times the customer is uncertain as to what she wants or what her options are, but more often the fault lies with the contractor. Too often the contractor spends more time talking than listening, more time telling the customer what he can do than trying to identify what the customer wants or needs.

No two customers (or jobs) are exactly the same. A myriad of factors are at play, and our job as a salesman is to sift through the information to find what really matters. Not only does this help us provide the customer with the job he really desires, it also differentiates us from competitors.

I have said many times that sales is primarily an educational process, and that education is a two-way street. First we must educate ourselves regarding the customer. Then we must educate the customer regarding our solution to their problem.

Learning about the customer is sometimes an easy task. The customer is outgoing and volunteers information. Other times it can be like pulling teeth from a German Shepherd—a nasty altercation that can leave us with cuts and bruises. But if we have a process in place, we can often turn that snarling beast into a lovable little puppy.

Most people like to talk about themselves. Our process should encourage this. Ask questions, and listen to the answers. Engage the customer and let him talk. Then, and only then, can we find out if they want a plug or a hole.

“Training” our customers

Most contractors understand the importance of training employees—if you want them to perform the work to certain standards, you must teach them how to do so. If you want them to perform the work a certain way—take certain actions—you must provide the appropriate training. If you want a house prepped a certain way, explain this. We cannot simply assume that they know. The same holds true of our customers—they must be “trained”.

Customers do not buy painting jobs everyday. Indeed, many of my customers have never hired a professional contractor before. In our role as salesman, we must educate the customer. We must “train” them regarding the proper steps involved in preparing and painting a surface.

The same holds true even of “experienced” customers. Even if they have hired a professional contractor in the past, this is no guarantee that they will understand the issues involved or “perform” as we expect and require.

Consider for example, a typical exterior paint job. I expect my customers to prune plants that will interfere with our access to surfaces that we will paint. I expect my customers to remove small items from the work area, such as children’s toys on the patio. I expect my customer to provide access to doors and windows—that is, unlock them so that we do not paint them shut. While these expectations might seem very clear to the contractor, if we do not explain these expectations to the customer, we may find that the job does not go so smoothly.

“Training” your customers goes even further. We have all probably had customers who try to manage the job. They may tell us the order to perform the work, or tell us the procedures to follow, or hold payment until we jump through their hoops. These frustrating situations can largely be avoided with the proper “training”.

For example, if we allow the customer to violate the terms of the contract with impunity—not moving personal items or pruning plants—we have “trained” the customer to believe that they can do as they please. We have “trained” the customer to ignore our agreement. However, if the customer’s actions (or inactions) have consequences, we “train” him that we are serious about our expectations.

I do not mean to imply that we should be rude with our customers or present a “my way or the highway” attitude. But we must be firm. We must make it clear that certain things are non-negotiable. If we want them to act in a manner that allows us to efficiently provide our services, we must “train” our customers.

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