Why “pre-qualifying” is a bad idea

Painting contractors often want to “pre-qualify” customers over the phone. The contractor believes that by asking a few questions he can determine if the customer is price shopper or a legitimate customer.

But such an approach is inherently flawed because communication occurs in many different ways. And effective communication is a two-way street. When we start trying to pre-qualify or “weed people out” we are really engaging in one-way communication. We have an agenda, and if the customer doesn’t provide the “right” answer, they get “buzzed” and kicked out of the show.

I think that’s a disservice to the customer– how do they know what the “right” answer is? And I think the contractor is cutting off his nose to spite his face (I hate that expression but it seems appropriate)– a particular person doesn’t fit his image or say the right words, and he’s done with that person.

Several years ago I went into a Men’s Wearhouse to buy a sports jacket. I wound up buying 3 jackets, some shirts, a few ties, a pair of shoes, and I don’t remember what else. I spent way more than I intended, and I was absolutely thrilled to do so.

The salesman didn’t try to pre-qualify me. He asked me questions to determine my needs. Then he made suggestions.

I go shopping for clothes about once every 20 years or so. I like wearing nice clothes, but I hate the shopping part of it. He identified that, and explained that if I only bought one jacket I’d wear it for the next 20 years, even when it was inappropriate for an occasion or didn’t match my slacks. He made a very good point, because I’ve done that many times in the past 20 years.

And I’ve worn each of the jackets I bought many times since. The salesman spent the time to understand me, and he wound up with a much bigger sale. I wound up as a much happier customer, and I’ve actually been back several times since.

Moral of the story: don’t treat your customers (or potential customers) like a number. Identify their true needs and desires, and everyone might wind up better off. But you can only do that if you spend the time to learn their needs.

Bidding low to get the job

I occasionally hear a painting contractor ask if it makes sense to offer low “introductory” prices to help build a new painting business, or “get their foot in the door”. I vehemently discourage using a low bid for such purposes for several reasons.

First, statistically 90% of the painting contractors starting business this year will fail within 5 years. One of the biggest reasons is not charging enough. A low bid will not make you money.

Second, charging low prices will develop you a reputation as the “cheap painter”, which is hardly an effective means for charging a reasonable rate. A low bid gives you an low price reputation.

Third, once you have “introduced” yourself at low prices, you will have a hard time raising your prices for past customers.

The bottom line is that low bids aren’t good for the bottom line. In the short-term you won’t make money, and in the long-term you will have a difficult time getting the prices you need to make money.

Long term success is achieved by offering superior value to the consumer. If you try to compete on price– even for a short period– you are inching toward the unemployment line. Instead of offering low prices, offer greater value.

Market your company as superior in customer service, dependability, convenience, or something else. Differentiate your company by offering better value, not lower prices. And then learn to communicate the value you offer and sell at a higher price.

If you look like your competitors, you will likely wind up in the same place they will.

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.

From E-Myth.com:

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.

Honesty in selling paint jobs

I suspect few men will escape life without some woman asking him if certain clothing makes her butt look big. And I suspect few women will go through life without asking some man that question.

From my observations, most men find such a question to be uncomfortable (unless of course, the woman asking has a very small butt). The man will hem and haw, desperately seeking a diplomatic answer. Or worse, he will unthinkingly blurt out reassurances to the effect that the size of a woman’s posterior is of no importance.

I find both the question and such responses rather amusing. They involve an attempt to distort the facts, and that is never a good thing. If a pair of jeans makes her butt look big, the jeans make her butt look big. And nothing you say will change that fact.

Now, few men want to say, “Honey, when you wear those jeans, you look like a rhino. I suggest you wear a tent to dinner tonight.” That is a sure way to get to sleep on the couch tonight.

This doesn’t mean that we should lie. First, if someone asks me a question, I expect them to sincerely desire an honest answer. If they don’t, that is their issue, not mine. Second, being truthful does not mean that we must be rude.

You may wonder what this has to do with paint contracting. And I’m going to tell you.

Honesty should permeate our every action, no matter the context, no matter the parties involved. This includes our employees, subs, vendors, and customers. This includes all issues, large and small.

Many try to justify so-called “white lies” as a tactic to sell a paint job. But adding an adjective of any color to the word lie does not change the fact that it is a lie. And if you need to lie in order to sell a job, then I would suggest you have much more serious issues to worry about.

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