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.

How should I…?

I frequently see contractors ask how to deal with a particular situation regarding a job. Typically, the question involves a product choice, preparation methods, or something similar. These are legitimate questions, and seeking the input of other professional painters is a good approach. However, these questions are often asked just prior to starting the job. In other words, the contractor has bid the job and is now attempting to address specific issues regarding the job.

This is the wrong time to be addressing these issues. How could he possibly bid the job accurately if he is uncertain what product to use or what prep to perform? In short, he can’t.

An estimate is the total of labor and material costs to perform the job. If the contractor does not know either, his price is not going to be accurate. This type of estimating is extremely risky, and those risks extend far beyond the potential financial issues.

For example, what if the customer prefers a particular product? What if the customer expects certain preparation? In other words, what if the customer’s expectations are different from those of the contractor? When such issues are not addressed prior to the start of the job—and in writing—there is a good chance that the customer’s expectations will not be met.

Unrealized expectations are one of the primary causes of disputes between customers and contractors. The contractor must identify the customer’s expectations prior to submitting an estimate. Doing so allows him to: 1. Establish reasonable expectations if the customer is being unreasonable; 2. Estimate the job accordingly.

Customers do not purchase professional painting services every day. Their expectations may be based on something they have read, the advice of a friend, and simply fantasizing. Those expectations may be reasonable, or they may be completely insane. But we don’t know until we discuss this with the customer. If the customer’s expectations are unreasonable, we can educate the customer as to why. If our attempts at educating the customer are not successful, we can avoid future problems by not submitting an estimate.

2. If the customer’s expectations are reasonable, but perhaps involve more work, we can bid accordingly. Suppose the customer wants all of the paint removed from her doors. While not necessary, it can be accomplished. You will want to include this in your price.

It is generally quite easy to determine the customer’s expectations. All you need to do is ask. I often ask the customer what kind of quality he is looking for. I explain the options and let him choose. Sometimes I will give him separate prices for these options. In either case, I am careful to specifically state what is and is not included in the estimate.

I doubt you would buy a new truck without identifying what is included. You shouldn’t sell a paint job without doing the same.

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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