Asking more of our sales associates

Most people try to spend as little time in a store as possible. If we can get into a store, find the desired product, and get out without ever talking to a sales associate, we would we ever dilly-dally?

Well, that philosophy works well enough for most purchases. But I’m here to highlight the types of situations in which we might want to ask more of our sales associates—when engaging them in a conversation might make everyone’s life more negotiable. Consider the following three situations in which conversing with the associate instead of hard-charging for the exit might help:

  1. When you aren’t 100% sure which product to buy. Imagine you need to buy a new phone. Most people are probably inclined to find the best phone online, then (if they have to go into a store to get it) just go into the store and get it. But why? Why not spend at least a few minutes with the sales associate, asking for his or her perspective on the desired phone versus others. It’s true—the associate might be totally unknowledgeable or unhelpful, as associates sometimes are. But my experience is that many associates are experts in small domains. When we ask about their experiences with a product, they not only have personal experiences to recount. They have the stories of untold customers, who have complained about or complimented the product in question. And since so many people come into the store and ask the associate to robotically fetch a phone, they seem to really appreciate when someone respectfully requests their advice.
  2. When you aren’t 100% sure what your money buys. I recently needed a new windshield wiper for my car. Anyone who’s ever needed and tried to purchase a windshield wiper at an auto parts store knows that the wiper aisle stretches for 4.2 miles and includes 6,529,000 options ranging from $5 to $50 in price. In the face of such choice overload, many people’s temptation is to simply select the right sized wiper at random, then hope and pray that it turns out to wipe their shield appropriately. But why not ask the sales associate what exactly your money buys? Why not ask why one wiper costs 10 times the cost of another—does it wake up in the middle of the night and proactively wipe your shield? Sure, the friendly associate may seek to upsell you, at which point you can thank them and go back to the random selection. But my experience is that, unless they’re on the payroll of the company whose wipers they’re trying to sell, they’re often surprisingly honest. On my own recent trip to the auto store, for example, the associate gave me some exact figures about the lifespan and level of visibility associated with each wiper. He also recounted his personal experiences and told me of the perfect wiper fluid to complement my wiper of choice. A synergy between wipers and fluid? Who knew. I was glad that I did—and he seemed glad to recount this particular nugget of wisdom.
  3. When you aren’t 100% sure how to use a product. I recently walked into a home and garden store in need of some holly tone. If you don’t know what that is, you’re not alone. I didn’t either. Nor did I have any idea, once acquired, how to actually use it. In such situations, the temptation is to buy the holly tone, then read the back and/or consult the internet. But why not leverage the expertise of a holly tone expert? Why not ask the associate, looking exceptionally bored at the cash register, what exactly holly tone is and how it could solve your problem? And that’s what I did. I explained my underlying interest in protecting a depressed rhododendron plant and asked whether and how the holly tone would do that. At this point, she helpfully explained the product’s benefits, as well as how exactly to apply it, even going so far as to draw an air-diagram depicting the distance between the rhododendron’s stem and the holly tone applied to the soil. Having explained all that and drawn the air-diagram, she seemed distinctly pleased with her expertise and my distinct interest in tapping into it. And who wouldn’t prefer being knowledgeable and helpful to robotically operating the cash register?

In sum, I’m not proposing anything amounting to rocket science. Perhaps you already enlist the help of your sales associates, and if so, I hope you’ve taken the liberty of ignoring this post. For the rest of us, though, I’m simply proposing that most of us routinely ask too little of our sales associates—and that literally asking more can make their lives and our own more negotiable.

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