Peter Smith has more than 30 years of experience building wholesale and retail sales teams. He currently is president of Vibhor Gems.
I’ve been busy these past few weeks conducting Vibhor launch trainings at various stores around the country.

In rolling out our private label program to retailers, I try to accomplish two important and complimentary ends. First, I want to convey those things that make our program relevant and exciting to retailers and to their customers. In the second instance, I try to convey some basic but essential sales principles that are, unfortunately, more often discussed than they are practiced.

One of those sales disciplines that I speak to is the necessity for salespeople to ask open-ended questions. The concept is not new. In fact, I remember there being a lot of chatter about that back in the 1980’s and, I am quite certain, some of you may go back even further in remembering when you first heard the term.

Having said that, it is, quite frankly, remarkable how rarely we as consumers are exposed to quality open-ended questions and, if we are being perfectly honest, how infrequently the art form is used in retail stores.

In the course of the training, one of the questions I suggest is, “Can you tell me about the person you are buying for?” The question itself appears to be rather innocuous and is not likely to set any pulses racing with its creativity or originality. If you peel back the layers of that question, however, you just might see it as a uniquely profound and potentially rich asset in the narrative of engaged retail salespeople.

There are two different psychological components at work in asking the question. The first is the empathic engagement that is communicated when you invite a person to tell you about someone who is important to them. The neurological effects of the question, delivered with warmth and sincerity, releases oxytocin in the brain, and that can serve as a great platform to make an emotional connection and begin to build a relationship. It’s as if you are saying, “I really want to know what matters to you.”

In the book Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton wrote, “There is something at once sobering and absurd in the extent to which we are lifted by the attention of others and sunk by their disregard. Our mood may blacken because a colleague greets us distractedly or our telephone calls go unreturned.”

In the second instance, when you insert “...the person you are buying for,” it sets yet another psychological principle in play, because what you are actually doing is priming the customer. You are unconsciously setting the table for them to engage with you not with a view to gathering information but with the intent to actually make a purchase. By using the word buying, you are tapping into the customer’s oftentimes latent desire to actually buy something, even as he or she may consciously believe they came in to kick a few tires.

A retail store is a mini-stage and it provides great moments of drama every single day. You are presented with opportunities to make a difference--for your customers, your store and your career--every time a customer honors you by visiting your place of business. Approaching each and every one of those opportunities with the mindset that the customer has come in to actually make a purchase, and using deliberate and purposeful language in engaging those customers, can be game-changing.

As we enter into the most important few weeks of the year why not give it a try, and let me know how it works out for you.

Peter Smith, author of Hiring Squirrels: 12 Essential Interview Questions to Uncover Great Retail Sales Talent, has spent more than 30 years building sales teams at retail and at wholesale. He currently is president of Vibhor Gems. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or reach him on LinkedIn.

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