Saving Customers From Themselves

What do you do with a client who demands a product that doesn't suit his needs? Try a little humor and a gentle education

By Michelle Nichols

I was speaking to a group of advertising specialty salespeople in Phoenix recently, when a young man in the audience startled me by asking, "What do you do when a customer believes something is true, but he's wrong?" My questioner, who sells customized apparel with company logos, explained that a prospective customer needed some shirts for his staffers to wear at an upcoming trade show. Problem was, the style he wanted to order wouldn't have been suitable, since they don't breathe, are hot to wear, and wrinkle easily -- all in all, not a pretty sight.

The question surprised me because I hadn't thought of selling as a combative business, an encounter where one party is right and the other is wrong. Encounters with customers don't happen in a courtroom atmosphere, there is much more of the give and take of a civil conversation. Upon later reflection, however, I realized that there are indeed situations when the customer is dead wrong. The problem may be an erroneous assumption on his part, or it could be that he's just plain nuts and really does want a sweaty and scruffy sales team. Maybe he likes those particular shirts because they just happen to come in the exact same shade of blue as his new car. It takes all kinds to make a world, and salespeople have to deal with all comers.


  I answered the young man's question with a question: "Do you have kids?" It turned out he wasn't a parent, but that didn't alter the logic behind my query. "Well," I continued, "if you did, you'd know that the best way to handle a child -- or a misguided customer -- is not to tell them that they're wrong, but to pose a question that leads them to discover their own mistake." This helps them to save face and avoids an adversarial edge to the conversation. (See BW Online, 11/15/02, "Ask and Ye Shall Close")

At the seminar, I jokingly suggested the salesperson say something like, "Mr. Customer, this particular shirt is not well suited for trade shows because it will make your salespeople sweat like pigs. Is that what you had in mind?"

OK, it wasn't the most eloquent answer, but sometimes it takes humor -- and a dash of irreverence -- to help a customer arrive at a smarter choice. In framing my suggestion, my thinking was that the customer would probably laugh at the mental picture and ask the salesman why he said that. Then the salesman could address the latest advances in shirt fabrics and, hopefully, end the encounter by writing up an order for some shirts that would keep the sales force dry and sharp.


  Making customers laugh is one thing, so long as you do it with finesse. In his book, The Pursuit of Wow!, management consultant and best-selling author Tom Peters adds a cautionary note to the thrust of my advice: Don't be a wiseacre, because condescension is a fatal flaw. Or, as Mary Poppins, that other well known authority on selling, noted: "A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down." So, when your customer is wrong, as we all are at some moment in our lives, be gracious and gentle as you correct misconceptions.

One of my readers, we'll call her Mary, had her own experience with a customer who was wrong. Mary owns a sporting goods store in a small town, where a soccer club she had serviced for eight years had all its equipment stolen. Officials needed to replace the lost gear and stay within a fixed budget. When the customer wanted to order low-quality balls, Mary explained all the technical considerations and durability issues that made them a poor choice and suggested she buy fewer balls of better quality. The customer went with the inferior ones and -- yes, you guessed it -- discovered Mary has been right all along. The next year, at equipment-buying time, the unhappy customer switched her entire order to another vendor.

Maybe Mary could have used questions -- or testimonials, specification sheets, or other third-party information -- to lead the customer to buying the better soccer balls. I admit, there are some customers who only care about price, no matter what you say or do, but I'll leave that situation for another column.


  In sales, we have a saying: "When you win, you earn. When you lose, you learn." Since Mary lost the next year's business, the best she can hope to do is learn from her mistake. Now, while she stays in touch with the customer and tries to win her back, the story of the soccer team's bad choice will be a sobering lesson she can share with any future customers tempted to make the same mistake. That's called leveraging your losses for eventual gains.

Remember, customers might occasionally say things that are wrong, but using questions to lead them to see the errors of their thinking keeps the conversation rolling along, hopefully toward a signed purchase order. It all starts with selling a product that you know will please your customer. No matter what product or service you're pitching, the goal of every successful salesperson is the same: a satisfied customer -- preferably, a wildly satisfied customer. Happy Selling!

Michelle Nichols is a sales speaker, trainer, and consultant based in Houston, Tex. She welcomes your questions and comments. You can visit her web site at or contact her at

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