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Control the Focus

Life is one big seminar. It is not always necessary to go to formal training sessions to learn how to sell. There are many accidental seminars put on by people you encounter every day. In this one, I learned a valuable lesson about asking questions and controlling a meeting's focus.

Sarah McCann, my partner and wife, and I were spending our anniversary weekend in Chicago. The plan was to go out to two new restaurants and enjoy a nonwork weekend together in a nice hotel.

As I unpacked, I discovered that the slacks Sarah packed for me were a pair I'd outgrown. "Why did you pack these?" I asked.

"Because they were in your closet," she said. "Why were they in the closet if they don't fit?" She insisted I needed new pants, so at 6 p.m. we went to a store near the hotel.

When the salesperson approached, I pretty much told him the story I've been telling you. I said, "I need a pair of black pants, 38 waist, 34 inseam. They should cost no more than $40."

He didn't flinch, but immediately went and looked through the racks of slacks. When he came back, he said, "Sir, I couldn't find anything in your size in that price range." (Note that he could have just as easily have said, "We don't have anything that cheap in the store.") "May I show you what I found?"

"You may show me, but I want a $40 pair of pants."

With great flourish, he draped the legs of the pants over one arm and presented them almost as though they were a bottle of fine wine at the restaurant I was trying to get to.

"Do you know the Burberry brand, sir?"

"Listen, I've got suits that cost less than that pair of Burberry pants. I just want a nice pair of $40 pre-cut pants today."

"Sir, do you ever wear braces?" he says, ignoring my whining.


"Good, because these have the braces buttons already sewn in. They have an interior lining to the knee so that they will hold the crease longer and require less dry cleaning and pressing. That will save you money in the long run."

"OK, how much?"

"Sir, they are only $120."

"Look, I appreciate the quality, but I already have several pairs of black pants hanging in my closet at home. So I just want some $40 pants."

"I understand. Shall we make this your backup pair?"

I'd never heard of a backup pair of pants. "What do you mean?"

"Well, it means that you can shop for a while longer, and if you can't find another pair of pants, these will be here for you."

"This is my backup pair, then," I agreed.

As I turned to walk to yet another store, he asked another question.

"By the way, what time is your function?"

"Our reservation is at 8 o'clock," I told him, realizing we had less than two hours until dinner.

"The reason I ask is that these pants have to be tailored. Where are you staying?"

"Just down the street at the Hyatt."

"Good. If I can get the tailor to work on them, you could get back here fairly quickly then. How far is it from your hotel to the restaurant?" he asked.

Sarah pointed out it would take a good 15 minutes to get there.

"Before you go, just let me make sure I can get these tailored fast enough if you do decide to buy them."

He picked up a phone and started an animated discussion with a person, who, to this day, I believe is the tailor.

"No. Tonight... Uh-hum... It's his anniversary. Can you do it?"

Now he's selling the tailor on going to work for me, putting my project at the top of an apparently huge list of alterations.

"I'll ask," he said into the telephone. Then, turning to me, "Straight legs or cuffs, sir?"

"Straight legs are fine," I said, knowing I have just invested in a pair of Burberry pants.

"I'll run them right down to the tailor. Will that be Lord and Taylor charge or some other method of payment?" he asked.

That salesperson sold me a pair of pants for $120. The sales seminar he put on was a free, value-added clinic on keeping the customer focused on his problem. He kept framing the issues for me. All of a sudden, he was selling the concept of getting to my function and looking good instead of justifying the price.

My anniversary dinner was saved, and while I've thrown out a lot of other mementos, those black pants still hang in my closet.

When you control the focus of the meeting, you control the meeting. Keeping the focus on the prospect's problem helps you sell faster.

The salesperson framed the issues for me: I could keep looking, or I could take action. He let me know what would happen if I kept looking. He kept me focused on my date, my dinner reservation and my travel time.

He also did a brilliant job of asking questions and keeping the sale open long enough to get it closed. He overcame my objections about the price. He didn't give up trying to solve my problem, and as a result, he didn't quit asking questions.