Radio Blues

I came so close to buying a DAB radio. I went in to Halfords to buy a new aerial for the van, and I suddenly thought that while I was there it might finally be time to upgrade the stereo in the old thing.

I saw the DABs in the shop and immediately decided: that’s what I want. I think they’re a neat gadget, and I genuinely think that they’ll be getting more popular and widespread over the next few years. I don’t think it’ll be long before every new car has them fitted as standard.

I hadn’t planned to buy one before I went into Halfords, you understand. It was an absolute spur of the moment decision, the kind of gut-led choice that Malcolm Gladwell describes in the excellent Blink.

Much of Blink talks about why these quick-fire decisions can be good ones: basically our brains have evolved to make snap decisions, and we’re much better at it than you might imagine. In this case the choice was even easier because I wasn’t making a choice based on any information other than my own feelings: I just decided I wanted one, and that was it.

AND THEN I made the mistake of asking a member of staff. I’m a conscientious consumer, a new man! I’m not going to buy an expensive gadget without sourcing the opinion of an expert! I only knew I wanted a DAB radio, I didn’t know which one to pick.

So I jovially approached a member of staff – who, in retrospect, didn’t appear to be the sharpest knife in the drawer – and asked him which DAB radio he would recommend. “None,” came the reply.

Now what I should have done was asked for someone else, or just made my own decision on which one to buy. But I’m a polite guy, so I listened to what he had to say. The guy obviously didn’t like DAB radios. He pointed out that they don’t always get great signal (irrelevant since they have an FM backup, especially in London) and that I might need a new aerial for the van in order to pick up signal at all (don’t forget, a new aerial was the reason I went in to Halfords in the first place!).

He made quite a compelling argument, and in the end I followed his recommendation. I bought a new stereo with an iPod dock (which admittedly I’m pleased with). But then when I got back to the office I suddenly thought: this isn’t what I wanted! I want a digital radio!

Now, the guy at Halfords had no idea about my specific needs. I know he didn’t because he didn’t ask my anything about them. Fair enough, he had his own opinions, and fair enough, he works for Halfords, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he knows a bit about car stereos. But why should his opinions trump mine?

Really, he was operating under his own prejudices, and I suspect that those prejudices were based around his own experience. Maybe he’s had a bad DAB in the past. Maybe he’s experimented with a few and they didn’t meet his needs. Maybe (and I’m being cynical here) DABs are more difficult to install and he didn’t feel like the extra work. But here’s the thing: his needs aren’t my needs. I’m perfectly prepared to listen to his opinion, but only in regards to my own criteria. If he doesn’t bother to investigate my criteria then his opinion isn’t valid.

From a sales perspective, he might think he’s done all right. A customer came in and asked for something. He didn’t want to sell that thing, so he sold something else. I went along with what he suggested, so he’s made the sale, job done.

Except I don’t think I’ll be going back to Halfords any time soon. If he’d listened to what I wanted and why I wanted it, and then convinced me otherwise, I don’t think I’d mind so much. But I feel like I just got a bit overpowered. It wasn’t a hard sell, by any means, but it just wasn’t the sale I wanted.

Selling based on your own goals can be counter-productive. You might be able to convince a customer at the time, but as Malcolm Gladwell points out, the gut instinct is a strong and persistent force. Your client is likely to swing back to their own way of thinking at some point, and then you’ll be in trouble. Now they’ll feel lumbered with something that they never wanted to buy. They’re unlikely to come back to you if they think you’ve swayed them unfairly.

A much better way is to sound out what your client’s gut instinct is, and try to find out what brings it on. Once you’ve figured that out, you’ll be in a position of greater knowledge. And you know what? You might not be able to make a sale this time. Or you might not make the sale you want. You might even have to grit your teeth a little bit and let the customer lead the discussion. But the next time, that customer might remember you as the one who really listened, and be more likely to come back.

You might also find that perhaps your own prejudices aren’t as practical as you thought. I doubt I’d have brought that Halfords assistant around to DAB radios, but it’s always worthwhile to listen to other people and be open-minded. If you still don’t change your opinion, even after seriously considering things, then you can be more confident you were correct in the first place.

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