MIA Perspective Product Knowledge: The Competitive Edge

March 13, 2006
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I recently purchased a laser printer at a local computer store I had dealt with in the past and trusted very much. I was looking at a printer that they had on sale, with the salesperson at my side describing its features. Despite being less than half my age, he obviously knew 100 times more than me about computer hardware. “This is a great printer,” he said, “except for one shortcoming that I need to warn you about. It doesn't handle heavy card stock or envelopes as well as the other models. It tends to have feeding and jamming problems, and even when it works right, cards and envelopes might still come out wrinkly-looking. Other than that, this is a great printer.” Since I didn't really need the printer for card stock or envelopes, this wasn't a concern to me. I elected to take advantage of the sale price and purchase the printer anyway. Once I had it set up in my office, I decided to test the salesperson's warning. I loaded an envelope, clicked on the printer icon, and listened to a deadly sound as it jammed. The second attempt was more successful, but produced a “wrinkly-looking” envelope. I was perfectly satisfied with the outcome of the experiment, as it demonstrated a performance limitation in the product - of which I was duly and accurately warned.

So what does this have to do with natural stone? In the Marble Institute of America's technical office, one of my least favorite roles is that of arbitrator between a member company and a dissatisfied customer. I fortunately don't field many calls of this nature, but when I do, and by the time they reach me, the customer is usually very emotionally charged. Many times, the only clearly understandable words from them are “my lawyer.”

When the irate customer has calmed down a bit, I hear some other familiar phrases. The most common ones are “Had I only been told about it,” or “Nobody mentioned it to me,” or “That's not what the salesperson told me,” or “How was I supposed to know . . . they're the professionals.” These remarks tell me that the problem is not about the product, but rather about the failure of communication between the seller and the buyer.

There are three situations where this problem can develop. In the first situation, the salesperson didn't know the material's characteristics. The second is where the salesperson was afraid to tell the customer something about the product for fear of losing a sale. And in the third situation, the salesperson did in fact educate the customer about the product, but due to selective hearing and/or memory, the customer has, sometimes conveniently, purged that information from their mind.

Preventing the first situation from happening is one of the best ways to benefit your business. By increasing the product knowledge of your staff, you'll establish an obvious position of superiority, giving you an edge over your competitors. I recall attending one of Dr. Claude Rust's educational seminars at StonExpo, where he stressed the importance of knowing what you're selling, and how your business will thrive as a result. Do some research on your products, read the published documents from the industry, attend the educational seminars at trade shows and ask questions about what you don't understand. If a material has a pitted surface, merely acknowledging the presence of the pits to a customer will make it sound simply like a defect in the material. By explaining the layered, flaky structure of the mica family of minerals and the surface plucking of these minerals, you'll help the customer understand that these are natural characteristics of a natural product. If everyone thought knots were just defects in wood, would anyone buy knotty pine? Explain to the customer the difference between resin-treated and untreated slabs, and discuss the treatment process. If a customer doesn't know and discovers after purchase that the stone they've bought is resin-treated, they'll think you were trying to hide something from them. But if they're made aware beforehand because you've explained the difference, they can make an informed decision to either buy the product or seek an alternative.

In the second situation, I mentioned that a salesperson may be afraid to tell the customer something about the product for fear of losing a sale. Granted, an honest, factual presentation of a product may, on occasion, send your customer to your nearest competitor. But what occurs more frequently is that it will gain you customers from your competitors. The customer wants to be honestly told what to expect, and to be educated about the product. When an architect is considering specifying a material for a threshold and asks about the abrasion resistance value of the material, an answer of “I've never heard of that before,” is unlikely to secure the specification for your material. But an answer of: “The abrasion resistance value is 11.0, marginally below the industry's recommended minimum of 12.0 for threshold applications. May I recommend some similar-looking materials with better performance in this property?” will tell the architect that you understand both the material and the application. This will give them a strong measure of confidence in your knowledge and professionalism, and likely keep them calling on you for future stone needs.

The third situation - where the customer has been properly educated by the salesperson about the product, but conveniently forgets that they received the education - is the most difficult one to deal with. The best approach is to keep as many things in writing as possible. This documentation will protect you to some degree when there is a disagreement about what information was made available to the customer. Not all of these documents need be specifically prepared for the individual customer. If you have a showroom with stone samples, include information cards with each stone sample display. Each card should have the stone name, description, origin, general petrography and some notes about strengths and limitations of the material. The customer can take these cards while selecting, and review the information at their own convenience.

Despite all these precautions, there may still be occasions when you'll have to accommodate a dissatisfied customer, even though you've diligently provided all the necessary information about a stone's performance characteristics before its sale and installation. In such cases, remember that the customer is always right, and following this age-old rule is just good business practice.

So put a little more effort into educating yourself and your staff about your stone products. In turn, this will enable you to better educate your customers, put you on a level above your competitors and grow your business. I'd love to hear from some of your customers about how knowledgably and factually your stone products were represented to them, and that they encountered no unpleasant surprises after the products were put into service. If I do, I'll be sure to send you a letter of hearty congratulations printed from my new laser printer. But the envelope will be addressed by hand!

By increasing the product knowledge of your staff, you'll establish an obvious position of superiority, giving you an edge over your competitors.

The customer wants to be honestly told what to expect, and to be educated about the product.

The best approach is to keep as many things in writing as possible. This documentation will protect you to some degree when there is a disagreement about what information was made available to the customer.

If you have a showroom with stone samples, include information cards with each stone sample display.

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