The Interview Process

How to help customers decide logically to buy from you.

By Rick Heaston | August 31, 2001


Rick Heaston

Did you ever see the movie City Slickers? Jack Palance plays Curly, an old cowboy showing the ropes to Billy Crystal and his friends. Crystal is hungry for guidance, and Curly keeps telling him there’s just "one thing" he needs to know. He wants Crystal to figure things out for himself. Unfortunately, Curly dies before he tells Crystal what the "one thing" is.

In selling, there’s also just "one thing." Unlike Curly, I’m not going to make you think about it and guess.

It’s the interview process! Everything happens with it, and nothing happens without it.

It’s Not What You Think
I know what you’re thinking. I’ve heard it before. "I already interview my customers. The interview process is just a fancy name for discovering my customers’ ‘hot buttons,’ or what they need in a new home." Entire industries disagree, but let’s compare the differences, and then you can decide.

Xerox was a pioneer in developing the research that proved selling isn’t just selling. It proved there are two types of sales, each requiring a different strategy.

The first type is a small sale. A small sale is defined, from start to finish, by the customers’ emotions. From the customers’ perspective, it doesn’t matter if it makes sense, they just want it. From a seller’s perspective, you’re taught to work on your customers’ emotions. You’re taught to discover hot buttons, present to hot buttons and close on hot buttons.

The second type of sale is a large sale. A large sale is characterized by the customers’ being emotional at the outset but logical at the end. Everything must make sense to the customers. If all the pieces don’t fit, they won’t move forward with the sale.

From a seller’s point of view, a large sale demands that you do something new and different. You must help your customers organize their thoughts. You need to make sure they have a clear picture of their alternatives and that everything makes sense.

Have you guessed what separates a large sale from a small sale?

The most important factor is risk. Small-sale tactics ignore risk because the stakes are low and customers will not hesitate with their decisions. Pure emotion drives the sale. Feed the emotion, and you can make the small sale.

A large sale is just the opposite. A large sale is defined by risk. The higher the perceived risk, the more your customers hesitate, wanting to make sure everything makes sense and that there are no loose ends. The stakes are too high and there are too many alternatives to take a chance on something that isn’t perfectly clear.

The cure for risk is simple: the interview process. The interview process is designed to reduce your customers’ perceived risk.

Think about something you’ve purchased lately that cost a lot of money. Did you perceive high risk once everything became clear and made sense to you? Of course not! On the other hand, what did you do if something wasn’t perfectly clear? How did you weigh the difference between pure excitement and high cost? If I don’t miss my guess, you thought to yourself, "I better think about everything and make sure I don’t goof this up." If everything wasn’t clear, you perceived risk in advancing the sale. And the more the sales associate pushed your hot buttons, the more risky it seemed. You knew you had to do more shopping.

Oh yeah, one more question: If your discovery, presentation and closing are based on keeping your customers’ emotions high, are you increasing or decreasing their perception of risk?

How Customers Think and Decide
When customers shop, they compare. They have to shop this way to be able to separate one choice from another and ultimately reach a good decision. Comparisons produce differences, and differences produce easy decisions. It’s the natural way to see things clearly and therefore reduce perceived risk.

Customers also do something else they aren’t even aware they do. They reserve three places in their minds that they use to process, separate and store the information they need in order to compare and make their final decisions.

If we could get inside the heads of your customers, we would find that they use each of these storage spaces in a different way. They reserve a space to define what it’s like where they currently live, a second space to define what they’re shopping for and a third to store important criteria about how they’ll make their decisions. Let’s take a tour of a customer’s mind and see how each space is labeled and used.

Let’s call the first space Current Situation Storage. This is where customers keep all of their thoughts and feelings about where they live now. These thoughts and feelings are the baseline for their comparisons and decisions, and are very emotional in nature.

The second storage space is called Present Needs Storage. All the information about what customers are looking for in a new home is stored in this space. This information constantly changes as customers shop and learn about new possibilities. This space is both emotional and logical.

The third space is called Future Decision Storage. Here customers store the information that is allowed to filter through from the first two storage spaces. This space has some emotion but is more logical in nature. Without help, this storage chamber might never be full enough or organized enough to let customers make sense of your recommendations. That means they will have trouble making decisions and you will have trouble closing sales.

One more thing: Future Decision Storage has something unusual you should know about. This space rings a "high-risk alarm" if the information stored here doesn’t make sense or isn’t properly organized.

By keeping these spaces separated, customers can compare one situation with another, which is the hallmark of high-ticket shopping. This allows them to make sense of things, see their alternatives clearly and eliminate loose ends. All of this lowers their perceived risk and allows them to follow your recommendations.

A final thought: If customers are shopping and deciding like this, then shouldn’t you adjust your selling strategies so that you’re selling like this? Many have, and have found it the key to their "next level" improvement.

Tom Callahan, vice president of sales and marketing at the Phoenix division of Pulte Homes, explains: "When we decided on a question-based selling system, it was very different from any other selling system we had been exposed to. It forced our team to think about what they needed to do when they engaged their customer.

My partner Joe Whatley, the vice president of sales and marketing for Pulte in Las Vegas, boiled it down even further. He says this is a much more cerebral approach to new home sales than the critical-path method we’ve been using for years."

Communicating Value or Creating Value?
What do you do when customers visit your communities? Do you immediately focus on what they want in a new home? And then do you focus them toward features, benefits, standards and options? If you sell this way or in any way close to this, you need to ask yourself an important question: Am I communicating value or creating value for my customers?

If you’re focused on what your customers want in a new home, you’re positioning yourself to communicate value. This strategy can do nothing but add to your customers’ shopping confusion, which increases their perception of risk.

On the other hand, if you’re focused on helping your customers organize and expand their thinking, you’re positioning yourself to create value for them. This means you have to sell in the same way they shop and buy. In other words, you must make it easier for them to compare the differences between what they have and what they want, and make it easier for them to decide.

"We saw dramatic results posted by the salespeople that ‘got it,’" Callahan says. "The interview process took them to a place that challenged them to learn about their customers. Once they did, they were positioned to recommend a customized solution."

Here are the three interview objectives and strategies that will position you to realize the same results:




  • Current situation: Here you want to expand the thinking of your customers and get them talking about what it’s like where they live now.



  • Present needs: Help your customers explore what it’s like where they would like to live.



  • Future decisions: Take all the information you’ve learned and help your customers establish the criteria for making their decisions.

    By using these strategies, you guarantee that you aren’t the only one learning. Your customers learn, too. The more you get them to open up and talk, the clearer the picture will seem to them. This realization reinforces their shopping process and establishes value in what you are selling. Let’s look at each of your three interview objectives individually.

    Current Situation
    If the current situation provides everything your customers need, they have no need for you or your product. On the other hand, what turns people into serious shoppers? The answer is easy: Something about where they currently live bothers them enough that they want to shop to measure the risk/reward of a new opportunity.

    This means your objective in exploring current situations is twofold. First, you want to expose all the problems, concerns and dissatisfactions surrounding the place where your customers currently live. Next, you want to expand these problems.

    In both cases, you want to get your customers to think beyond the scope of their current thinking. As we mentioned before, this adds value to their shopping process. Because the baseline for any decision is the customers’ current situation, you establish a rock-solid foundation for comparison. Remember, value is the difference between what they have and what they want. Customers buy only when they can’t fix what they have.

    Present Needs
    The focus of exploring present needs is to help your customers reorganize and redefine their picture of a new place to live. This helps both of you. Your customers expose and expand their ideas, and you understand how they define value.

    What your customers talk about and want will flow directly from what they have. Their goal in entering the market is to improve their current situation, and if they can’t do that, there’s no reason for them to buy. This means it is up to you to extend your customers’ thinking process or develop their needs

    All too often we see associates begin presenting before they have fully developed their customers’ needs. Showing how useful your new home would be or how great its features are is great but will have little value until you fully develop your customers’ need for a solution.

    Because you know and understand the current situation of your customers, you can take your next step and help them create an accurate picture of their new home needs. When they talk about what’s important to them, you are there to help them discuss and expand the reasons this will benefit them.

    For many buyers, this will be the first time they have explored their values in great detail, especially with someone outside the immediate family. It can be an eye-opening experience for both of you. If your questions are good, what you have to offer will become twice as appealing.

    Future Decisions
    Now it’s time to help your customers further organize their thoughts. This is when you combine what you’ve learned from their current situation with what you know about their present needs to create a customized template for your solution. By bringing everything you have talked about into focus, you prove to your customers that everything makes sense. For you, it defines the structure of your close.

    Helping your customers understand and organize their thoughts also makes them better buyers. By working this way, you help them cut through the clutter of the process, saving time and eliminating stress.

    Where Do You Stand?
    How do you judge your sales process? If you are going to judge it by its performance and impact with your customers, it means you better understand how your customers shop and buy. Meet-Greet-Qualify-Discover-Demo-Close focuses on you and how you should sell. It doesn’t match or focus on how your buyers buy.

    To be effective in the market today, sales associates have to change the way they approach and work with customers. They must be able to help them expand the way they compare, evaluate and define value.

    For you, there is only one question: Will your selling process cause this to happen? To move to the next level, it’s a question you must answer.

    Have a Question?
    Do you have a question about sales or sales management? E-mail Rick at He’ll choose a question to answer in each of the last three parts of this series.

    Also See:

    Decision Curves

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