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Today's customers pay attention to how they're treated and remember the experience they have while working with a salesperson. You need to demonstrate that not all builders are created equal. (Photo: Pxhere)

Gerhard Gschwandtner has a theory, and he believes he knows what influences financial decisions. It's called the "Zeitgeist," which he says is a wonderful German word that has no English equivalent but denotes the collective thoughts and feelings that dominate an era. Zeit means time and Geist means both spirit and ghost. Loosely translated, he says, Zeitgeist means the "spirit of our time" or the "ghost of our time."

Gschwandtner, founder of Selling Power magazine and author of Mastering the Essentials of Sales is quick to point out that Zeitgeists come and go. The Zeitgeist of the Y2K era, for instance, was the paranoia about computers crashing on Jan. 1, 2000. And most recently, it's the fear and anger that developed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

What is today's Zeitgeist? What influences the decisions you make about your customers? And more importantly, what influences your customer's thoughts and feelings when they make a decision about you? They might be more different than you think.

You Are the Draw

Have you stopped lately to think about shopping from your customer's point of view, to explore what "ghost" it is that influences their decisions? Is it your discount, the interest rates or maybe your incentive package? It's none of these things. It's not even your community, home or lifestyle that causes customers to come back to visit.

In today's market, customers come back because of you — more specifically, how they like working with you. How do I know? It's easy. What would you do if you visited three or four communities and everything — product, community and so on — seemed pretty much the same?

On the other hand, what would you do if everything was the same except for the salesperson? In other words, one salesperson stood out more than the others. I guess you already know the answer.

Today's customers pay attention to how they are treated and remember the experience they have while working with a sales associate. Sure you can be nice, but everyone's nice these days. A great experience means more than that. To a customer, a great experience comes when the sales associate does something that adds value to their visit and their customer's shopping agenda ahead of their own selling agenda.

Impossible, you say? What if I told you that an outstanding customer experience could almost double your chances to make the sale?

Proof Is in the Books

Not many people know it, but there's a research study that will change the way you think and feel about selling.

Not that long ago, sales and marketing expert Neil Rackham started looking into the reasons customers did what they did.

Rackham noticed that as markets commoditize, the amount of value that resides in a product steadily erodes. This caused him to ask: If customers show a decreasing preference for one product over another, how can you differentiate yourself? If you can no longer create sustainable value in your product, then where can you go to create new customer value?

Rackham found something he always sensed but wasn't able to prove: that sales associates were much more important than anyone ever suspected. His take: Value has migrated from the product to how the product is acquired. Consumers are increasingly placing value on how the product is sold to them rather than on the product itself.

Rackham is telling you your product isn't the reason customers buy. And why should they? To them, your product isn't much different from the next guy's. Rackham says if everything seems the same, then your customer's experience with your salesperson is what matters most. But that's only the beginning of my story.

A Downpour in Home Building

What's the old saying ... When it rains, it pours? I'd say in the home building industry, it's pouring. If it isn't interest rates, it's cancellations; and if it isn't cancellations, it's "monster" incentives.

And if that isn't bad enough, noted real-estate consultant and Housing Giants columnist John Burns has reported that 86 percent of America's markets are overpriced. But even with all of these things going on, it's not what's causing all of your problems. Your problems stem from differentiation.

Builders are terrible when it comes to differentiation. If you don't believe me, just look at the Sunday newspaper. Every builder is the same. They're either running a lifestyle, an interest rate or a discount advertisement. How's a customer suppose to decide?

Business Essential: Differentiate or Die

Builders aren't doing anything to help themselves or help their customers, who need to be able to differentiate to make a decision. And if customers can't differentiate, they can't justify choosing you let alone spending the extra money if you're not priced lower than your competition. But that's just half of the problem.

Maybe worst of all, home builders have never taught their sales associates what they need to do to be different — and that different means "adding value" to their customers' shopping process. Believe me, in the last few months I think I've seen and heard it all.

Here's what sales associates have told me they do to add value to their customer's shopping experience:

  • Be nice to customers when they arrive
  • Offer water and cookies
  • Point out standards in the models
  • Take customers to see home sites and field models

I'm not sure about you, but it makes me crazy when I hear answers like this. Aren't these things just the table stakes you need to play the game? As far as I can tell, everyone is nice these days who doesn't offer cookies and water, or point out standards and options or take customers to see field models and home sites. When did the basics become value added?

Adding Value

So far we've figured out that the answer is your sales associate. The question is, "What needs to happen to turn them into a competitive advantage? In other words, what does your process need to accomplish to provide a world-class experience for your customers? The answer is simple.

Here's how you can evaluate your own selling process: Ask yourself these simple questions and you'll know what you need to do:

  • Does your sales process match your customer's shopping process?
  • Does your sales process improve efficiency?
  • Does your sales process commonly turn ordinary people into superstars?
  • Does your sales process cause you to be different from your competitors?
  • Is your sales process based on critical success behaviors?

There's one final question: What's the Zeitgeist driving you and your sales program? Is it something that causes customers to say, "Wow, what a visit?" or something quite different? Now that you know the answer, the choice is yours.

Rick Heaston is president of R.A. Heaston and Co., a sales training and marketing firm. You can reach him at