BrainTrust Query: How to Deal With Survivor Guilt in Your Salesperson

Apr 04, 2011
Bob Phibbs

Through a special arrangement,
presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the Retail

I received this email. "Bob, my staff is going through your
Sales Rx training. During one of the training sessions, we revealed a barrier
that we need to address — guilt — of
all things! As we discussed barriers, one employee admitted that she sometimes
feels guilty selling high-end items when she doesn’t think the customer
can afford it. Yikes!!"

Traditionally, "survivor guilt" is the
term used to describe the feelings of those who, fortunately, emerge from a
disaster that mortally engulfs others. It could be as a result of an airplane
crash like Nando Prado in the Andes, a downsizing of a company like GM or even
the closing of a competitor on Main Street.

This business owner is from Michigan
where The Associated Press recently
reported unemployment rates ranged from a low of 10.6 percent in Ann Arbor
to a high of 17.4 percent in Flint. Of course people are scared.

guilt plays out by projecting our worries onto our customers. It’s like
the salesperson adopts a loser’s limp. On an irrational level, these individuals
wince at their privileged escape from death’s clutches
or worry they are next. The most insidious impact is on their self-image.

you remember the film "Ruthless People" where Judge Reinhold
was trying to take advantage of a customer? He reneges when he sees the guy’s
wife is pregnant. He felt sales was a win-lose situation; that he was getting
a whole pile of money for the little value customers received. It is a common
trait in retail if we were all to be honest, but even more so in places like
Michigan and Vegas.

The heart of the problem is how they feel like a sham selling
at retail. Clerking is what they are comfortable with because their self-image
doesn’t allow them to put themselves out there to risk rejection.

Your opportunity
is to show how selling is a win-win situation — that we are helping the customer
buy what they already want. But you’re not manipulating
people, taking advantage or making them into some kind of sucker for purchasing
the premium items — that we are all grownups and no one knows what another
can afford. Maybe they’ve switched to generics in all of their grocery staples
to afford the $100 LEGO Death Star for their daughter’s birthday. There’s
no way of knowing.

You need to show them how their own preconceived ideas, biases
and fears could very easily be pouring a bucket of water on a customer’s
interest in the higher-priced items and causing the customer to question the

If they can’t get past this, you have to ask yourself, "How
much do I want to be their psychologist and deal with their self image?" and "Is
there anybody else out there who can help me sell at a profit?" If not,
it may be time to move on without them.

Discussion Questions: How common do you think it is to find guilt among store associates over high prices at retail? How should stores deal with any such issues among staff?

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14 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: How to Deal With Survivor Guilt in Your Salesperson"

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Dan Berthiaume
Dan Berthiaume
10 years 1 month ago

I don’t think this is a common phenomenon. Most salespeople I’ve encountered are pretty focused on making sales and keeping their averages up. Also if you are in a store selling high-end items, I think the assumption is most customers can afford them.

Kevin Graff
10 years 1 month ago

As usual, Bob (as only he can do!) makes a great point and pushes the envelope in the process.

Reluctance to sell higher priced items is real, whether it’s based on guilt or some other underlying issue. More often than not, I see the failure to perform based on a lack of knowledge of the product, and how to properly sell. “Sell” not in the bad, cynical perspective. Rather “sell” from the customer-focused, understand their needs, provide complete solutions perspective. That’s not just good selling, it’s great service.

One of the big problems we have in ‘premium’ stores is that often staff have to sell products that they themselves can’t afford. Here, even more than elsewhere, proper PK and sales training is essential.

In the end, retailers have a simple choice to make. Train your staff properly, or lose sales every shift.

Ian Percy
10 years 1 month ago
Coming to the rapid conclusion that the “guilt” was related to questionable affordability on the part of the customer may be misleading. What really was the “sin?” If it was a simple mistake of ‘pre-qualifying’ the customer (like judging Warren Buffet by the car he drives) then that’s more of an ego problem being carefully disguised as guilt. “Guilt”–or what we used to call ‘worm theology’–is a cornerstone of some belief structures and is actually admired and reinforced. I’ve worked with companies who manufactured crappy products and the sales people knew they were selling crappy products. Maybe they should feel guilty; I’d be more worried that they don’t. We know price does not always equate to quality, maybe the salesperson saw the possibility of better value for the money. Personally I’d appreciate that kind of help. In this case it would be guilt for not helping the customer as much as you could have. As implied in the piece, it was more likely to be a projection of the salesperson’s own belief system. It was… Read more »
Fabien Tiburce
Fabien Tiburce
10 years 1 month ago

I think a good salesperson sells (and inquires about) what the customer needs, not what he or she can afford. Selling something the customer can’t afford (and probably doesn’t need) may get you the sale but that sale comes with resentment and fewer, if any, repeat purchases. I have often run into a situation where a salesperson or cashier recommended a sale or better priced item. To me that is true customer service and a sure way to get my future business. So back to the question. Feeling guilty about selling something the customer could not afford? You should! You just lost this customer out of short-term thinking.

Liz Crawford
10 years 1 month ago

I do think this is a common problem. I have had sales people actually refuse to sell me things they thought I couldn’t afford (especially if I am not wearing my mink)…

To get around this I have had to order items online to avoid the person-to-person judgement. I have had sales people refuse to sell me a high ticket item without my husband present! So, of course, being the primary bread winner, I take my business elsewhere.

David Zahn
10 years 1 month ago
I did not coin this phrase, but it is often used in training sessions for sales people, “the first sale is to yourself.” If the salesperson does not perceive the value in the product or service, it is very hard to sell to another. While there are many ways to define sales and selling – at least in part, it involves the transfer of enthusiasm about something from one person to another. If the “seller” is not enthused–hard to get a rise out of the prospect. Secondly, the notion of deciphering what one can afford is simply a fool’s errand. Afford is something that the prospect determines (if I choose to eat macaroni and cheese for dinner so I can drive a luxury car–whose business is that? The clerk is not my mother and is not empowered to act as my accountant and tell me what I can and cannot afford). The clerk/salesperson’s role is to help me to buy something I can use or need (as I define it). In terms of recommending a… Read more »
Ted Hurlbut
Ted Hurlbut
10 years 1 month ago
I’ve long believed that there were two essential characteristics of a successful sales associate. First, the associate must be animated by the same passion that animates the business in the first place. If the business sells books, they need to be book lovers. If it’s a cycle shop, they need to be cycling enthusiasts. If that passion is lacking, all they feel they are representing is stuff, and stuff is always less valued than the things we’re passionate about. The second characteristic is an innate ability to naturally and genuinely engage others. This is more of a personality trait than a skill set, it’s the ability to make others feel comfortable, draw them out and understand their needs. But it must come from an authentic orientation toward others or it comes across as phony and contrived. These two characteristics are not easy to find. You have to talk to a lot of people before you find somebody like this. But sales associates like this are worth holding out for. Otherwise, you end up with an… Read more »
Ed Dennis
Ed Dennis
10 years 1 month ago

Better to sell it than to have them come back in with a gun and take it! When you start making decisions about other people based upon their appearance you open yourself up to a host of other problems. The fact is that if a customer wants something and has the cash/credit to buy it, you have no right to deny that customer the purchase. It is their decision. Maybe you don’t like it because they are buying it and you can’t afford to buy it for yourself.

Gene Detroyer
10 years 1 month ago

It is unfortunate that this phenomenon may exist, but this behavior is what is demanded. After all, the U.S. consumer economy has been built on people buying what they could not afford.

It is comforting that some sales people feel a sense of responsibility. It gives me hope. But, from a business point of view the salesperson should be selling and upselling whatever they can to close the sale. It is the customer’s responsibility to say “no.”

Let’s not pretend there is win-win situation. The process isn’t structured that way. Ask Wall Street. How many sales people would say, “That is enough. Don’t buy any more.” If they did, would they get fired? The equation is quite simple. One dollar less for the customer equals one dollar more for the salesperson.

Mel Kleiman
10 years 1 month ago

In every sales encounter a sale is made. Either you sell the customer or the customer sells you. The real salesperson–not just an order taker–is not out to sell the lowest price item or the highest price item. He or she is out to understand what the customer needs and the customer wants and help fulfill those needs and wants. If salesperson A won’t do that then most customers will find salesperson B who will.

Just last week I went into Office Max to buy a headset for my computer because I am going to be traveling. The salesperson asked about needs and then suggested a less expensive model than I was looking at. She told me all the reasons I would like the less expensive model better. She was right. Now I will go back there over the competition. Less volume on this sale, more volume on the next.

I just told 10,000 people to shop at Office Max. Was it worth a $10.00 difference to sell the customer what was right for them?

Larry Negrich
10 years 1 month ago

The salesperson’s job is to help the customer while helping the business. Generally good salespeople can help customers find something that meets their needs and fits their budget all the while racking up revenue for the store. Besides, let’s give the consumer some credit. With the Internet, smart phones, and an abundance of price information sources, few consumers are walking into a store blind of the price ranges of products. And instead of “Ruthless People” check out the movie, “Used Cars” where the salespeople help the customer get into just the right car…all without any guilt.

Ralph Jacobson
10 years 1 month ago

Funny how the retailers make this choice possible even without salespeople. Whether or not a shopper chooses a product they cannot afford or chooses to take a cheaper item, the end result should not result in guilt for the salesperson. The salesperson has the role to provide the shopper with a product that fits their needs the best. If there is a justifiable reason to select a more expensive product, then that responsibility lies with the salesperson. If a lower-priced item serves the shopper’s needs just as well, then that should be the purchase suggestion. The best service gets the higher customer lifetime value.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
M. Jericho Banks PhD
10 years 1 month ago
Do we ever sell our skills for more than they’re worth? In this universe, it’s up to the customer to determine the value to them of our work product. Do I, or you, ever charge a client a customary, going rate when we know that our efforts for them will require less time because we’ve completed similar projects previously? Of course we do, because we’re also selling our experience and expertise to them. If what we sell them doesn’t work, then they won’t return. But I doubt that any of us ever, ever knowingly sells a flawed service to a client. It’s not up to a store clerk to guess at the unique personal value equation of each shopper. Only the shopper can do that. However, if a clerk is asked about the attributes of a clearly defective product, one that is historically flawed, it’s decision-making time. They can tell the truth, they can lie, or they can claim not to know. That’s when personal integrity definitely outweighs employment position. Oh, and let’s remember something:… Read more »
Christopher P. Ramey
10 years 1 month ago

This issue is pervasive in the luxury segment. Transferring one’s own values to a customer is a dereliction of responsibility. Value (or worth of a product) is always defined by the customer.


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