May  2004

Secret Shopper

Misleading First Impressions
Establishing Rapport Helps Sell Products
by Alan B. Goldberg

As I pulled up to the front of the lumber yard’s building, located in the southwest section of Renton, Washington, my initial reaction was that I must be in the wrong place. The tired-looking, paint-deprived exterior and less than-inviting entrance was hardly the impression I had formed. I checked the name and address just to be sure. Walking through the door was like entering a time warp … an old hardware store from the 50s. As I walked around, I saw nothing that resembled windows. I was here under the guise of learning something about insulating glass as a replacement for my old, single-pane windows. 

“And what can I do for you?” she asked as we made eye contact.

“I’ve been told I can buy windows here,” I said reluctantly. 

“Yes, we sell them,” and with that, the store employee placed a 160-page catalog on the counter. 

Surely, she didn’t expect me to read it. Or did she? For the moment, I wasn’t sure. I did recognize the name of the window manufacturer and was impressed with the attractive design.

“Planning to replace your windows? These are the top of the line,” she said, pointing to the catalog.

“Are these double-pane?” I asked (trying to sound ignorant).

“Yes, and these insulated windows are all you can buy today.”

I was shown a display of units of different shapes and sizes.

“So what else should I know about these insulated (repeating the common misuse of the correct term ‘insulating’) windows?” I asked. 

I wondered if I might hear about the critical components—the sealant, desiccant, spacer—that enable this organically-sealed window to withstand temperature extremes, reduce heat loss in winter, keep cool air inside during summer and perform as an insulating unit for 10 years or more. 

Would she tell an uninformed consumer about the sophisticated manufacturing and highly automated systems that have evolved over the past three decades and the vast improvement in quality due to rigid testing, nation-wide certification programs and demanding specifications? Her response was not what I expected. She chose a different way to make her point.

“Do you love your house?” she asked and smiled. 

The ice was broken. We began a friendly conversation about the many options available—wooden, vinyl and clad. She showed me other displays—bow windows, geometric shapes and double-hung units.

“And how much will these cost?” I asked. 

“About three times as much, but they are beautiful!” she said. “Do you know the size of your windows and the type that you want?” 

“Yes,” I said (having rehearsed this part of the conversation). “I need standard, double-hung units, 36 inches by 36 inches.”

Now that I had expressed more than marginal interest, she went to her computer to estimate the cost, not only for the top of the line but other brands that she carried.

“And when are you planning to do this?” she asked. “Do you have a contractor?” 

I explained that we were just starting to look and didn’t have anyone in mind.

“I have an excellent contractor,” and she gave me his name and phone number. She also told me about the insulating glass units she replaced in her 50s house and what a difference they have made.

“How long will it take to get these?” I asked.

She compared the delivery time for each of the manufacturers, and I was surprised that the difference was in weeks. (I hated to see this come to an end, so I asked what I thought would be one more question.)
“Is this contractor reliable and reasonable?” I asked, expecting a short answer.

“Wait a minute,” and she pulled out a small photo album. “I’m going to show you his picture and some of the work he has done.” 

As we looked at pictures of the contractor installing windows, she described the complexity of one particular job and how pleased the client was.

In addition to the big catalog, she gave me pamphlets from the other window manufacturers she represented, a printed quote sheet comparing their prices, a folder for all the literature and a pad and pen with the name of her store. I had to ask one more question.

“Can I assume the cost of these windows is a worthwhile investment?” I asked.

She smiled again and nodded. I got the message. (Yes, I love my house.)

As I pulled away, I thought of my reluctance to enter. But if I lived in the area and I was ready to replace my old, leaky windows with insulating glass, I would return. 

We had established a rapport in a matter of minutes and to me that was more important than the tired surroundings, including the big, old dog sprawled out on the other side of the counter. There was another reason to remember this “small-town” experience. It was a good lesson in life, a much-needed reminder that first impressions can be misleading. 


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