Unearthing Customer Needs During A Retail Sales Interaction

Written by Sean McPheat | Linkedin thumb

A sales person asking a customer some questions
Good discovery skills are essential if you are to reach the top level of retail sales: being recognised as a trusted advisor by your customers.

When you are in this position people will talk more openly to you and tell you what they want to buy, and even how to help them to do it!

Not every customer is open to the kind of conversation we are discussing, but when you approach people in the right way you will find that more of them will be ready to open up to you.

We will discuss how to overcome the barriers some might people put up, and this will help you to have good sales conversations with more people every day. And that will give you yet another tool to help you to help more people to buy from you!

In this session we will cover three strategies for unearthing your customer’s needs.

These are:

• Problem solving
• Explore and discover
• Transformational probes

Uncover Needs

In order to uncover your customers’ needs, you will need to be able to ask effective questions to understand what situation the customer is in and to understand their needs and wants.

Essentially you will be looking for ways to help them to make a buying decision, which will be different according to their individual circumstances.


When people recognise they have needs and wants, they can feel motivated to do something to satisfy them.

It could be that something has broken and needs replacing. Or, they may want to take advantage of new technology or fashions and will take steps to satisfy their need for something new.

In both of these cases, it can be said that they are motivated to solve a problem.

This problem can be real because they can’t use the item that is broken; or more of an imagined problem because they want the latest technology or fashion. Either way there is some impetus to resolve their situation – effectively solving a problem.

When people buy goods and services they are resolving the problem of satisfying their needs and wants.

The strength of a person’s motivation to buy depends on how urgent and important it is for them to resolve their problems.

They may not initially see them as problems, but if we consider buying an item as a problem solving exercise.

It can be very helpful to both the customer and salesperson as their issues can be identified, agreed and resolved.

The customer can see a clear reason to buy, and the salesperson can point out how the benefits help the customer.


Firstly, we need to identify the potential customer’s motivation to buy.

To help describe them we will use a TV showroom as an example.

The same principles will apply in other types of retail store, and when you know how to approach each type of customer you can readily adapt this to your own situation.

Strong Need = HIGH URGENCY!

The first potential customer is in your store because their old TV at home has broken down and because it’s out of date it’s not worth repairing.

They are looking for a replacement, and they ‘need’ to have it as soon as possible.

This customer has a clear and defined problem they want to solve and is considered high urgency.

Want > Need = LESS URGENCY

Another potential customer is browsing TV sets because they have an interest in Smart TV sets that run apps and connect to the internet.

They have a working TV at home so they don’t ‘need’ a replacement.

Their motivation to look at a new TV is their ‘want’ to improve what they have and be able to do more.

They have a desire to improve and innovate.

This customer is less likely to me motivated by urgency, but having the latest equipment (or fashion trend) is important to them. This would be considered less urgent.

No Want or Need = NO URGENCY!

A third potential customer may be in the store by chance – they may have just come along for some batteries but are attracted by your TV displays and are simply taking a look at them.
There is no recognised ‘need’ or ‘want’ and therefore no urgency or importance.

This is the classic browser who will tell you that they are “just looking”.


For each of the following Scenarios indicate whether there is High Urgency, Less Urgency, or No Urgency.


John is planning the family vacation for next summer. He has reserved a house near the beach, but is considering alternate locations. The family goes on holiday together each summer & he is looking for a wonderful location that will satisfy the whole family.


Emma attended a party last night & was impressed with the new Aston Martin that a colleague recently purchased. Though she enjoys her 15 year old Fiat, she’s been thinking about purchasing a new car.


David & Alison have a new baby that is crying most of the night. They haven’t had a good night sleep in weeks. Alison read about a music selection that has been proven to help babies sleep.

Engage With The Customer

retail assistant handing shopper the goods they have purchased
In every case the salesperson needs to discover what motivation exists, and how to help that person to make a buying decision.

The way to do all of these things is to engage the customer in a conversation. In that conversation the salesperson uses a mix of questions and statements to explore, discover and unearth needs.

This helps the customer to appreciate their issues; and how to solve the problems they represent.

Let’s look at these steps in detail – then you will know how to use the techniques to engage effectively with different customers.


Your task as a salesperson is to learn about your customer, their needs and wants and to guide them towards resolving the problem of satisfying them.

So, you must develop a natural and confident way to ask questions, identify problems and offer solutions.

Do not try to interrogate a potential customer – the idea is to have a productive and mutually interesting conversation where you are able to ask some relevant questions and put forward some ideas.

Your conversation will contain questions and statements that help to build a joint understanding between you and your customer.

Some of the topics you should cover in the conversation are:

• The present situation
• Past situations
• Customer’s likes and dislikes
• Current needs and wants (problems)
• Possible future needs and wants (problems)
• New products and capabilities (ways to solve problems)
• What products could satisfy their needs
• How the customer would like to proceed

Notice that, apart from the first few, there is a natural progression through these topics.

In the real world you may be able to follow this sequence towards the customer making a buying decision.

However, in most cases you will need to be flexible according to how it actually goes with each customer. As long as you know what topic areas to cover you will always have a way forward.

Avoid appearing pushy; your aim is to help the customer explore ideas that can solve their problems, and help them to choose to take action by buying from you.

Preliminary Probes

When you ask questions, you are effectively probing.

As long as you do this respectfully and politely there is no reason why a customer should resist.

To avoid it seeming like an interrogation, ask permission first.

Here are some preliminary probes you can use to gain permission from your customer.

• Will it be ok if I ask you a few questions?
• Do you mind if I ask a couple of questions?
• If it’s OK with you, I’d like to ask you about what you have now
• Can I ask you a question?
• I wonder if I could ask you what you think about ….?
• Can I take a couple of minutes to find out about….?

Using these and similar probes will position you favourably with most customers so you are then able to explore their situation effectively.

You will occasionally come across a person who does resist, but the majority will respond positively to a sincere request to ask them a few questions.

If they ask you why, then simply explain you would like to be able to help them as much as possible. Tell them you don’t want to push anything on them and any buying decision is up to them of course.

But when you know something about their needs and wants you will be in a much better position to make any recommendations that they may not have considered.


When you have gained permission to ask questions, you need to ensure they are effective.

To do that you need to think about how you phrase your questions.

Most people have heard of open and closed questions (or probes).

However, it is surprising how many salespeople use too many closed probes and not enough open ones!

Let’s take a look at both of these:

Open-end Probes will:
• Invite a wide response
• Get at opinions, feelings, ideas
• Introduce new topics
• And encourage a response

Some examples of this include:
• “What are your thoughts on…”
• “How does that look to you…?
• “What other issues are there…?

Closed-end Probes will:
• Limit answers to a narrow range
• Find out details and facts
• Check for understanding

Some examples of this are:
• “Can we talk about…”
• “Which of these do you like…
• “How many…”

Try to ask more open-ended questions at first to give you a wider picture, and then ask more closed-ended ones later on to check your information and move forwards.

Open Ended Questions For Retail Sales

Open-ended probes often begin with the words what, why, where, when and who.

Be careful how you ask ‘why’ as it can sometimes sound judgemental or even like an accusation.

Try asking ‘what were the reasons…’ instead; it can make quite a difference.

Notice that ‘how many…’ is a closed probe because it leads to a single number as an answer. ‘How do you feel about..’ is an open-ended probe.

So, don’t get hung up on the words – they are a guide to helping you to be more productive and confident with your probing skills.

Closed Questions

Closed questions focus the conversation.

A further use for closed questions arises if you have a customer who wants to talk for too long about irrelevances.

You must be very careful before using them this way, but if someone is talking incessantly you can politely say “Yes, can we move on now please?” or “Can I ask you about what you are looking for?”

You must remain respectful and polite, but in extreme cases asking a closed question can help you to move on – and also help the customer to focus on your products.

Silence Is Golden

When you have asked a question stop talking!

Wait for a reply – it might take a few moments, especially if you have asked a thought-provoking question.

Wait and you will be rewarded with a thoughtful reply. It’s so easy to keep asking or to say something else and then you end up destroying the rapport you have gained and you lose your customer’s interest.

So beware – it’s true to say that many people in sales do talk too much.

They often talk themselves out of sales. Don’t let that happen to you. Make yourself wait and listen for answers and you will be amazed at the difference you can make!

When you wait for an answer, there is a pause which gives the customer time to think, and it can also pace your discussion nicely which avoids the interrogation syndrome that people hate.

After you have paused for a reply, avoid the temptation to respond immediately as sometimes the customer has a lot more to say and you can learn so much more than if you come back at them with another question.


TED Tell Explain Describe
TED’s are a type of probe that can easily supplement your open and closed questions.

TED stands for:


TEDS allow for further probes beyond open and closed questions.

They serve to vary your style and they help you focus in on a topic or idea.

Some examples include:

• “Tell me more…”
• “Can you Explain what that is….?”
• “Could you Describe how it happened….?”

You must have good rapport with your customer before attempting these probes, but when you do you will be able to obtain a lot of detailed information, and they are really good for understanding how someone is thinking.


Summaries are extremely useful tools and can be used to pace a discussion, and ensure that you and the customer do understand each other.

A big danger if you do not check for understanding at various points, is that you and the other person make assumptions which can be confusing for both of you.

If your products are fairly complex, or in any extended discussion it is absolutely essential to summarise frequently.

Even in short discussions about straightforward products and services, you should verify your understanding with a summary before proceeding to close the sale.

Here are some examples of summary probes you might use:

“So, it seems like a 42 inch screen with LED display will be a good choice for you?”
“If I have understood you correctly, you’re not sure if you can get all the catch-up TV channels on your set top box”
“Can I just check, did you say that you would prefer a TV with 3D capability?”

Now, these are TV related examples of course, but if you sell different products all you do is to substitute the features of your products to use the same kind of probe effectively.

If you look again at these probes, you’ll note that each one could lead to a positive response which itself could be a buying signal from the customer.

If you find they don’t agree with your statement, then you have learned that you had misunderstood, and by correcting that understanding you can improve your dialogue with the customer which again can lead to a sale.

Hypothetical Questions

Hypothetical questions – These are the ‘What If..’ kind of question.

Use them to encourage your customer to think about solutions. “What if you had a 3D TV?” is a good way to do this.

Or just ask ‘if’: “If you were thinking about a new TV, what features would you look for?” Then let the customer reply, they may need a short time to think.

Sometimes they may not respond, but those that do are effectively telling you what they really do want.

That can lead quite naturally to the customer developing some urgency for making a change they hadn’t previously considered important.


Hypothetical questions are really good when people don’t appear too interested, and as long as you avoid sounding pushy. Use a respectful, interested tone of voice and you will be amazed at their effect!

Simply, this is asking a question that leads the customer forwards towards reaching and agreeing a conclusion.

Examples are:

“You do want the best picture and sound quality, don’t you?”
“You will want to have it installed safely at home won’t you?”
“You’ll want all the latest features, I’m sure!”

This kind of question must be used very carefully as many customers are very sensitive to feeling you are pushing them into buying.

As you build rapport with a customer you can judge when it would be a good time to ask this kind of question.

If you feel it appropriate you can say in advance: “I don’t want to seem pushy, but….” which can soften its impact yet still help you to guide the customer towards making a satisfactory purchase.

Here is another type of probe that is designed to reassure the customer about the benefits of your products.

Examples are:

“You will get real peace of mind with this one”
“Here’s how simple it is to use”

Now, these are statements not questions, but if you wait for the customer to respond after you have said them they are probes.

Making easy eye contact and giving them space to give you their response makes this probe very effective.

Supporting probes will help you to assure the customer, and reinforce their appreciation of the product’s benefits to them.

When you want to learn more about a comment or statement made by the customer it’s very simple and natural to ask:

“Can you give me an example?” or “And then what happened?”

If you adopt a naturally curious approach you will find you use these types of probe as a matter of course.


When you have listened to your customers and properly understood their situation, needs and wants, you can then make suggestions that can move the customer forwards.

You may use a question format or make a statement, but the important thing is to use your knowledge of the customer and your products to make a suggestion.

Examples are:

“How would you like to try a larger screen size?”
“My advice would be to take the 3D model so you have everything you need”
“From what you’ve said, I recommend that you think about a home theatre to go with it.”

Suggestions allow you to bring in new possibilities and help the customer towards a decision.

You must have a good relationship with the customer and confidence in your product knowledge.

When you are seen as a trusted advisor by your customer, your suggestions are highly likely to lead to the customer choosing to buy from you.

To Summarise

As you put into practice your learning from these tips then you will become more confident and comfortable when you are exploring and discovering your customer’s needs and wants.

You will find you are able to help more people to buy from you and you will learn to probe in a natural and relaxed way.

This is the hallmark of a competent and professional retail salesperson.

Then you will find new ways to build strong relationships with your customers, to help them make better buying choices and as we said at the beginning, build your personal brand.

With good discovery skills you can reach the top level of sales where you are recognised as a trusted advisor by your customers. When you are in this position people will talk more openly to you and tell you what they want to buy, and even how to help them to do it!

Our Retail Sales Training solutions will provide you with specific questions, phrases and statements to use when unearthing the needs from your customers.

It’s also very important that you listen attentively as well. By listening we mean listening to understand not just to respond!

Don’t fall into the trap of taking it in turn to talk. Instead, hold a two way conversation where you come from a place of helping the customer rather being out to take their cash.

Happy selling!


Sean McPheat

Sean McPheat
Managing Director

MTD Sales Training | Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo

Sales DNA

Originally published: 26 November, 2019

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