Two at a time

March 21, 2011

By John Munce, Deployment Executive, The Tatham Group

The story has stuck with me since I heard it at age 22.  The teller described how his first boss welcomed him to a sales job.  The boss took him to a classic New York jewelry store run by bearded men wearing yarmulkes.  It was small, on a side street, with nothing in particular to recommend it.

When they approached the counter, the boss asked to see watches. The case was jammed with watches.  Chronometers for jet pilots.  Gold wafers on elegant leather straps suitable for the opera. Rugged simple field watches with glow-in-the-dark numbers. Slip on metal bands with elastic. Rubberized divers watches. Heirloom watches advertised in Vogue.

The jeweler brought out two. One was a forest green sports watch and the other a plain-faced gold with black leather strap.  He asked, “Which do you prefer?” The boss asked the new salesman to answer.

The jeweler returned the other one to the case and selected another.  He repeated, “Which do you prefer?”  When the young man answered, the jewelry salesman asked, “What is it you like about it?” After a few words, one watch was returned to the case and another selected.

The process of comparing two watches continued until one watch had been preferred three times. The jeweler said, “Ah, this is the one for you, no?”

The boss bought the watch and gave it to the new salesman, who put it on with surprise. The boss said, “You’ve just had a lesson from an expert salesman.  Study how he helped you make a decision.  The watch is my investment in your success.  And never be late again.”

What a simple technique! Handle complexity by focusing on the simple choice between two alternatives.  Keep the conversation concrete.  Listen to the customer and move as quickly as they wish.  When they have given the same answer three times, you know you’re done.

Over the years, it has consistently worked for me. The approach can have a calming effect on groups a twitter with a complicated problem.  My kids tease me about always going two-by-two, but my wife has rarely complained about the resulting jewelry.