John Marks of Stereophile and I recently exchanged e-mails. They pertained to an upcoming feature of his in the good book. Sagely nodding my greying head to sundry very excellent points he made -- which will form the backbone of a poignant think piece -- I eventually fired off some quick comment straight from the hip. It prompted John to suggest that I turn this specific subject into something more concrete. He apparently felt that it might benefit at least the one or other audio retailer out there in the trenches who's strong on service ethics but weak on closing sales. Actually, I shall put it as "uncomfortable or ill equipped to set boundaries, expectations and asking for a firm commitment before anything else."

What? Am I suggesting that a retailer propose to his customers? Absolutely. Except here's what I propose you propose instead of undying (high) fidelity:

"Howdy, what brings you to visit with us today?" [Insert any number of plausible or implausible answers after you've extended this or any other qualifying yet welcoming icebreaker.]

"Excellent. Let's retreat to the back and hunker down for a moment. My name's A.D, by the way. That's not for the last 2,000 years though sometimes I do feel I've been around that long. No, it's short for audio dealer. Here's my dilemma. Look around. Everything you see in this store is mine. I've sweated over researching what to bring in like you wouldn't believe. After all, if it's here, it's paid for in cash and out of my pocket, not floated on endless credit by some corporate Mister Good Guys or CEO Circuit City. If it's no good and I can't sell it, I just purchased non-refundable junk bonds in boat anchors. See what I mean?

Truth is, I love audio. It's my passion. It's what I'm really good at. It's what gives me the most satisfaction when I can share it. I love nothing better than putting together a
system that will serve my customers for years and, most of all, be an intensely moving experience they look forward to whenever they fire it up.

Here's the thing, John. To really do my job, I need to learn what your long-term expectations are. I need to find out what kind of music you listen to how loud, what your room is like, how many people will use the system, what you've owned before, what you liked about it, what you'd like to improve upon, what else you've investigated so far, what you thought about that... In short, I need to learn who you are as an audiophile and music lover. Then I can proceed to demonstrate something customized for you that will meet your very personal requirements to the best of my ability.

To be honest, I don't care how long that will take. In fact, if you don't have the time today, I suggest we make an appointment and you figure on bringing at least 2 hours next time. Think about this as being fitted for a fine suit or a custom boot. This is your audio fitting session. Makes sense, doesn't it? Actually, it's the only way to get results.

You should also know that I service everything I sell, deliver and install whatever you purchase and guarantee that it will sound as good or better in your space as it did here in the store. I'm only happy if you're happy. I'm serious. I insist that you truly enjoy what I sold you. I need for you to get everything from it that I know it to be capable of. After all, it's my name and reputation on the line here. There's just one last point I need to cover. As you can imagine, my time and expertise can't be free. As a professional, I must place a fair value on my know-how. But guess what? It won't cost you one penny extra beyond whatever the components add up to. Needless to say, I can't afford to discount on top of all that. Frankly, I'm not interested in just moving boxes. There's others already doing that gig on a scale much larger than I ever could dream of. My professional goal is to sell 110% satisfaction. That only comes from decades worth of hard-earned experience and applied caring. I'm sure you appreciate that or else you wouldn't have come to my store in the first place.

Now, I don't expect you to buy from me if what I show you doesn't meet your needs. However, I do need your commitment that if what I show you does meet your needs, fits with your stated budget and puts a huge smile on your face, you and I will do business together. Hey, you wouldn't believe how many times I've spent more than a half day with what I thought was a sincere customer only to find out afterwards that he never had any intentions of buying from me at all. He just wanted my expertise and demonstration facilities to make up his mind on what to buy, then he'd hit the Internet and mail-order from some garage operator with no facilities, no service, no experience and no overhead. I can't and won't compete with that. If that's what you're after, thanks for coming in and have a good day.

Now, how would you like to proceed?"

Dear retailer, think of this as your blueprint to qualify the earnestness of customers, to draw boundaries, to clearly state your expectations, to clearly outline what you offer in turn and then get a hand-shake commitment before you spend any more time, period. Use your own inimitable style, your own suave words and don't be afraid to see 50 or more percent of foot traffic walk out on you because when asked pointe-blank, they can't look you in the eyes and say "yes, I will give you my business". You must make yourself worth far more than wasting your time on wankers who are just retail vampires intent on sucking your blood. That is, if indeed you have the expertise and add-on services that separate you from the discounters and warrant paying full price at your digs. This is nothing but sales training 101. Sadly, it's something that many enthusiasts-turned-dealers never managed to pick up on the way to becoming proprietors of small audio salons.

Your kind is great at making good sound, gracious and generous to the extreme of conducting lengthy demoes. But when it comes time to ask for the sale? You often let the customer waltz right out the swingin' front door because you never established, a priori, that you're there to sell, plain and simple. No sale, no bacon, no noogie. Remember, people want to be sold - not by time clockers and burger flippers but by enthusiastic and knowledgeable experts who clearly know more than they do. If you're an expert at what you do, establish that relationship from the start. If you cancel a doctor's appointment on the same day, don't you fully expect to get billed? Why the frigg should you allow yourself to be treated with any less respect and courtesy? Why should your time be worth any less? Though you're not wearing the white smock, you're the audio doctor, the music priest, the gear confidante, the stereo surgeon. Act like one.

This means that on the sales floor, you're nobody's audio buddy with whom one shoots the shit, listens to CD after CD and then walks out on with a casual "until next week, call me when the new Classe transport gets in". Be friendly but firm and ask a lot of open-ended questions that can't be answered with a straight yes or no: "How would you like to proceed?"

So - how do you want to proceed in dealing with the current climate of price shopping where service is treated like a dirty word or redundant concept? A simple yes or no just won't do with a question like this, will it now? Hey, I'm not sure this is exactly what John Marks had in mind but it's my best shot at the subject nonetheless, 6th-element style...