Sound advice

When selling hi-fi, assess what it is customers want and what suits their needs, rather than yours, says T21 managing director Paul Laville

When it comes to hi-fi and music I’m a two-channel purist and I love my vinyl. It’s my weakness. I’m tweaky, geeky and aspire to the perfect set-up. My kids think I’m a dinosaur because they grab most of their music from YouTube (choke!).

And despite the fact that we have some decent music-streaming tech in the house, they mostly listen to it through the tinny little speakers on their phones. Sometimes my eldest will ping a tune to her £9.99 Bluetooth novelty speakers with flashing lights, but that hardly makes a difference to the sound quality. As for my wife… Occasionally she’ll listen to some ad-infested radio station interminably looping 80s power ballads.

I may have failed with my family, but recently I thought my passion for hi-fi would spread to my neighbour, who clapped his eyes on my turntable one day, decided he’d nab one for himself, then went out and bought something for £45 that he could plug into his 2.1 PC speakers via USB. When he proudly showed me what he’d bought, and told me that the hideous thing had been on sale at half price, I hid my face in despair.

It’s very difficult to understand, as a chap who loves hi-fi, why some people just don’t get the simple, unarguable fact that music sounds infinitely better when played through a system designed to extract the very best from the recording. Don’t they want it to sound as though Sam Smith is right there in the room with them?

As for my neighbour, I thought he’d just walked in store and picked up the first turntable he’d seen because it was a bargain, but it turned out that actually he’d had a lengthy discussion with the salesperson, who had recommended it to him. The shop had a decent range of turntables on display, all varying in price, so quite rightly the salesperson had asked him questions to ascertain his needs and budget. Turns out that his driving need was to convert his modest clutch of old vinyl records into digital files he could then import into his media player.

Somehow I’d missed that. I’d just assumed that he’d been impressed by the fact that my shiny, cast aluminium turntable was perfectly balanced to minimise vibrations, that the quality of signal piped into my speakers was as perfect as it could possibly be and he wanted the same. But no. As long as it could convert analogue into ropy MP3, that was all that mattered. He was in the process of sizing up a brand new multi-room system and wanted his old LPs imported into a playlist before they decayed into sludge.

Seemed I’d let my assumptions get the better of me.

But it’s difficult not to. Music is emotive. It is passion and joy for both the seller and the buyer. The trouble is that we are all different, and there are now so many ways to enjoy our music that we’re all in danger of believing that our own preferences embody the pinnacle of excellence. Music inspires positive emotions, which can be very powerful allies in sales – but only when we remember to empathise with the customer’s tastes and preferences, not enforce our own. If the customer is the complete polar opposite to you, I’m afraid you’re the one who has to walk to meet them and share their excitement, not the other way round. Otherwise, you’re in danger of overwhelming them with detail irrelevant to their needs, or frightening them off completely.

I’d always suggest when selling hi-fi that you engage the customer on their terms. Ask what and who they like to listen to and learn exactly how they like to experience their music. Then, when you enthusiastically suggest and demonstrate the best possible means of delivering that experience for them, you’ll find that you have their trust. This is essential, particularly if you’re suggesting they try something new at the top end of their budget. And don’t forget that, for some people, your hi-fi range may be undiscovered territory. They may be coming to you for sound advice. If so, the above still applies.

Once you have your customer’s trust, then by all means drip-feed your knowledge into the sales conversation, but use it in support of your recommendation and remember to keep it relevant. Don’t lose sight of the customer’s preferences and needs. Stay in control and close the sale – even if they really do believe that Sam Smith is a genius.