Friday, August 9, 2013

Qualifying customers is an imperfect science

I help to sell automated fingerprint identification systems for a living. Before we begin to respond to a Request for Proposals from a law enforcement agency or other government agency, one of the things that we must do is ascertain the customer's budget. If the product that the customer wants is worth $10 million, but the customer's budget is less than $100,000, then it would be a waste of our time and the customer's time to try to sell the product. At the end of the day, the customer won't buy it.

Note that there are a number of assumptions in the paragraph above. How do we know that the customer's budget is less than $100,000?

My company obviously isn't the only one that has to make guesses about customers. Let's say that you're a shopkeeper, and you sell handbags. Expensive handbags, retailing in the tens of thousands of dollars. In this case, your market of potential customers is relatively small, and you do not want to waste your time with those who can't afford your product. At the same time, your inventory obviously has a high value, so you take steps to protect it.

When I visited Switzerland in 2000, I visited the famous Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich, a street with some of the most expensive stores in the world. I didn't enter any of them, but apparently an American woman did enter a handbag shop on this street. According to the woman, she wanted to look at a particular handbag priced somewhere between $35,000 and $40,000 (reports vary), but the saleswoman refused to let her look at it, saying that the customer couldn't afford it. The customer politely left the store...and subsequently shared her story with Nancy O'Dell on Entertainment Tonight.

You see, the woman in question WAS able to afford the handbag. I won't tell you the woman's last name, but her first name is Oprah. And Oprah speculated that her race might have been the reason that the saleswoman concluded that she couldn't afford the handbag.

For the record, shop owner Trudie Goetz claims that there must have been a misunderstanding, and that Oprah was allowed to see the handbag in question, and that the saleswoman was not proficient in English. Some aren't buying it:

So as the store owner you: blame the employee, blame the employee's heritage, claim it was all just a "misunderstanding".


And even if this WASN'T a case of racism, there's one point to remember:

[Y]ou lost a $40k sale.

H/T to James Russell, who shared the Gawker version of the story.
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