Oh boy, what were we thinking when we hired this one? Joe's hair looked like he combed it with a brick, and his clothes, though neat and pressed at 7 a.m., by noon looked like he wore them to clean the warehouse. When anyone spoke to him, he stared back like his brain was not engaging. When the topic got deep or detailed, he got that cloudy-eye open-mouth stare that made him look like a fish that has been in the cooler too long.

Nonetheless, after what seemed like an eternity of product and sales training, Joe and I went off to make some sales calls. Armed with product literature and samples, we arrived at our first appointment. This particular customer has always been a tough sell, slow to change or try anything new. My job at this point was to observe Joe and coach after the call.

He set the sample on the builder's desk, and stared at it with intensity. The builder looked at Joe, then at me, and back at Joe. Finally, Joe spoke. “Uh-oh, the trainer said this stuff was so good it sold itself…” After a good laugh, Joe began asking questions. He had the same confused look I had seen before. One question led to another without any mention of product features or benefits. Just when I was about to break my restraints and rescue our rep, I noticed something. In answering Joe's questions, the builder was telling us why he needs and wants the product on his desk. Actually, he is giving us a list of the features and benefits he would look for in a product like this. Joe is writing down the information.

Then it happened. Joe contorted his face and narrowed his eyes, and he asked, “It seems odd to me that, based on your assessments, you have not been using the product solution sitting here on your desk. Could you tell me why you have not made the change?”

After a moment, the builder looked at us and said, “I guess no one has ever given me a reason.” Then he recapped his own list of reasons to change. We had no choice but to accept his position and make the sale.

This day left me dumbstruck. What had happened? Joe never presented the product formally or offered a rap sheet of features and benefits.

The secret? People are sold best when they sell themselves. Throughout the call, Joe asked the right questions that got the builder making his own list of benefits for using the product. Columbo—as I now think of Joe—simply acknowledged that this product indeed satisfied his assertions. By asking rather than telling, Lieutenant Columbo knew he would find out if there was a fit for the product. If there was no fit, there would be no sale.

Our job is to offer product and service solutions. But beyond anything else, Joe understood that people never argue with their own assessments. It's one thing for us to tell a builder why a product can be good for him in the long run, but it's even better when he can see for himself how the product sitting in front of him solves a headache he already has.

The rookie we thought wouldn't cut it turned into a regular detective. All that was missing was the trench coat.

Bill Hofius is senior vice president of Norcross, Ga.–based Ply Mart. E-mail: hofiusb@plymart.com.