In the early part of my career in the music products industry, I had the privilege of working for Greg Billings in Milwaukee, selling pianos. It was an interesting time in the world of piano sales, with portable keyboards and digital pianos just starting to enter the market, as organs tried to hang on. The store, Billings Pianos & Organs, Inc., was founded by Greg’s father, Zeb, who was then running Sight & Sound International: publisher of familiar brands such as Speed Music and the Pointer Organ Method. Zeb went on to create and sell many innovative musical products in the mass market before selling the business to Hal Leonard.

I was a Regional Sales Manager at Sight & Sound at the time, and Greg was trying to recruit me. I had my concerns, because the only previous experience I had selling keyboards was at a local music store, which was one of the first retailers in the region to start selling Casio products. He assured me that I would be successful because he had grown up in the business and he’d developed a great training program. With that, I decided to jump in.

On my first day, he asked me a question: “What business are we in?” I looked around the store and immediately replied, saying, “Selling pianos and organs!” He responded, “Wrong! We are in the question-asking business!” He explained that careful qualification of a prospect through thoughtful questioning is essential to building trust and confidence. If you have not gained those in your prospect, you will never sell him or her an instrument.

The next question he asked was this: “What are buyers?” I answered something to the effect of this: “They are families who are looking for an instrument to enrich their lives.” And, I have to say, I was especially proud of my answer. Again, he replied by saying, “Wrong! Buyers are liars!” He went on to explain that they lie to us—not to be mean or hateful but, rather, to distract us from trying to sell them something.

Next, he asked this: “When do they lie?” Well, by now, I was catching on, and so I replied by saying, “All the time!” Greg said, “Right answer!” He explained that they use these white lies to keep us at bay and to try to lead us down the wrong path, so we don’t sell them something they think they don’t really want or need.

He followed by asking, “Whom are they really lying to?” By that point, I could see where this was going, so I replied by saying, “Themselves!” He confirmed my answer, going on to explain that prospects who lie to us in an effort to derail our attempts to sell to them are, in reality, lying to themselves. They are doing a terrible disservice to their families by not trusting the salesperson enough to guide them in making the right decision.

Finally, he asked, “Why are they lying?” This time, I struggled for an answer, blurting out something to the effect of this: “Because they don’t know any better!” Greg responded, “Close. They’re trying to be nice to us.” He explained that, sometimes, prospects just don’t want to unload their problems on other people, such as that they’ve lost their job, they have too many bills, they’re going through a divorce, etc. So, they lie to us in an effort to try to be nice, and to spare us from the nasty truth.

Remember, this exercise is not intended to call all prospects liars, especially not in a derogatory manner. Rather, it’s the most effective way to help the salesperson gain control of the selling situation: asking thoughtful and accurate questions, and then using that information to guide the prospect to the best possible instrument. Nobody wants to be sold anything. However, when they are carefully guided through the process by a thoughtful analysis of their needs, your prospects won’t feel like they’re being “sold.” Instead, they will feel like they have received the best possible advice from you: an expert who is truly watching out for their best interests, and who’ll help them make their buying decision.

Let’s summarize the process.

  • What business are we in? The question-asking business.
  • What are buyers? Buyers are liars.
  • When do they lie? All the time.
  • Whom are they really lying to? Themselves.
  • Why are they lying? They’re trying to be nice to us.

Every day, Greg would run each salesperson through that drill. Even now, 25 years later, whenever I see him at a NAMM Show, we go through the ritual.

The most important part of this is to gain control of the prospect by using questions. The easiest way to do that is actually to ask their permission. After your greeting and pleasantries, say this: “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” Who says no to that? Then, proceed to ask questions that will help you determine what instrument is best for him or her, and his or her family. Because that person gave you permission to ask questions, he or she won’t feel as though it’s an interrogation.

If you are asking the questions and your prospect is giving the answers, who is in control of the situation? You are, of course. It’s important to ask your questions in a manner that gets the customer talking, but that also moves him or her along to get to the desired result.

Let’s use an example of a prospect who is shopping for a digital piano. Your questions might include these:

  • How did you hear about us?
  • Who will be playing the piano?
  • What have you seen so far that you like?
  • What have you seen that you didn’t like?
  • Will anyone else be playing the piano?
  • Will you or they be taking lessons?
  • Do you already have a teacher?

I’m sure you’ll have many more to add to the qualification part of the process. Once you have collected your information, then ask: “Do you know what to look for in a digital piano?” This will open the door to the demonstration phase, and it’ll allow you to establish your expertise and share your product knowledge.

Remember, buyers are liars! (Of course, not in a mean or hateful way.) They don’t want us to sell them anything. Keep asking questions along the way, especially if you feel you’re losing control of the situation. It’s imperative that you collect all the important details in order to progress to the closing phase of the sale. If you use this process with any instrument you’re selling, I’m confident you’ll see a positive outcome.

David Hall is Retail Sales Manager and Webmaster for Hartland Music, Inc., and the Waukesha County Conservatory of Music. A full-line, 15,000-square-foot, free-standing facility with more than 2,500 students per week. Contact him at

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