A story of bathtubs and bewilderment: How assumptions destroy sales relationships

assumptions sales

Have you ever come across a salesperson making assumptions about you, your needs and expectations, or your experience? Then you are probably aware of how powerful these assumptions can be … at driving you away.

An employee of mine experienced this recently. While undergoing renovations to their home, they ordered a new bathtub — stand alone, a very plain and symmetrical design — straight from a local manufacturer.

However, when it got delivered, it was not symmetrical at all — it had a weird, big bulge on one side, and an elaborate internal recess on the opposite side.

When they enquired about this they learnt they had received the spa version (without the spa pump and jets) and the big bump was the space where the motor would have been.

Sensing their bewilderment, the manager explained the mould of the plain version of the tub had recently broken and so the company decided to use the spa version mould instead.

Apparently other customers hadn’t complained and, after all, the tub would stand next to a wall so nobody would notice the bulky side. And the small recess inside certainly wouldn’t bother them, would it?

But this was not what they had bought.

“Assumptions are the termites of [sales] relationships”

It would have been so easy to tell the clients at the very beginning the mould was broken and they had two choices: either wait a little bit longer to have the desired bathtub delivered, or receive a different version that may not be perfect aesthetically but still worked pretty much all the same. They could have made an informed decision. No hard feelings, moulds break, these things happen.

However, the salesperson assumed it wouldn’t be necessary to talk with the clients about all this.

We can only assume in this case, because the salesperson’s reasons were never explained. However, from our experience with other salespeople, we know that one of the following things can happen to set up assumptions.

  1. The salesperson is afraid to jeopardise the overall deal. They might hope they will get customers beyond the point of no return, where they will just accept their fate and live with whatever results they receive. After all, you don’t want to go through the whole process of finding another bathtub now, right? This is not only a dangerous strategy but also one of the most unethical approaches in sales.
  2. The salesperson is anxious about having such a conversation with a client, as they might have to deal with emotions such as disappointment, anger, or suffer other effects on the relationship with the customer. Often a lack of training, experience and confidence is an unfortunate mix to create this mindset.
  3. Some salespeople simply might not care about the customer enough to really worry about how specific and elaborate their expectations are. Organisations need to be careful with employees who lack the basic level of client priority identification and show little empathy for their customers’ perspectives.
  4. Salespeople sometimes struggle with seeing the client’s perspective. They cannot see the world with the eyes of the buyer. Is buying a bathtub a simple necessity for the customer to ensure the resale value of their home or are they after a real centrepiece for a well-designed bathroom? Do they even enjoy a nice bubble bath themselves, or is the tub simply for the kids?

But assumptions are not just a matter of avoidance, low ethical standards, or lack of sales skills and experience. Versed salespeople might actually trip over their own experience and assume, especially if a large number of their customers buy the same things for the same sort of reasons.

Who knows, they may be right 80% of the time. But is saving the extra two minutes it would take to confirm a few little details actually worth risking the remaining 20% of business opportunities?

Please, ask. Either to learn what really matters to your client, or at least to get confirmation of a few standard customer expectations.

If the bathtub company people had not assumed, it would have saved them the extra costs they now have to absorb in terms of transport, delays, manpower and so on, not to mention the damage to the customer relationship and potential future referrals.


Fast-forward four weeks, and I hear the bathtub is great. What had happened was the salesperson was too busy trying to be owner, salesperson, production manager and even delivery person all at the same time. Sustainable customer communication and care got lost in an attempt to juggle too many balls in a growing business.

The lesson here is selling is not something you can casually do on the side. That’s another dangerous assumption.

Remember everybody lives by selling something.

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