Dear Sharon,
I have a question that deals with a touchy situation I recently found myself in.

I made an appointment with a lady I will call Ann and went to her house on a sales call. When I got there, she said her spouse would be coming home from work soon, but she would like to go ahead and get started. Naturally, I was hoping her husband would arrive soon so I wouldn't have to do a repeat performance.

After exchanging pleasantries, I asked if she would like to wait a few more minutes for her husband to arrive before discussing their needs for a replacement system. She said "no" (somewhat curtly), so I immediately took out my notebook and a worksheet and got started. A few minutes later I heard the garage door open and in came a woman!

As I stood up to greet her, Ann said, "I would like to introduce you to my companion, Sue" (not her real name). I was so rattled. I don't remember what I said, but I'm sure it was something stupid. Bad as this was, it got worse.

While trying to collect my wits and get back on track, I was so caught up in trying to figure out their "roles" that I broke out in a cold sweat. I caught myself addressing questions to Ann as if she was the wife and questions to Sue as if she was the husband. At the same time, I was asking myself if I should talk to both of them as wives. My mind was getting whiplash!

Needless to say I left without getting the sale and was so distressed I couldn't eat dinner that night! I'd appreciate any advice on how to handle a situation like this because I fear it will come up again. Thanks and keep up the good work.

- Nick

Dear Nick,
Yes, Nick, more than likely you will call on other same-sex couples. And, get ready for more surprises even among your friends and current customers, as more and more same-sex couples become comfortable about "coming out." I present to contractors throughout North America and you are right, this can be a touchy subject.

In my seminars, many contractors report that same-sex couples represent a significant share of their customer base. So what is the purchasing power of the gay/lesbian market? Business Week cites $485 billion. Also, it's estimated that 10 percent of the population is gay.

As you and many others have discovered, it can be a real shock when you find out that a woman's spouse is a woman. This use of the word "spouse" does not come as a surprise to people who have family members who are gay. Some of our clients are same-sex couples, and we find they use the term "partner," "spouse," and "companion" interchangeably.

I'm guessing from how rattled you were that neither of the women looked gay to you. As you know, stereotypes can be misleading and, in your case, damaging. Among our same-sex clients, appearance is all over the map.

Since you don't remember what you said, there is no way to know if you said something insulting. Many times same-sex couples choose not to do business with someone because it's obvious that person is so uncomfortable. And, judging from your comments, I would say that your discomfort was more than a little obvious to them. Everyone wants to do business with people they are comfortable with.

When talking to customers, don't be concerned about their perceived roles. Instead, work to establish rapport and trust right from the beginning. Concentrate on listening and understanding what each person's interests, issues, and concerns are. You (and they) will get more comfortable when that's the focus rather than their living arrangements.

Sharon Roberts is a consultant who specializes in selling to women and couples. Please send your questions or comments to She will answer your questions and comments in her "Ask Sharon" report each month in The News.

Publication date: 08/22/2005