Listen To Your Customers
By Norm Clark
Faced with continued economic uncertainty and an ever-changing business environment, it is important to really understand our customers’ businesses and how they are being affected by these uncertainties. When is the last time you had a conversation with customers in which they opened up to you about issues they were dealing with and hoped that you could help them find a solution? There is an art to engaging another person in a conversation and having that person feel comfortable enough to share things that they don’t feel comfortable sharing with just anyone. Here’s a look at some techniques for engaging people and making them feel comfortable enough to open up and share some things that could put you in a position to provide them with solutions.
Diagnose Before You Prescribe
When you think of professional people, what kind of people come to mind? Doctors? Lawyers? Bankers? When you meet with these professionals, what do they normally do before offering you advice? Most likely, they will first ask you a series of questions to better understand your situation. Would you agree? If so, then would it be fair to say that we consider people to be professional – at least in part – based on the degree to which they ask questions before offering advice? If so, does that apply to sales professionals as well? Will prospective clients consider us to be more professional if we ask
questions to better understand their business situations prior to presenting information, demonstrating products or otherwise trying to make a sale?
Here’s the analogy that makes the point very well. Let’s assume you are traveling and wake up one morning not feeling well. You go to a doctor whom you’ve never met. As the doctor walks into the examining room, you make the comment, “Doc, I’m from out of town and I’m not feeling well. I hope you can help me.” The doctor says, “Sure, you’ve certainly come to the right place.” The doctor picks up a prescription pad, writes out a prescription, tears it off, hands it to you and says, “Here, take this. It will make you feel better.” As a patient, how would you feel about that doctor? You might believe that the doctor didn’t have a sincere interest in your condition. Maybe you would think the doctor was trying to see as many patients as possible to increase his or her income. Whatever you would think about the doctor, it probably wouldn’t have much to do with trust or confidence, and you probably wouldn’t want to see that doctor again.
I know no one reading this has ever done what I am about to describe, but I have seen salespeople go into meetings with customers and prospective customers and prescribe before they ever diagnose. It happens all the time. Salespeople sometimes show no more of a genuine concern for the customer’s situation than the doctor did in the scenario described.
Now, let’s look at the same scenario with a little different outcome. You are traveling, wake up not feeling well and go to a doctor that you have not met before. As the doctor walks into the examining room, you make the comment, “Doc, I’m from out of town and I’m not feeling well. I hope you can help me.” This time the doctor says, “Well, I certainly hope so,” and then goes on to ask the following questions: • “What seems to be the problem?” • “Is that a sharp pain or a dull pain?” • “Have you ever experienced this before?”
• “Have you taken any medication for it?”
• “Did the medication help? “
After hearing your responses to the questions, the doctor picks up a prescription pad, writes out a prescription, tears it off, hands it to you and says, “Here, take this. It will make you feel better.” As a patient, wouldn’t you feel better about this doctor? It only makes sense that customers and prospective customers are much more likely to buy from sales professionals who fully understand their situations and can provide what they need, when they need it, to ensure that their operation runs smoothly.
In a selling situation, when a sales professional is able to ask questions that help a buyer identify a problem that needs to be fixed, the sales professional will likely have the first opportunity to provide a solution.
As sales professionals, it is critical that buyers feel comfortable enough with us to open up and share what
their problems are. Two things have to be perceived by the buyer before this will happen: a certain amount of trust in the sales professional; and a genuine interest on the part of the sales professional, coupled with the perception that the sales professional can help find a solution to the problem.
Capability to Provide a Solution
Many salespeople make the mistake of trying to impress a buyer with how much they know. In fact, some buyers would describe a typical salesperson as someone who does a lot of talking and tries to leave the impression that he or she has all the answers.
A sales professional can build credibility with a client much more quickly by asking the right questions. If a sales professional knows enough to do this – particularly questions the client has not considered – he or she stands a much greater chance of being perceived as a resource by the customer. In my sales experiences, few things have given me greater satisfaction than to ask questions of people who I considered knowledgeable in their profession and have them respond with “That’s a good question.” or “You know, I haven’t thought about that.” What happens to a salesperson’s credibility with customers in these situations? It increases by the minute, and often those customers begin looking to the salesperson as a resource.
Genuine Interest in the Concerns of Your Customers
The best way to accomplish this is to be a good listener. It is an old saying that “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care about them.”
To keep this simple, let’s look at three levels of listening.
• Marginal – Pretend listening, having little or no interest in what is being said.
• Evaluative – Begin by listening, and then once we think we know what the person is going to say, we do one of two things: Either we begin thinking of what we are going to say next or we begin formulating
our solution to what we perceive the person’s problem to be. This is the trap into which most salespeople fall.
• Active – Total concentration on what is being said with the intent to fully understand a situation.
Good salespeople are active listeners. They have the ability to empathize with clients and show a genuine interest in their concerns with the intent to help them find a solution. I have had an opportunity to work with some excellent sales professionals throughout my career. The really good ones are active listeners. They not only hear what you say; they hear what you are saying.
Let’s consider an example of the difference. One evening my wife and I were returning home from having dinner. We were on a freeway and as we approached the exit to a mall my wife said, “Would you like to stop by the mall for a few minutes?” Like most guys – shopping not being one of our favorite things to do – I turned to her and said, “No, not really.” So, as we passed the exit to the mall she said, with some disappointment, “I can’t believe you wouldn’t take me to the mall.” At that point, I got it.. She really wasn’t asking me if I wanted to go to the mall; she was hinting for me to take her to the mall. In this situation, I heard what she said, not what she was saying. See the difference? It’s like reading (or hearing) between the lines. So that I don’t leave you in suspense, I ended up getting off at the next exit, made a U-turn and went to the mall. Really good sales professionals actively listen with the full intent to understand.
Norm Clark is senior lecturer, Industrial Distribution Program, Texas A&M University.