By Dale Bryce
Client listening is the "new black" in sales as tight markets force the re-evaluation of approaches. When it comes to listening, most of us need to learn how to stop talking.
Compelling commentary comes from a former FBI hostage negotiator, Mark Goulston.
While training FBI agents and police officers he would role-play, pretending to be a suicidal policeman, holding a gun to his neck, threatening to take his own life. The job of the audience was to get him to drop the gun. That did not necessarily mean talking him out of it.
In a piece in The Business Insider Goulston outlined tips on "…how to get people to do what you want." He suggests getting them to talk, asking them the right questions, really paying attention to their answers and creating a future focus.
You would be amazed what clients will tell you, if you really listen
In helping a number of professional services firms win more of the work they want to win I have introduced client listening programs. I have been amazed over the years what clients will tell you if you just shut up and listen. Clients have, for instance, advised me on pricing, resourcing and risk management and of their openness to co-development approaches, and told me that their procurement practices do not constrain them.
Selling value requires that you know what clients value
The strategic imperative for all this is often clear. The thrust of the statement, “Best for our client is best for our business,” is included in strategy documents for many a firm. Implementation, as always, is the hard part. How to discover what is best for a client? How best to diagnose their problems and understand what they value most? Listening, not talking, can be your first step in fuelling business growth.
So, in the style of FBI hostage negotiator, Mark Goulston in The Business Insider, this is what I have learned about the early steps in building mutually beneficial client relationships:
1. Park your ego:
To have an authentic conversation with a client, park your ego. Don’t assume you know about the challenges confronting them and their organisation. And don’t just wait for the client to finish speaking so you can spruik or promote your idea of what they should be doing. It is not about you.
For many of us, listening requires real discipline, and practice. Most of us have the best intentions in our interactions with others but we often fail in the implementation.
I demarcate particular meetings for just listening, confirming and acknowledging what I have heard. Even if I disagree.
2. Just ask a small number of open-ended questions:
When meeting with a client, there will be all sorts of things you want to discover. You will have given it great thought. You should have been briefed in advance by others.
Formulaic questions often won’t help you. A client just feels like they are being interrogated. I find just asking a small number of open-ended questions will allow a client to say what is important to them. They will know you want to win more work with them. And often they will tell you how you can help them without you even asking.
3. Use the silence:
In a conversation, many of us are used to filling what we might perceive to be an awkward silence. But if you really want to listen to a client, use that silence and this time allow the client to fill it. Amazing details pop out of mouths if you can give clients more thinking space.
4. Be independent:
Clients are happy to share, but they are conscious of their working relationships. They do not want to hurt the feelings of consultants they work with. So white lies get told, like, “Your proposal was great. You just lost on price.”
Deeper reviews should then be undertaken by people who are independent of the relationship, project or bid team. An open mind is best, together with a non-defensive manner.
5. Turn up in person, be present and authentic:
If you really value a client, you will turn up in person to listen to them. This sends a powerful signal that you care, and your gesture will be reciprocated.
A colleague and I once took a day trip to meet with a Managing Director of a major utility, flying in to meet with him and a number of his colleagues. I told the MD the truth; that we really valued the relationship and had prioritised these meetings with him and his team.
He acknowledged our commitment to the relationship and said, “Thanks for coming up to see us today. I know you have come a long way for these meetings, and so I spent some time over the weekend thinking about what I really needed to share with you.” He went on to tell us just how things got done in his organisation, and by whom, their key drivers at that time, funding and timing challenges, etc. Gold!
6. Read Time to Think by Nancy Klein:
My tips above might be straight forward but they are not necessarily simple to put into practice. We need to unlearn so many things we believe are required to appear professional. For instance, experts are supposed to espouse ideas, be a font of knowledge. Talk a lot. Right…?
In leading teams I have tried to confront this challenge myself. One approach was to set up a book club, where we all read and then discussed Nancy Klein’s, Time to Think.
Klein takes a non-directive coaching approach, promoting the need to create a thinking environment allowing the required space, time and courtesy to listen to someone else think out load.
Clients are people too, and they will react positively to you listening to them think out load. In this way, they (and you too) can discover their real problems, which are hardly ever highlighted in that Request for Tender issued by their procurement team.
I encourage you to implement this week just one of these six tips. Then you can ponder how best to use the insights gathered to fuel your business (and personal) growth.
Dale Bryce leads customer strategy and market development as part of the executive team at consulting engineering firm Entura. He is also the immediate past President of the Asia-Pacific Professional Services Marketing Association (APSMA)
Former FBI hostage negotiation trainer explains how to get people to do what you want: Mark Goulston’s interview with The Business Insider can be found here.