Learn to listen
Empathy is the ability to relate to the emotions of others. I am constantly reminded that empathy is a skill, when looking at the way in which my wife listens, understands and responds to our children. Empathy requires a level of sacrifice, it requires you to set aside your own stuff (the need to close the deal now) to understand the emotional state of the person you are talking to.
I have to admit that there are many times when I have fallen into the trap of driving my own agenda, rather than listening to the needs of the customer. I have one particularly painful memory of a sales engagement early on in my career. We were meeting with the board members of a company and I was feeling nervous. I had recently started our company and had been mulling over the needs of the customer for a long time and I had made some assumptions about certain requirements that the customer wanted. So I launched straight in with my pitch. After 10 minutes the CEO stopped me and said: “How about you introduce yourself and your colleagues first.” Shamefacedly, I asked my colleagues to please introduce themselves, while inside I secretly wished for the boardroom table to swallow me and end my embarrassment.
This experience has taught me how to listen to the customer, listen to the atmosphere in the room, and listen to my own response to this. I still get flustered and I still catch myself directing my own agenda during a sales conversation, but at least I am now aware of it. If I go too fast, I pace myself. If I don’t understand something, I explore it. Now when I walk out of a sales conversation, the most important success criteria is whether I have understood and responded to the human on the other side of the table. Every sales conversation grows my level empathy and I am realising that I cannot solve all the problems, but I can understand them and make the other person feel that they are understood.
What listening has taught me is that customers have different ways to deal with the problems that they face, and more than that, in many cases the problem is slightly different from the problem experienced by the previous customer. In today’s world with limitless access to information, customers are much more informed about their alternatives. Not knowing the alternatives to your service that are available to the customer sets you at a distinct disadvantage in the sales conversation.
Many entrepreneurs are scared to have a frank conversation about the alternatives available to the customer. They believe that if they make their customers think about the competitors, the customer might be inclined to go with them. I view this differently. Knowing what the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors are could allow you to have a open and honest conversation about it, and provides you with an understanding of what the things are that a customer values in your product or service offering.
Customers are, however, hesitant to talk about the wrong decisions that they have made in the past. This is normally only revealed when a stronger level of trust has been established with the customer and you are able to show that you can relate to the problem that the customer is experiencing. In order to relate you therefore must become an expert in the area that you are trying to understand and sell. The customer will only trust your advice when they understand that you are an expert, that you know their pain, understand the alternatives they have considered, and can relate to the problem they are experiencing.