Every second counts: Customers engage in interactions second-by-second, but salespeople don’t

So this guy walks into his first meeting with a psychotherapist. The two shake hands and, as the patient is about to take a seat, the therapist startles him with, “Be careful where you sit. Remember, everything counts!”

And so it is in sales. Everything counts. But my-oh-my how much we miss because we engage minute-by-minute, while the customer engages second-by-second.
Forget listening. It’s what we passively hear.
Let’s say you sell widgets, or the intangible equivalent thereof. You’re meeting with a new prospective customer, one that buys its widgets from your competitor. It’s your first meeting with this prospect.
You ask him, “What are you looking for in a widget supplier?” (By the way, this is generally a bad question.) He responds with, “Well, something different than we’ve been doing.” You’d probably hear the ding, ding, ding of bells go off in your head, right? “Wow, he’s totally unhappy with my competitor! It’s my lucky day!”
There’s only one problem: You wouldn’t hear the prospect say it!
Or let’s say you’re engaged in an information-gathering conversation with Leah, a good customer of yours. The two of you are discussing the organizational dynamics and political structure within Leah’s company.
As you sketch out the org chart, you point to a large department on the chart and ask Leah, “Now, does this department report up to Dan?” Leah responds, “Yes, it does.” Then she pauses and adds, almost to herself, “Well, at least for now.”
Another ding, ding, ding, right? “Wow, something’s going on here. I’d better drill down on THAT comment!”
Guess what? You wouldn’t hear that one either!
OMG! What am I missing?
Stapleton, where do you get off telling me what I will and won’t hear in my customer meetings? I’m a great listener! Yes, I’m sure you are. But you don’t listen second-by-second!
Both of the above examples are backed up by real life. They come from activities in our training curriculum. Quite literally, many hundreds of salespeople have heard audio containing both of the exact situations above and virtually all of the salespeople miss or ignore those two vital pieces of information.
Here’s what’s key. On the debrief discussion, nobody cries foul. None of the salespeople claim it was a “trick activity.” Mostly, they sit in near astonishment as they ponder the implications. “I wonder how much I’m really missing in my customer meetings,” is a frequent confession.
Customers engage second-by-second.
Now let’s look at this second-by-second phenomenon from the customer’s side. You’re at the information gathering meeting with Leah described above. At the start of the conversation, you naturally have to frame up the direction you would like to go in this meeting with Leah.
Since it’s an information gathering meeting, you might be inclined to include the word “information” as you do so. But when Leah hears these benign four syllables, she bristles and says, “Whoa, what do you mean? What kind of information are you looking for?”
It’s not easy to recover from this one. And if Leah doesn’t say something like that, it’s guaranteed her defenses will go up nonetheless.
What’s going on? It’s simple. But it took me almost 25 years to figure out: Customers engage in the sales interaction second-by-second and salespeople don’t.
Many of you know that in the early years of this business I conducted joint calls with client salespeople (acting in the role of a member of the client’s sales management team so that I could lead the call in a natural way). One outcome of each call was as predictable as the sunrise. On debriefing the meeting I would comment on a piece of information that I had gained and the salesperson would say, “I didn’t hear that!”
Why did I always hear things that salespeople didn’t in those calls? It’s certainly not because I’m simply a better listener. It’s because over the many years of doing those joint calls, I had adapted my engagement in the customer interaction to match that of the customer’s: second-by-second.
The best example in all of sales.
Of course, I’ve written often in these pages about the use of “How are you?” in a cold phone call. It is easily the most graphic illustration of this phenomenon.
When a prospect hears those three words – always in the first few seconds – at the opening of a phone call from a stranger he or she responds with a rejection to dwarf all rejections we might have encountered back in our high school days.
You have a decision to make.
All the sales training in the world is rendered practically meaningless until the salesperson changes his or her mode of engagement.
That’s why I believe all salespeople have a decision to make. It’s the decision to keep engaging the customer as you are, which, for most, is sort of “minute-by-minute,” or, like many salespeople have started to do, to start engaging second-by-second.
Learning to engage in the customer interaction second-by-second will take years to master. But the decision to do so can happen right now. Either decision is a life-changing one.
Jerry Stapleton is the founder of Delafield-based Stapleton Resources LLC (www.stapletonresources.com). He is also author of the book, “From Vendor to Business Resource.”

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