Monday, January 25, 2010

The Art of Client Conversations

When it comes to understanding what the client really wants, it's easy to be misguided. First there's the tendency among many of us to focus only on technical issues. This often leads to not asking the right questions. Many of us also are not the best listeners. And clients often don't tell us what we really need to know. In some cases, they may not even know specifically what they need.

Your firm may excel at providing technical solutions. But without a deep understanding of needs, you'll struggle to deliver the high value solutions that set you apart from the rest. In this series, I've outlined several strategies for uncovering client needs. These include breaking down the three levels of needs, listening effectively, planning for the client meeting, and asking the right questions. In this last post of the series, I'm offering advice about how to manage the flow of the conversation with the client.

Listen more than you speak. There is obviously a give and take in conversation, but most of us are prone to talk too much. That means listening more requires conscious effort. Planning the conversation, in particular what questions you want to ask, is a helpful step in this direction.

Don't try too hard to impress. You naturally want to make a good impression, especially during the sales process. That's probably the primary reason most of us tend to talk too much and listen too little. Showing interest in the client, asking good questions, and actively listening are much better ways to win over the client.

Stick to a reasonable range of topics. It's easy to try to cover too much ground in any given meeting with the client, particularly early when there are many information gaps. This often leads to rushing the conversation, asking questions without allowing adequate time for detailed responses. Part of planning your time with the client is to consider how you might collect information over more than one meeting where appropriate.

Use "Golden Silence." One of the most productive techniques I've used in client conversations over the years is something I learned from Miller and Heiman's book Conceptual Selling. It's called Golden Silence, and it capitalizes on our natural aversion to gaps of silence in conversation. Here's how it works:

  • Ask then pause. When you ask a question, wait about 4-5 seconds to allow the client to respond. Then, if the client seems confused or uncomfortable with the question, rephrase it. But only after giving him or her a sufficient pause.

  • Listen then pause. After the client responds to your question, wait another 4-5 seconds before commenting or asking the next question. Often this encourages the client to elaborate on his or her response. At the very least, this pause gives you a moment to think about your response or the next question.

Golden Silence, used properly, works at the subconscious level (in the client) and can really reveal some excellent insights that you would have missed otherwise. But don't overuse it or the client may well notice.

Use verbal cues to expand responses as well. There are a variety of things you can say to prompt the client to give you more detailed and unambiguous responses. "Could you explain how that works?" or "So what happens then?" are just two examples. Mixing these with Golden Silence will give you the best results. But you can't be afraid to reveal that you don't fully understand their initial response, which is a hindrance for some.

Be sensitive of the client's time. The first way to do this is to come prepared to share something of value. Traditional sales calls routinely violate this principle. But you also don't want to overstay your welcome. Don't merely assume that because the client continues the conversation that it's okay to linger. Ask if the client would like to extend the meeting or schedule another conversation later (it's always a good idea to establish a basis for the next meeting!).

1 comment:

Karen A. Davis said...

Great tips, Mel. And yes, you're right: in an effort to impress, many architects and designers tend to spend to much of the meeting time talking and forcing ideas at a time when we should listen out for the real needs of the client. Sharing your article...

Karen A. Davis