Naïve Listening

When I am getting ready to reason with a man I spend one-third of my time thinking about myself and what I am going to say, and two-thirds thinking about him and what he is going to say.

––Abraham Lincoln

An excellent story about the difference between talking and listening is illustrated by Calvin Coolidge, said to be one of the country's most laconic presidents. When his successor as governor of Massachusetts met him in the White House he is said to have asked the president how it was that he sometimes stayed in the governor's office until 11:00 P.M. working and meeting with his designated appointments. Yet his aides informed him that when Coolidge was governor he used to leave the office each day no later than 5:00 P.M. The successor asked Coolidge, “What's the difference?” Coolidge responded: “You talk back.”

Questions require doubt, something educated professionals are not comfortable with. After all, we are paid to have the answers, not express doubt; and if you already know the answers there appears to be no need to gather any more information from the customer, chaining ourselves to the limits of our existing knowledge.

For this reason, during the conversation the customer should talk at least twice as much as the professional. This is incredibly difficult because it requires self-restraint. Naïve listening is difficult because you think much faster than people talk. While someone is talking, you are usually listening with one-half of your brain and formulating your answer with the other. Active listening is a skill that needs to be developed. Professionals are fairly good at this, at least when it comes to the technical requirements of their profession. But we can all get better through practice.

Talkers may dominate a conversation but the listener controls it. Also, taking notes conveys to the customer that what they are saying is important and that you care enough to record it. It also helps you remember exactly what they said. But most of all — and this is precisely why psychiatrists and psychologists take notes — is the person will provide much more detail. The more you know, the more value drivers you will be able to uncover, and the higher the prices you will command.

Ideally, you want to hold this conversation away from your office or the customer's, if possible. By getting out of your respective environments, you are less susceptible to distractions and interference. Avoid holding the meeting in the customer's office, where the customer will feel in control. Another disadvantage of meeting in the customer's office is that he or she may be less candid — the walls have ears — than in neutral territory.

You also want to deal with the economic buyer — the person who can hire and pay you. Many consultants believe you are wasting your time if you cannot get in front of this person, because most likely you will be dealing with gatekeepers who can only say “no,” never “yes.” This may take a few iterations, but the customer is sending a signal they are not serious if they deny you access to the economic buyer, and you may want to invest your resources in more profitable opportunities — such as servicing existing customers.

It is important to have someone present at this conversation who is a member of the firm's value council. This is especially true if the relationship partner is not an effective listener and/or questioner, or if he is not a member of the value council. Team selling is usually more effective, and you want someone skilled at comprehending and communicating value to the customer. Too many partners have personal relationships with their customers that can obfuscate the goal of capturing value.

Avoid the ever-present temptation to provide solutions to the customer's needs and wants. That is not the purpose of the conversation at this stage. You are on a value quest with the customer, not in a venue to begin providing solutions. Your role at this point is to ask questions and have the customer formulate — or at least articulate — a vision of the future. Before doctors prescribe, they must diagnose, which is the role you must assume at this stage in the conversation. Anything less is malpractice.

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