How Empathic Listening Can Help Build Long Lasting Customer Relationships

Susan Adams

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I first heard the term Empathic Listening many years ago at a Stephen Covey workshop. He was talking about the principal and how it had helped several sales people make more sales. I was intrigued. Having been a sales trainer in several organizations, I knew effective listening was one of the hardest skills for many sales people. Myself included.

We all leave training armed with product knowledge… amazing features and benefits… and enough information to be dangerous. But no one teaches you how to listen. What helps you understand what’s going on in your customer’s world? Certainly not product knowledge. Listening is one of the most important, and least utilized skills, in most sales training programs.

Empathic listening takes listening to a completely different level. Most people listen to be understood by the person they’re talking to. Empathic listening is listening with the intent to understand the person you’re talking to. See the difference? If you are trying to understand what your customer is telling you, they know you’re listening. If you keep speaking trying to get them bought into your agenda, it’s because the call isn’t about them…it’s about you and your agenda. The customer certainly knows who listens to their concerns.

It’s about finding a way to get in a person’s frame of reference. There are some simple ways to use this in you everyday business. For example, if you do a lot of customer interaction on the telephone, always ask, ‘Is this a good time for you to talk?’ You never want to try and have a conversation with someone who is distracted. This simple question tells your prospect you respect their time and have empathy for their situation. It’s much easier to reschedule than to try and have an ‘information gathering’ conversation with someone who isn’t listening.

If you do a lot of face to face customer meetings, a good way to open the conversation is with the question, ‘Do you mind if I ask you a few questions’? This is a non-threatening way to open a meeting. It also signals that you’re ready to listen.

Copyright 2006 Susan Adams

The better you get at listening, the easier customer relationships will become. A recent conversation I had with a friend illustrates this point. He is a VP of Sales in a large corporation. He was on a customer visit with a member of his sales team.

The customer had a lot of complaints and wanted to voice them to someone in authority. After the meeting, the customer pulled the VP aside and thanked him for coming. He also commented, ‘I really feel like you listened to me. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that. Your sales rep, by the way, doesn’t listen. Which is why I wanted to speak with you. ’

The customer just wanted someone to listen. By listening, he validated the customer’s concerns. Even if the ultimate answer was that the problems would take a while to solve, it’s the fact that he listened that was important to the customer. Unfortunately, his sales rep wasn’t up to the task.

Ask yourself, how do you ever understand the needs of your customer if you aren’t listening? Imagine the relationship you can develop with a customer who believes you have listened to his concerns and acted accordingly!

In all of the sales training I’ve taken through the years, I don’t believe listening was ever mentioned. Most sales seminars are focused on some new process, and never get around to such a basic idea. Is anyone teaching you how to put yourself in your customers’ shoes? I doubt it. If you’re losing a deal, and don’t know why, how can it hurt to ask, ‘I would like to understand your current concerns regarding the recommendations I’ve made. When you feel I understand your situation, then we’ll review the proposal I made. Do you have a few minutes to discuss this with me’?

We have 2 ears and one mouth for a reason. Spend more time listening and less time talking and your sales calls will go a lot more smoothly. Maybe you’ll discover some hidden needs, and be able to provide solutions that involve your product or service.

It’s always important to remember that empathy is not the same as sympathy. Empathy allows you to ‘walk in your customer’s shoes’. Sympathy is the expression of an emotion. Just because you empathize with someone, doesn’t mean you are agreeing with their position. Remember, your goal is to understand their position. Once you understand, you can move forward with addressing any objections. You’ve taken a customer who was ready to walk away, and have brought them back to the negotiation phase of the sale. Instead of having to discount price or give something away, you’ve created more value for yourself. All by listening.

Copyright 2006 Susan Adams

It always sounds corny to say, ‘People buy from people they like’. It’s true. I’ve always believed that if I had a good product that was competitively priced then what tips the scale in the deal would be likeability.

And listening is something that makes you likeable. Listening can create rapport with a customer in a way that nothing else can. I can’t imagine someone disliking a sales rep that took the time to really listen to his or her concerns.

If you’re looking for a way to improve your skills as a sales professional, I suggest making an effort to use empathic listening. Listen to your customers and really try to understand what they might be trying to tell you. Don’t end up being the person who has to have a VP come visit, just so your customer feels ‘heard’. It’s your job to hear your customers. You just need to start listening.

Copyright 2006 Susan Adams

Former Learjet Sales Star, Susan Adams, has sold products and services for some of the world’s most respected companies…. . General Electric, Pitney Bowes and Bombardier Aerospace.

She takes a ‘real world’ approach to all sales topics. ‘Successful sales people are experts at having conversations with customers. If you can empathize with people, create an environment of trust and really listen to their concerns, you’ll be a top sales performer. ’ More importantly, you’ll be able to develop long term relationships with your customers.

Susan has successfully sold to CEO’s, High Net Worth Individuals and celebrities. Twenty one years of talking to customers has give Susan a unique perspective on how to build a sales presentation that connects with your customers, and compels them to buy.

Susan has golfed with David Duval, raced cars with Bobby Rahal and dined with CEO’s from Fortune 100 companies. There is no sales situation she hasn’t seen….


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