In a recent article about so-called “behavioral finance,” I talked about the importance of getting to know our clients and to understand their goals, hopes and dreams. That got me to thinking about the value of listening, and how important a skill it is in any business, not just financial advising.
I have heard a number of entrepreneurs tell me how they started a business that involves doing something they love. But then they say how much they hate sales. Often what they hate is the stereotype of the fast-talking, high-pressure salesman we’ve all seen caricatured in books and movies. This idea of how to sell misses an essential point. Whether you are proposing an investment security, or selling a used car, the sales process should always start with careful listening.
Until a business person understands a prospect’s real needs, the details of the product or service are beside the point. Often it turns out that the product we thought we were selling isn’t right for a particular customer – but something else, which neither of us had thought of before, would be perfect. And how can we find out what that potential customer needs? We have to listen.
The most important tip I can offer about listening is that you don’t learn anything while you’re talking. It is so important to hear out your clients, to let them say what’s on their minds, before you launch into your description of what you or your product can do for them.
That goes beyond keeping your mouth shut while the prospect is talking. Have you ever gotten the sense that someone you’re talking with is so busy planning what he’ll say next that he isn’t really paying attention to what you’re telling him? Don’t fall into that trap! Keep your focus on what you’re hearing. Take notes, if necessary, but maintain eye contact. Ask questions to clarify if need be, but don’t interrupt.
What about those people who ramble? If you let them just talk, they’ll be all over the map and have a hard time getting to the point.
Maybe so, but don’t jump in too quickly to get them back on track. Instead, listen to the seemingly off-topic things they are talking about. Especially in our profession, understanding what’s important to our clients, and learning about their family or about their business, is the only way we can give them good advice about their finances, investments and estates.
Not only do we have to be able to listen to what our clients are saying, we also have to pay attention to what they aren’t saying. If the client carefully avoids a certain topic, that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t important. Often the opposite is true.
Something else we have to do is to translate a client’s conversation for the benefit of other advisers or his or her family. I have had clients ask me to talk with their children for them and explain what the parent couldn’t or didn’t want to tell them directly. On the subject of translating, in a technical field like financial advising, we need to be sensitive to how well a client understands complex documents or market data. When it’s our turn to talk, we can be helpful in interpreting those all-important details.
More than once, I’ve thought I had ideas that would be best for clients who made it clear they disagreed with my advice. By understanding what lies behind their own ideas, we can fairly and objectively lay out the pros and cons of all the alternatives and let them make the ultimate decisions.
I’ll readily acknowledge that sometimes it can be hard to understand what a customer is getting at. A very useful piece of advice I read recently is to focus on the point you didn’t quite catch and ask the prospect to explain it further. “I want to be sure I understand this completely, because it’s clearly very important,” is a very useful all-purpose statement in cases like this.
Savvy sales people I know have told me that a customer who’s allowed to talk without interruption will often get to the “close” without any prompting. Trying too soon to turn the conversation to what you have to offer is a good way to lose the sale. If you are truly going to serve your customer, and earn a mutually beneficial relationship, you have to discipline yourself to keep the focus where it belongs.
A couple of other tips bear repeating. First, find a place to talk that’s free of distractions. A busy restaurant or other noisy place isn’t good. Second, if you run out of time, it’s best not to rush and try to make your pitch before you’ve fully heard out your prospect. When setting a follow-up meeting to continue the conversation, ask the client to consider a question or issue that’s pertinent to their concerns. That doesn’t mean saying, “I’d like you to think about these key points about our product.” This sort of statement tells the client you are focused on yourself, not on his or her needs.
Good listening is hard work. But it’s essential, and it’s a skill that anyone can learn. It pays off in deep, valuable and lasting relationships.
Old North State Trust, LLC (ONST) periodically produces publications as a service to clients and friends. The information contained in these publications is intended to provide general information about issues related to trust, investment and estate related topics. Readers should be aware that the facts may vary depending upon individual circumstances. The information contained in these publications is intended solely for informational purposes, is proprietary to ONST and is not guaranteed to be accurate, complete or timely.
Susan Willett is the director of trust services and oversees all aspects of trust administration for Old North State Trust, LLC. Old North State Trust, a North Carolina chartered trust company, provides: asset management services; income, estate and trust tax consulting; retirement planning and administration; and trustee and estate services to both individuals and businesses. Old North State Trust professionals have many years of experience and for over a decade have assisted clients in identifying and reaching their financial goals. For more information, visit www.oldnorthstatetrust.com or call 1 (800) 679-3996.
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