As a professional journalist, I’ve been interviewing people for almost thirty years. And the one thing I’ve learned from all those interviews is that I am always going to be surprised. – Hector Tobar
The biggest mistake you can make as you get started on your business is to assume that you know what people want.
And the biggest defence you have against making that mistake is to get really good at listening and asking questions – interviewing your customers to understand their situation and what they really need to check your own beliefs – and change them if needed.
How do you go about doing that?
Start by being genuinely interested in them
You may have spent months, even years working on your ideas, your proposition, and are eager to tell everyone about what you do and how they can buy from you.
Think about the dynamic that exists when you first talk to a prospect.
They may know you very well or they may have agreed to speak with you because you’ve reached out to them or been introduced.
But you probably don’t know a great deal about them and their background and what interests them and what they’re trying to do.
The traditional approach is to start telling them all about yourself, all the things you’ve done and the types of products and services you have.
When you do that you start selling yourself – and it’s too early for that.
You need to first understand what they need, what they’re trying to do, what their purpose is.
If you understand their purpose you can talk about what you do in terms of how it helps them achieve their purpose – and you can make it more relevant and therefore more persuasive.
Now, you’re not trying to understand them just so you can sell to them – that’s not the best attitude to take.
You need to start by wanting to learn more about their situation, their business, what they do – because when someone has spent years doing something that is a genuine opportunity to learn and understand and appreciate a situation that you may be unfamiliar with.
It’s like being an anthropologist.
Every time you go into a new business, a new environment, you’re in the position where you’re studying and trying to appreciate a new culture – a group that do things in a certain way and have certain attributes, when it comes to power and politics.
You need to let go of your own assumptions, your beliefs and immerse yourself in the situation in front of you – as the saying goes, first seek to understand and then only to be understood.
And you start doing this by listening and asking good questions.
How to listen and ask good questions
When you listen to someone you need to do so actively, immersing yourself and picking up on as much as you can.
You can’t do this by sitting passively in a chair.
Get out a notebook, get on a whiteboard – take hand-written notes because the research shows that you’ll retain more information this way.
Write down what you can, draw concepts, connect ideas – you’re trying to capture the detail of what’s going on in someone else’s head – and the way in which you take notes is an important part of that.
Your note-taking helps you to pick out important ideas and reconstruct a narrative in your own mind that you can play back to your prospect to show you understand what they’re trying to do.
And you help those ideas to surface by asking good questions.
So, what makes a good question?
Some people talk about how you should as open questions rather than closed ones – but the research doesn’t really suggest that those distinctions make any difference.
Instead, I’d suggest that the one thing you don’t do is ask a leading question.
A leading question is one that tries to also contain the answer that you want to get.
For example, if you have spent three months creating a product that helps people to clean windows – you might ask something like, “Would you use this product to clean your window?”
The answer you want is implicit in the question – you want the listener to say “Yes!”
And they probably will – after all, it’s a hypothetical question about possible future behaviour, they don’t want to hurt your feelings and it costs them nothing to say what you want to hear, given the way you’ve asked the question.
Instead, if you ask them, “How often do you clean your windows” and the answer is, “Can’t remember the last time” or “The cleaner does it” that tells you a lot more about their buying habits in the past.
What they’ve done in the past is a much better indicator of what they will do in the future than what they say they will do in the future.
This is an important concept to grasp – past behaviour is probably the best indicator of future behaviour you can get.
If someone has a need for the kind of thing you’re selling and has bought something similar in the past – that’s a good sign that they will buy something like that in the future.
The other kind of information you want to ask questions around is the context – what’s the situation that existed when those decisions were made.
Why did you take that decision in that way at that time?
You will learn about what’s happening around that decision making process, the ideas, the people, the characters, the pressures involved – all the external elements that constrain and limit the possibilities and buying behaviour of your prospect.
These contextual factors probably still exist – people and culture change slowly.
The ways of working that you see modelled by three professions are ones that I find useful to keep in mind.
These are lawyers, journalists and anthropologists.
Lawyers are looking for the facts, what happened and when it happened and what the truth is about a situation.
Journalists are looking for the narrative, the story, the thing that links together the facts – and the way in which the people involved think and feel about what is going on.
And anthropologists look at the culture and dynamics of the situation – how the people in there act and why they act the way they do – they try and empathise with them.
If you get the facts, understand the story and have empathy – you now have a powerful basis on which to construct your own pitch.
How to pitch yourself
If you listen and ask good questions and get a genuine understanding of what the person you’re talking to is trying to achieve, what their purpose is, you can talk about what you do in relation to how it helps them achieve that purpose.
The bad way to do this is in a manipulative fashion.
If you’ve memorised your sales pitch and the features of your product and you try and link what you do to what you’ve heard without actually realising that they don’t fit together without someone changing something you’re going to fail.
For example, I once took a sales call where I explained that what I wanted was to work with partners who would introduce us to prospects directly.
The sales person wanted to sell me a marketing subscription service and pitched it as being able to do that direct introduction.
And instead of listening the sales person tried to use pressure and force a sale through persuasion and argument, which is both tiring and irritating for the listener and eventually I hung up on the person.
If someone has taken the time to tell you about their world it gives you an opportunity to look at what you do and see if you can adapt it for them.
If you can get your product or service fit their purpose then you’re in a good position to talk about working together.
If you can’t or you haven’t got the discretion to do so, then there isn’t a fit and you won’t get anywhere by trying to force one.
Find someone else who is a better fit.
Really, once you understand what’s going on you have two choices.
Change what you do or find someone else who needs what you do now.
And the biggest advantage you have when getting started is that you can change quickly, you can adapt what you do to what you learn people need – as long as you’re open and listen and learn.
If you use this approach you’ll find very quickly that you’re no longer selling.
What you’re doing is creating products that are fit for purpose – products that have a market and consumers want.
And then consumers will start to pull those products from you – you still need to get it in front of them but there will be a better fit and your chances of making sales will increase significantly.
The last thing you have to do is get yourself ready to do all the other stuff – construct the value chain that gets things into the hands of your customer.