So, you’ve stirred the attention of a potential client – possibly your first. Now what? How do you go about gaining their confidence and understanding their needs?
You’ve got a lot to give: the skills, qualifications, and experience necessary for the service you offer. You have a vision and a deep desire to make your venture a success. That success depends on how well you communicate your distinctiveness not only to your first prospects but to every individual you’ll do business with. But first, even before you communicate your special gifts, it’s of utmost importance that you understand your client’s needs.
Before you turn your first conversation with them into a monologue that’s all about you, listen. Understand your potential client’s needs. What brought them to call on you? What are their goals?
And what happens when there's a communication problem? What if they can’t articulate their needs to you? What should you do?
First, give them your total, uninterrupted attention. Show them you’re interested in who they are and their reason for coming to you in the first place. Use plenty of eye contact and make this meeting about them, not about you.
A successful start to a rewarding relationship, whether it be as a service provider to a potential client, or as a chance encounter with a stranger, hinges to a considerable extent on how well you listen. Listening skills aren’t hard to develop, but they may be skills many of us do not fully employ. Approach them on their level. Hear what they're saying, both the spoken and the unspoken message.
Don’t forget to use your eyes as you listen. What does their face reveal, their eyes, their mouth? How do they hold themselves? Ask a well-timed question relevant to what they’re saying and listen for any unspoken clues.
Hallmarks of good listening
Commonly given advice holds that you can show how effectively you’ve listened by repeating what your conversation partner has just told you. Researchers for Harvard Business Review conducted a study of top listening skills.
Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman found that contrary to conventional wisdom, good listening is not necessarily demonstrated by simply paraphrasing what the other has told you according to their article “What Great Listeners Actually Do."
You can better demonstrate your understanding by:
- Going about things differently. The best listeners ask questions during the talk. Simply being quiet while the other speaks doesn’t go far enough. Think of your conversation as a give-and-take, and actively respond to what the speaker is saying.
- Promoting positivity during the dialogue. Make encouraging comments that boost the other’s confidence. Listening and responding appropriately allows the other to feel valued. Provide a feeling of safety – let the other say something without the worry of how they will be accepted.
- Refraining from simply offering a course of action the other should take. Nobody appreciates being dictated to or told what to do, how to feel, or how to act. The study finds that people more frequently accept suggestions given by highly skilled listeners.
So it’s important to not only listen to what your conversation partner has to say but to respond appropriately. Don’t bore them with your qualifications at this point unless they specifically ask for them. This time is not about you; it’s about them. Listening and replying appropriately are two major actions that will encourage them to stick around and give you the chance to help.
Seek first to understand
With any conversation, whether it be with a potential client, a friend, or a family member, remember to listen first. As motivational author, educator, and businessman Stephen Covey said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Once there’s an opening in your conversation and it feels natural to shift the topic, ask about their background – where they’re coming from. It’s your job to learn why they came to you in the first place. Ask them what they seek in your service or the problem they need help addressing.
The ability to listen well and respond appropriately will help the other person decide how credible you are and how likely you are to be a help to them. Skillful questioning here may help them realize ideas they didn’t know they even had. And affording them the privilege of using you to share their thoughts with will go a long way in allowing you the privilege of being selected to work with them.
How do you formulate those first few questions?
You may wonder specifically what to ask a potential client. Inc.com has a great article with solid suggestions: “21 Questions to Help You Really Understand Your Customer,” by Deborah Grayson Riegel.
A sampling of Ms. Riegel’s questions, simplified, includes asking what the client could do in their present situation, what is (and isn’t) working for them right now, and what they’ve been putting off that needs doing now.
After you’ve listened, responded, asked a meaningful question or two, and found out what drove them to you in the first place, now you can wow them with your credentials. You don’t want to make this long and meandering – a short elevator speech will do. (Elevator speech: what can you quickly tell someone about you and your business that will lead them to want more.) Tell them of a recent success where you helped someone with a similar goal.
If ever you feel at all socially challenged – I know I do, at times – or even the slightest hesitancy in earning the confidence of your first several clients, there are positive steps you can take. It’s vitally important to your business that you make sure you’re prepared. Listening, asking the right questions at the appropriate time, and finding the right moment to tell them about you, can all help you convert a simple inquiry into a winning contract.