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How to Find Out What Our Clients Really Need

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How to Find Out What Our Clients Really Need

According to the popular phrase, knowing the problem is half of the solution, and I deeply believe this is true in many situations in business and life.

When I practised life coaching years ago, it sometimes took many long hours (or several sessions) of asking the coachee insightful questions and taking them on an emotional journey before they could identify their core problems. The problem they initially wanted to address was rarely the main issue. But once the real culprit was uncovered, dealing with it was often child’s play, and sometimes even unnecessary; it simply went away as a result of their heightened awareness.

Similarly to coaching clients, many business customers have confused ideas about their problems and desired solutions, and I’m saying this without a hint of condescension. As a client, I stopped counting how many times I received the exact products or services I asked for which later turned out to be of little value to me. But on the positive side, I also dealt with service providers (designers, educators, health specialists, etc.) who took the time and effort to get to know me well, helped me dig deep, and offered what I really needed. I didn’t feel I was sold to; I got way more than I’d hoped for.

We need to put on our coaching hat.

Whatever our niche is (apart from perhaps selling toilet paper), we need to put on our coaching hat at times and develop deep connections with our clients. This is the only way we can give them what they crave most in a time dominated by automation and digital communication; the sense of being heard and understood, clarity about their unique problems, and tailored solutions.

Yet, one-minute surveys and five-minute questionnaires, consisting of strategically formulated questions, are more popular than ever. While the businesses that use such tools for learning about their clients’ goals and needs may have a genuine intention to save them time, I’m of the opinion that they often do them a disservice. Regardless how much effort goes into creating a standardised questionnaire, it will always remain impersonal, calling for superficial answers. Asking standard questions at face-to-face meetings may help reveal slightly deeper insights, but there’s still a lot more that can be done.

Let’s aim for deeper conversations.

Communication can reach different levels of depth. Most conversations I see in the professional world stay at the level of exchanging information. People share facts, plans and strategies, as well as (mostly non-controversial) ideas and beliefs. Participants might engage in intense debates, driven by the desire to influence or impress others, but otherwise, they show few signs of genuine engagement. You won’t see many sparkling eyes or faces lit up with excitement at such meetings.

Connecting with others on an emotional level looks very different. The point here is not necessarily to discuss or express emotions, but to talk about things we all truly care about; what inspires and energises us, what scares or hurts us, and what makes us jump out of bed with enthusiasm. These conversations happen in a different headspace compared to when we’re focused on fact-checking; this time we are more willing to be vulnerable and transparent and have little interest in who is right or wrong. This is the type of interaction when relationships deepen, real answers surface from the unconscious mind, and we experience epiphanies.

How to make that happen.

Nonetheless, engaging in emotionally connected conversations is not always easy. It can be challenging both for our clients and for us to drop our guard, especially when we are used to working in corporate environments or left-brain industries. So, let me share a few suggestions for making this process a bit easier for you.

  1. If possible, meet your clients in person, especially at the start of your business relationship. (See my earlier article, We need to start taking our relationships offline which shares why face-to-face interactions are so important.) Allow generous time for these meetings, because deep, connected conversations cannot be rushed.
  2. When practical, meet them somewhere outside of their usual environment. Perhaps in a park, museum, or another place with an authentic feel that they don’t associate with their immediate issues and challenges. This will help them relax more and think beyond the boundaries of their current situation and position.
  3. Before discussing products or services (i.e. what they are looking for), make sure you explore the big picture (i.e. why they want or need it). Don’t expect that the first answer will be the real one. You may need to keep circling around an issue a few times before hitting the bull’s eye.
  4. While using prepared questions to guide the conversation can help, please be flexible. Allow your clients to tell stories they are passionate about and go on tangents at times. Sometimes discussing seemingly irrelevant subjects (such as sport, travel, arts, science, family life, or spirituality) can teach us a lot about people’s personalities, needs and challenges. Listen carefully and watch the little signs.
  5. Most importantly, don’t make this conversation too serious. Feel free to have fun and use humour, as appropriate. You may want to go for a relaxed walk while chatting or play some sort of a game.

I deeply believe that serving people in almost any industry should be more than a maths exercise. It can be tempting to build a carefully engineered, impressively efficient, state-of-the-art business machine, but we need to remember what the limitations of our systems are, and what people really need. To show empathy, to read between the lines, and to help people find what it is they really need, we need to be fully present for them, with all our attention. That will take time, money and effort; but that will be time, money and effort very well spent.

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