Your customer knows best

Sometimes we just know what is best for our customers, like a mother knows what is best for her child. Or do we? Too often, we try to sell our clients what we think they should buy. Granted, we often have more expertise about the products and services that are available or work the best. Even so, the thing the client buys, in the end, should be the thing the client wants or needs.

A customer who buys something under pressure is very likely to be an unhappy customer. Unhappy customers take their next round of business to someone else. That is why I say the most effective sales tool is listening. Listen to what your client says and you will hear what that client wants to buy. Only then can you sell your customer just the right thing.

Here are five ways to listen for the sale:

1. Save your pitch

Instead of greeting your client with a rehearsed speech about the products and services that you have to sell, start the interaction by asking questions: “What can I help you with today?” “What problem are you trying to solve?” “What’s keeping you up at night?”

Listen to those responses. You might be surprised to hear you were planning to pitch all the wrong things.

Suppose a graphic design company specializing in branding has been steering clients toward palettes featuring ultimate gray and illuminating yellow—Pantone’s 2021 colors of the year. A client comes in requesting a rebranding featuring shades of dark blues, which were trending a year ago, but not so much now. The designers push the yellow and gray, saying the hue will make the rebranding fresh and up-to-the-minute. The client digs in for blue.

The designers, understandably, want their names and their company’s name associated with fresh and trending, not with “year-old.”

What should you do? Ask questions. Then, listen hard to learn what is right for your client. Classic, dark blue may have a special meaning to the client. It might be traditional for the company. It might be the CEO’s favorite color. Take that intel and make it work for the client. Find a way to blend the new with the old. Or, offer alternative sketches in each color. Talk about how gray and yellow can evoke the same special meaning that blue conjures up for the client.

In the end, realize that the new brand belongs to the client, not to the designer. If you sell ultimate gray and illuminating yellow to a customer who doesn’t like it, that customer won’t be back.

The job of any sales professional—and that includes designers or anyone else who pitches anything to a customer—is to make clients happy enough to tell friends and colleagues how satisfied they are with your company, its designers and its service. Hear what your clients want and find a way to give it to them.

2. Have a conversation

People like to do business with people they like and trust. Take some time to let your customers get to know you and for you to get to know them. Instead of making your transaction all about what the client might buy from you, turn it into a conversation that gives you the opportunity to listen for clues about what the other person wants, needs and is most likely to buy.

Start with small talk—and coffee. A study by Yale professors showed that people who held a warm drink in their hands were more generous and more likely to give something than if they held a cold drink.

A welcoming conversation can be a great way to warm up a client for a sale. Keep it warm by taking a genuine interest in what the customer has to say and by listening carefully before you pitch anything.

The job of any sales professional is to make clients happy enough to tell friends and colleagues how satisfied they are with your company, its designers and its service.


3. Make every project a service project

The thing about selling is that it’s really about giving and receiving. Sales pros who make it all about receiving wind up with a lot of first-time clients and very few customers for life. It is true that if you are good at selling, you can talk anyone into buying anything. But a truly good salesperson is a genuinely good listener. And a genuinely good listener cannot help but realize it when he or she is convincing a client to buy something unwanted.

Selling is a service—to the client. Sure, the pro gets the sale, the commission and the pat on the back from the boss. But when the client gets exactly what he or she wants and needs, it’s a win-win. Listen for how you can make your sale a win, not just for your company, but for the client, too.

4. Ask for feedback

Once the deal is sealed, keep listening. Follow up with each client to ask if the product or service you sold is operating as expected and solving the client’s problem. Listen equally well to praise and criticism.

Other kinds of feedback: Did the customer return the product later and ask for a refund? Did the client post a glowing online review about your service or your company—or a negative one, or none at all? Did someone new contact you after a happy customer made a referral? Did the person accept or decline future offers to do business with your company?

5. Pick up on the small stuff

Conversations, even those with strangers, inevitably reveal personal information that the other person feels you can be trusted with. When a client offers you the gift of a personal detail, remember it.

Listen for hints, like a mention of a child’s soccer trophy, an upcoming big birthday, a problem with the car, or a pending promotion. Make a mental note—or even better, write it down so you can refer to it later. That way, the next time you follow up with the client, you can ask how the soccer team is doing, what the client did for the big birthday or if the customer bought a new car yet.

Bringing up personal details, no matter how small, tells the client you cared enough to truly listen when he or she talked. Nothing builds trust or gains sales like appreciation.


Dr. Cindy McGovern is known as the “First Lady of Sales.” She speaks and consults internationally on sales, interpersonal communication and leadership, and is the author of the The Wall Street Journal best-selling “Every Job Is a Sales Job: How to Use the Art of Selling to Win at Work.” She is the CEO of Orange Leaf Consulting, a sales management and consulting firm in San Francisco.