BY MICHAEL PENNY
True listening is selfless.
Selfless listening calls for hitting “pause” on your inner monologues and agendas. There is no other way to truly focus your attention on the customer.
The good news: It’s that simple. The bad news: It’s not easy.
When a customer comes into your store, that person brings a constellation of issues. Foremost is the need to sleep better in some way—more deeply, for a longer time or more comfortably. With couples, two people seek to meet their own needs while also thinking about what will help their partners. Customers bring along their past shopping experiences, too—pleasant, unpleasant or confusing. Much of this stress is carried in the door, and often not even consciously.
Customers’ needs and their memories, or associations, are both “drivers” and “distractors.” Needs drive people to come to your store for help. And previous experiences can distract them from receiving the help they’re looking for.
You might think of some customers as distracted shoppers in the way that some are distracted drivers, too. There’s a goal or destination, but there are competing things that can keep them from clearly—or safely—finding their way.
If a salesperson has unspoken distractions or agendas, and a customer also does, how can an honest interchange happen, let alone a sale? At the most superficial level, a customer has a problem and a salesperson has products that can help solve the problem. That’s straightforward, and many sales happen at that level.
What lifts a customer’s experience out of the fog can be as simple as an unexpected behavior from a salesperson. That behavior is listening. First, recognize that any customer is vulnerable. Think about that for a moment. She’s bringing in her fatigue or pain, her stress or mistrust, her memories and distractions—all of which make her vulnerable.
Instead of seeing each person as a sales target, try shifting your own awareness with this thought when someone walks into the store: This is a vulnerable person. What is most likely to make her feel safe, in this moment?
The answer? It’s the quality of your listening. Gaining that person’s trust isn’t about manipulating. It’s really a series of internal actions. First, you drop all the agendas that are distracting you—bonuses, quotas, commissions, what’s going on after work, what happened yesterday and past interactions. Intentionally pause, and let this all go. Now you’re ready to fully listen. Now you can really hear her needs. Selfless listening opens your “inner ears.”
Why focus on this change in awareness? A customer shopping for a mattress is considering a major product that will require a real investment, have a long-term impact on her health and well-being, and be moved into her home’s most intimate sanctuary. That makes this person vulnerable. But as a salesperson, because of your knowledge and because you’re interacting within your familiar place of employment—you’re actually in a position of power. And consider another aspect of this relationship, which happens fairly quickly. The customer is asked to lie down—an awkward and exposed public position—while the salesperson remains upright.
A feeling of safety
As you can see, customer vulnerability is more than an imaginary notion. People think and talk a lot about independence, but in interactions with others, we also love the chance to be vulnerable—safely.
That’s what opens us to one another, and it can happen in your interactions with customers. Listening selflessly shows them that it’s all right to bring their baggage in the door, and it’s also all right to relax and learn from you. Your caring focus on them and the quality of your listening will automatically convey this intention. And it will make them feel safe, whether they are consciously thinking about it or not.
It’s a lot to expect, though, isn’t it? Yes, it is. Nobody’s going to be 100% successful right away. But remember: Perfectionism is a big-league distractor. With practice, thinking this way gets much easier and becomes more natural. Selfless listening benefits not just your customer, but you, too. The experience of being truly present and tuned in is very fulfilling—once you’ve practiced it and have found some success.
There is no technique. For some, selfless listening at first calls for a kind of ruthless self-discipline to stop the mind’s chatter and hush the distractions. For others, it comes more easily to drop everything and slip into the mindset of just connecting with the customer.
However you approach it, you’ll find that practicing selfless listening leaves both you and your customers happier, more relaxed and more peaceful at the end of the day.
This way, everybody gets a chance at better sleep!
Are you a good listener?
Listening is a complicated skill that requires vigilance and patience. Richard Male and Associates, a consulting firm headquartered in Denver, offers the following techniques to improve your listening skills.
1 Listen not just for words but feelings. Try to detect unspoken concerns or aspirations.
2 Encourage the customer to speak. Use nonverbal cues, like facing the person directly or nodding your head. Also say “I see,” “Go on” or “I understand”—but not at the risk of interrupting.
3 Try not to spend time thinking ahead of what you want to say. That way, you won’t miss critical insights.
4 Don’t hijack the conversation. Stay focused on what the customer is telling you; don’t turn the discussion into a story about you or a specific product.
5 Be still. Resist the temptation to glance around, straighten merchandise or walk around.
6 Stay away from offering unsolicited advice. It often can come across as critical. Be sensitive to the point in the conservation when the customer is asking for your opinion.
7 Don’t dismiss comments or offer quick fixes. If there’s an easy solution to a problem, give customers credit for having thought of it already. Use points of concern as an opportunity to brainstorm with them.
Michael Penny is founder and chief executive officer of Savvy Rest, a manufacturer of natural latex mattresses based in Charlottesville, Va. Since its founding in 2005, Savvy Rest has ranked four times on the Inc. 500/5000 list of America’s fastest-growing companies. Penny traveled an unusual path to mattress manufacturing. Before starting out in business, he lived in a yoga community for two decades. Insights from his experiences have contributed to Savvy Rest’s success. Penny can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.