How to Listen to a Customer

The Art of Hearing as a Service

Listen
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One of the realities of retail today is that selling is service and service is selling. Gone are the days when retailers could have only two employees — one for service and one for selling. Customers today want one person who can meet all their needs. This reality means that our salespeople must be trained to service customers, and the most important skill anyone providing service can possess is listening.

Don't Make Customers Repeat Themselves

One of customers' biggest frustrations is having to repeat themselves. We've all experienced dealing with a helpline on the phone. We tell our story to the first person, who then transfers us to someone else, who then asks us to tell the whole story over again before they transfer us to third person. It's very frustrating indeed. The customer does not feel appreciated or heard.

Being heard is a basic human need. We want to know the person we're speaking with is listening to us — and even more important, hearing us. Yet as I study retail stores and watch customer interactions, I can see the exact moment when the customer raises his voice and attitude toward the salesperson — it happens when he feels that he's not being heard. If you ask a customer to repeat himself, he will become frustrated. The more frustrated he becomes, the more agitated he gets. And the more agitated he gets, the more his voice becomes and his patience decreases.

 

A recent study by Salesforce found that more than half of all customers had to repeat themselves when interacting with a salesperson and trying to get help. Granted, part of the tension is from retailers reducing staff and asking fewer people to do more things, but the complaints are about the salespeople and not about the company.

 

The survey found that customers don't mind repeating themselves if their issues are complicated or have a lot of "moving parts." But they become very frustrated when they have to repeat themselves because the salesperson who should be "servicing" them just isn't listening. 

9 Tips for Improving Listening Skills

Here are some tips to improve your retail salespeople's listening skills. 

  • Make eye contact. Look the customer in the eye when he's speaking. It makes him feel heard and that's important. Resist the temptation to start looking up his transaction on the POS until after he's finished. Keep your focus and eyes on the customer. It adds to the experience in a positive way. 
  • Ask questions. The best way to make someone feel heard is to ask questions about what he's just said. Theodore Roosevelt once said, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." One way to show them you care is by trying to understand their situations. And, of course, the best way to gain understanding is by asking questions.  
  • Show empathy. Your words matter. The first response from your mouth should be, "I'm really sorry you are experiencing this problem." Start with empathy before solution. Many salespeople think the faster they fix the problem, the happier the customer will be. This isn't true. How you fix the problem — listening with empathy — has a lot to do with the customer's satisfaction with your solution. 
  • Wait and don't predict. Too often we're already thinking about our response before the customer is even finished speaking. And many times salespeople will jump to respond to what they think the customer is about to say. The salesperson believes this is impressive to the customer. It's not. Never try to predict what the customer is going to say based on similarities between his story and ones you have heard in the past. 
  • Role-play. This isn't the favorite of salespeople, but when you make someone role-play, you draw attention to what's important. Be the customer and see how well your salesperson picks up on your issue or need and responds. Don't try to trick them, but do make it real. 
  • Remove the personal technology. For some reason, salespeople think they're not being obvious when they check their phones on the sales floor. Customers notice and they're annoyed by it. Technology is a huge distraction when it comes to listening. 
  • Keep your opinions out of it. Too often, we like to add our own commentary to what the customer is saying. You might be tempted to tell the customer about a time when you had a similar problem or issue. He honestly doesn't care. This only tells him that you're more interested in yourself than in him. 
  • Avoid distractions. When possible, move the customer off the busy sales floor to a quiet area where you can focus on him.  
  • The problem is not the problem. Simply put, when someone comes to you with an issue or problem with a product, fixing the product is only half the job. You also have to fix the customer's trust. He trusted you or your store to make the initial purchase, and now it's not working. He feels like the trust was broken, so you have to work to rebuild it. In other words, there are always two problems to solve when you're dealing with a broken product.