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“How Can I Help You — But First Let Me Tell You About Me”

by David Brock on July 25th, 2010

My friend, Ardath Albee, and I were commiserating the other day.  We see so many misguided approaches, whether they are sales people, marketers, individuals.  They know the theory–yes, they’re supposed to be customer focused.  They know they are supposed to talk about customer needs, problems, goals.  They know they should focus on solving customer problems by proposing great solutions.  But, to often it’s not like that.  Just after the words, “how can I help you,” or “what are your needs,”  leave their mouths — before we have a chance to respond — they go on and say, “but let me tell you about our products,”  or “let me tell you about me,”  or “can you help me?”  The focus shifts immediately back to them and what they want.

Hmmm….. is this what we mean by customer focus?  I thought the way it’s supposed to work is that after we ask the question, “what are your problems/needs,” or “how can I help you,” we were supposed to pause and give the customer a chance to talk.  I thought we were supposed to listen, probe, understand.

Too often, our real motives are so transparent.  We really want to talk about ourselves, we want to pitch our products.  We’re just going through the motions of asking the questions or expressing our concern because that’s what we’re supposed to do.  Or we listen long enough until we hear the key word, which causes us to interrupt and leap into our pitch, or as I’ve said in other posts, we jump to solutions.

We say it all the time, effective sales and marketing is all about the customer!  The customer has to be the center of our focus.  Understanding what the customer needs and wants to achieve is our priority.  Only after we have questioned, probed, challenged, explored alternative ideas can we start talking about what we can do for them.  If we do this, we maximize our engagement and alignment with the customer and maximize our likelihood of earning their business.

Don’t get me wrong, we want to be talking to customers that have problems we can solve, customers that intend to do something, and who want to consider us as a solution provider.  That’s why vicious disqualification of anything that doesn’t fit is critical.  But as we do this and move forward, it’s all about the customer, not us.

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  1. Excellent David,

    Perhaps the greatest myth perpetuated in sales, business and life is that in order to be valued, respected and conduct business a person has to state their own value proposition to someone. When,oftentimes, asking what is important to the other person and listening well to their responses, without interjecting or redirecting, the person will naturally recognize your value. What’s the old saying? “People will only care about you once you’ve sincerely shown how much you care about them.”

    Thanks again for a great post.


    • Caring about the customer and their issues is the most sustainable value proposition we can offer. Thanks for the comment Dan!

  2. Hi David,

    Nicely said. Dan makes a great point. What’s at the heart of this discussion is sincerity. The word that’s tossed about so much lately is authenticity. I think the problem is that people don’t stop and think about how their communications are received/interpreted.

    Things move fast and we’re all so busy that listening and thinking have gone by the wayside because our agendas are so full. But, if we don’t slow down and pay attention we can fall into the trap of “what we do may come back to haunt us.”


    • Absolutely! Afterall, the point is connecting with our customers in a meaningful way. If we don’t stop to listen and trully engage, we’ve missed the point and the opportunity. Thanks for the comment and for getting met to think about this issue Ardath, it’s always such a pleasure! Regards, Dave

  3. Great post David. A good rule of thumb for me, particularly in “social” professional settings, is to allow folks to tell me as much about themselves and their organizations as they want. I don’t talk about me or my organization until they actually ask. At that point, they are truly interested and more importantly I know much more about what to say!

    • Mary, it’s great to see you here and joining the conversation!! Thanks for the great comment. You are right, it really needs to be all about the customer. If we listen and probe well, when we get the opportunity, we can talk about the things we can do that really have an impact on them!

      Great comment!

  4. Larry Mandell permalink

    I’d like to make a small variation on this theme. i agree that everything should be focused on the customer. As rightly noted above they really only want to talk about themselves and their issues.

    However, I feel that it is important to spend a couple of minutes up front providing a brief background on me (where appropriate) and my organization (whether they already have printed information on my company or not). The purpose is to obtain the right to ask the detailed questions I am about to ask.

    In my 30+ years of experience I have found that this resonates well with the prospects and gets them to open up a little bit more. They feel more comfortable that the questions are being asked for a specific reason and not just a fishing expedition.

    • Larry, you are absolutely correct. We need build a certain level of credibility and earn the right to learn and probe about the customer’s business. It also gives the customer a great frame of reference enabling both the sales person and customer to connect more effectively. But it’s only a minute or two–then the focus shifts to the customer.

      Thanks for the great reminder. I hope you continue to join the conversations to keep me on target! Regards, Dave

  5. Of course you are right. And salespeople are told it all the time! Then why do they talk about themselves so much and not about prospect needs? Personally, I don’t think they have changed much since second grade. Pile on quotas, demanding bosses, mortgage payment and keeping up with the Jones, and you have a fatal combination of self-centered selling!

    • Chad: Thanks for your comment. You make a great point. The same thing has been going on — probably since that first sales transaction thousands of years ago, so why hasn’t the profession changed? Quotas, managers, mortgage payments are real–but not an excuse, after all doesn’t everyone face the same–they may not be quotas, but they have goals, deadlines, etc.?

      The world of buying is changing profoundly, threatening to leave those sales people who don’t change behind.

      Thanks for joining the discussion.

  6. John Frisch permalink

    David, these are all great insights and in your last point about all the current facets in our lives that make our conversations all about me, I noticed that as we mature we start loosing more of our listening skill. I think it is because as we become experienced, we feel we have more to give than receive. We become “experts” and “professionals” that are in a hurry to share that knowledge so we can have a “win-win” scenario.
    Maybe all it takes is to become more “spongelike” from our earlier years when we had lots to absorb and then maybe we can “help” with our expertise after we really let it be all about the customer, prospect or even our friends and associates that often want to confide in us.

    • Great comment John! This challenge is not just limited to sales— but all of us tend to do it. It’s alos not just limited to our customers—we tend not to listen to our people, suppliers, etc. Thanks for really expanding this discussion.

  7. John Lettieri permalink

    I agree with Dan Collins’ comment. It IS important to convey your value proposition. But, many people feel that they can lead with this. Until you understand your customer’s pain points you don’t know what your value is to them.

    I am not a huge fan of opening with ‘dog and pony shows’. Too many times a marketer from corporate will spend 45 minutes showing a product portfolio that is irrelevant to what a customer needs. Ask the relevant discovery questions and then focus on what will help them. Sometimes you may need to come back with a tailored presentation that provides a solution that only provides value to them. Miller-Heimann Strategic and Conceptual Selling is one of the companies that espouse this. Win / Win Negotiating also applies this.

    For some prospective customer’s, you don’t have a value proposition. Unless you offer what they need they will remain your competitor’s customers and your ‘prospects’.

    Thank you for the article Mr. Brock.

    • John, thanks for joining the discussion. Great points. Conveying a “value proposition” through the sales process is critical. The value proposition will change through the process, moving from a relatively generic value proposition — just sufficient to have the customer interested in talking to you, maybe not even differentiated; to very specific value propositions focused on the specific needs, priorities and goals of each person involved in the decision making process.

      Too many organizations treat the value proposition as static and generic. They bury it in pre packaged pitches from marketing, and are taught to regurgitate it to the customer. Marketing piles a lot of value propositions on, leaving it to the customer to figure it out—exactly as you outline.

      You may be interested, I’ve written quite a bit about value propositions here, just search on that term.

      Great points, thanks for the contribution. By the way, my father is Mr. Brock, I’m Dave 😉

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