Jayashantha Jayawardhana treads the path to success in engaging with clients

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new,” the Dalai Lama has said. And the highly regarded management consultant Peter Drucker has stated that “the most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”

Much has been said and written about the importance of looking at a given problem, situation or point of contention from a customer’s or client’s point of view. But a staggering number of people fail to do this. Why this happens and how to avoid it is also a widely discussed topic.

For some strange reason however, whenever a fresh point of contention arises, the problem tends to manifest itself and each party ends up wondering whether the other lives on a different planet.

There are some people who (to the dismay and envy of the majority) read their clients extremely well, and know their likes, fears and desires as they do the back of their own hand. But understanding clients isn’t an occult art. All one has to do is get the fundamentals right. And while being people savvy does help, it isn’t an absolute essential and the set of skills in question is quite learnable.

Let’s explore some of the related fundamentals.

TUNE IN From kindergarten or perhaps even before that, we’re taught that it’s infinitely more important to listen than speak. But most people aren’t accustomed to be tuned in to another’s thoughts, needs, desires and fears – even where they aren’t hard to discern.

In the world of business, the inability to listen to your clients could result in costly failures; it could even drive you out of business altogether! So always pay close attention to what the client has to say before you open your mouth.

CLARIFY Admit it when you don’t understand what’s being said and ask for clarifications. It’s hard to resist the temptation to keep nodding your head to impress a client even when you don’t have a clue!

But be honest and admit that you don’t get it and ask him or her to clarify what’s being said. Clients admire such frankness as it signals that you’re really interested in understanding their perspective.

RESPECT The customer’s perspective should be respected. While the client may be a generalist in your line of business, you should respect his or her point of view regardless of its validity, practicality or appeal.

Don’t ever cut your client off in mid-sentence and ram your professional opinion down his or her throat. In fact, few things are viewed as more unprofessional than that. You will earn the client’s respect for your viewpoint only if you respect his or hers first.

ENGAGE Many people decide on something before gathering all the relevant facts and consulting with the client. They then try hard to sell their solution to the client without considering what he or she has to say.

It’s also unacceptable to consult with a client to merely fill in the blanks in a solution that you’ve already arrived at. It’s not difficult for clients to detect this and few are willing to tolerate such behaviour. Always collaborate or engage with your client without seeking to dominate him or her.

HOMEWORK If you’re simply bandying about with technical terms and have only a superficial understanding of the matter at hand, the client won’t perceive you as being trustworthy and capable – and he or she won’t bother to tell you what’s really needed. As the poet Alexander Pope once observed, “a little learning is a dangerous thing…”

UNDERSTANDING Ask the right questions to broaden your understanding. Some people ask questions simply to convince the client that they’re interested in what he or she is saying. What you should do instead, is amplify your understanding.

Asking shallow questions to which you already know the answers while avoiding the important issues is a futile exercise. If you want something important clarified, ask without second-guessing your client’s reaction. Don’t make assumptions without clarification.

SOLUTIONS Some people are only interested in hammering their point home with callous disregard for the feelings of others. Even people who are usually accommodating are put off by this. When you’re focussed only on your point of view, it’s easy to miss the wood for the trees and get carried away!

Rather than developing a fresh approach to a matter at hand, people often seek to apply an old solution that has been tried and tested to spare themselves the pain of creative analysis. Unless you’re convinced that an old solution befits the current situation, don’t adopt it. Instead, invest your efforts in reading the client, grasping the issue at hand and discovering or creating the right solution.

It is necessary to walk in the client’s shoes. And there are skills you can learn and sharpen for better results over time.