customer listening in sales decisions - Bruce Wilson explains how listening during sales facilitates a buying decision
customer listening in sales decisions - Bruce Wilson explains how listening during sales facilitates a buying decision
customer listening in sales decisions - Bruce Wilson explains how listening during sales facilitates a buying decision

I'm Not A Salesman, But I Sell Anyway (Part 2)

By listening supportively and asking questions to help potential customers understand their choices, you won't "Hard Sell"--but you will build your business.

Part Two: Four Stages Of Sales Through Building Customer Rapport

Business professionals, executives and entrepreneurs who sell--but who aren't sales people--can get the most out of their sales efforts by following the four stages of customer rapport described below:

STAGE 1: Educate Yourself
STAGE 2: Investigate Options Together
STAGE 3: Proposal
STAGE 4: Ongoing Rapport


This section, based in part on Jeff Thull's 2003 book entitled Mastering the Complex Sale: How to Compete and Win When the Stakes are High, was written by Bruce Wilson, a Seattle-based coach who helps business professionals, executives, and entrepreneurs improve their return on personal effort in business.

STAGE 1: Educate Yourself

Educate Yourself About Your Customer To Make Yourself More Useful To Them

Key Assumption:
Recognize that your customer knows more about their business than you do.

Try to learn whatever you can about the parts of your potential customer's business that fall within your zone of expertise.

Specific Actions:
First, do as much background research as possible into their company, their industry, their people.

Second, volunteer to meet with them to discuss their business operations within your zone of expertise. At the meeting be prepared to say a little about what you do, but mostly encourage them to tell you about their strengths, their concerns, their plans, their options. Focus your questions, and thus their attention, on any obstacles they identify and you suspect may exist. Don't try to ignore or argue with their organizational history and culture, even if you worry that it's biased against you. Also inquire about changes they envision. Don't make any recommendations yet, or push your solution, wait until a later step to deal with this!

Take a Step Back If:
If at any point you recognize that your solution wouldn't improve their business, re-focus your approach towards this particular business as a networking relationship, and move on soon to pursuing more likely customer contacts.

STAGE 2: Investigate Options Together

Help Your Customer Educate Themselves Enough To Decide Whether Change Is Worth The Cost

Key Assumption:
Assume you know more about your own area of expertise than your customer, or at least that you know some important things they don't know. Assume they don't already know how to decide whether purchasing would be the right thing for them to do, and that they would appreciate your help figuring it out--if they can trust you.

Help potential customers uncover the costs of the status quo as compared to a range of changes they could make in an effort to improve on the status quo. Help them assemble the information they feel they need to make a good, objective business decision, working with the same candor and sense of responsibility as if they were your business partner, a friend, or a family member.

Specific Actions:
During the same meeting you began in stage one, and subsequent meetings, begin to play a role as a valuable information resource for your potential customer while at the same time establishing your own credibility in their eyes. Interspersed with listening to their story to gather general information, which you began in step one, you also ask coaching questions which help your potential client zero-in on important issues and problems facing them. At times you may offer observations based on your expertise in the field. Both your questions and your observations are directed towards helping them draw their own conclusions about their criteria for successful change, and the comparative value of the alternatives they face versus the status quo. They will choose you when they know what their own needs are, when they believe that a change will bring improvement, and when they can trust you to deliver the change they want.

Ask them questions such as:

  • What concerns do they have about their current operations?
  • How do they know about these concerns, what symptoms do they see?
  • What will these concerns cost them directly, indirectly from lost opportunities, and over time?
  • Which of these concerns is most important?
  • If they could change anything, what would it be?
  • If they don't make any change, where will that leave them in a year, or two, or five?
  • Where do they want to be in five years, or two, or one?
  • What's valuable to their customer about the end product you deliver?
  • What are the alternatives to your offering, such as substitutes or competitors, including what they have done in the past and are doing now?
  • Besides the end product they receive, what about your relationship with them will be valuable to them?
  • Besides the simple fact that you make a sale, how will they know that your contribution was valuable to them?
  • What are the advantages you offer compared to the alternatives, and of the alternatives compared to you?

While they are answering such questions, listen supportively, which will help them put together a better overall picture in their own minds. Your supportive listening can help them "try on for size" the various criteria for progress and success that are important to them.

The critical tasks you perform at this stage are asking questions and listening. Volunteering information comes third, and should be downplayed by you. If you start pushing for them to buy from you at this point, you risk losing their trust. When your potential customer points out a gap in their understanding of a problem, you may offer to help them gather information, define criteria, make distinctions, and figure out what will work best for them, but volunteer information only after they accept your offer to help.


Develop your own list of questions. Write them down, refine them, discuss them with co-workers, friends, mentors, and trusted clients. Ask yourself what's important about asking each question: maybe there's a better question, or it would be better not to ask at all. Try to ask questions that uncover what a potential customer thinks about their options.

On those occasions when a potential customer doesn't have enough information to begin answering relevant questions, count to ten to be sure, then ask them if they want your help figuring out where to dig up reliable, objective information. You will cement your credibility with them at this stage by helping them gain a balanced perspective about all relevant options, including the solutions provided by your competitors, if you can do it without demonstrating excessive bias in favor of yourself. To establish credibility you must be willing to provide candid, unbiased information about all alternatives. Don't over-sell your own offerings in the process. Do this with the understanding that if this potential customer doesn't choose you, that's OK. At this stage it's the exchange of information and credibility that you're after.

If the potential customer cooperates fully with you through stages 1 and 2, it's likely that they have realized that making a change is in their best interest, and they intend to follow through and make you a part of their plan when they are ready. If this is the sense you have, stay in touch with them without applying pressure for them to decide.

If they choose an alternative solution over you, keep in mind that sooner or later it may not work out. A potential customer who chooses an alternative to your solution now may come back to you later, if you maintain your professionalism throughout.

If they say something to the effect that they want to work with you, you are ready for stage 3.

Take a Step Back If:
Don't argue if your customer resists making progress towards estimating the value of changes they might make, or if the value they estimate is so low that it doesn't justify the cost of purchasing from you. If they aren't willing to engage you for any reason, you don't benefit by turning it into a personality battle. Any number of factors beyond your control may be working against you. Recast your relationship with them as a networking contact, and don't invest time preparing or submitting a proposal to them.

STAGE 3: Proposal

Spell Out the Overlap Between Your Customer's Plan and Your Offering

Key Assumption:
It should be clear by now to both of you precisely what problem a potential customer faces, the type of solution that will work for them, and how your offering can fill that need.

Write up a detailed description of your client's own reasoning for concluding that they need to change and that your offering should be part of their plan for improvement.

Specific Actions:
Using your potential customer's own words as much as possible, draft and submit a proposal which describes the problem they identified, the value they desire, the solution they expect, and how your solution matches their expectations. If you lack specifics in any important areas, leave blanks for discussion. If you must address any areas where there is not a fit, be honest about it. Ask for their input in drafting in order to make your proposal match their understanding as closely as possible.

If you did a good job helping your potential customer diagnose and document the value of your solution for their business, you should already be very close to a consensus on an agreement.

Think of this proposal as a foundation stone in a long term, mutually beneficial relationship. Keep in mind that the person you present a proposal to may need to use it to persuade or instruct others, perhaps partners, clients, project managers, or persons whose approval must be obtained, and thus it should be crafted to support such efforts.

Take a Step Back If:
Don't try to submit a proposal if you are having trouble figuring out and filling in important gaps, because this indicates that you and your potential customer haven't gathered enough information yet. Go back and repeat steps 1 and 2 rather than submit a flawed proposal, otherwise you risk losing the credibility you have gained up to this point. If after becoming fully informed about their options, your customer doesn't choose your offering, whether or not you agree with them don't trash your own credibility by arguing with them. Your credibility may prove valuable in the future, particularly if they realize later that they made a mistake. This is true even if you disagree with the facts they rely on or if they choose to make different assumptions based on the facts.

STAGE 4: Ongoing Rapport

Stay plugged in to the connection you made with your customer.

Key Assumption:
Your customer will get more comfort and satisfaction from working with you, and will buy from you again, and sooner, if you listen supportively and offer useful information from time to time as you did in Stages 1 and 2.

Stay aware, and keep your customer aware, of how what you offer complements their strategy as time moves forward. Keep both you and your customer close to a state where the information exchange of stage 1 and 2 is fresh and up to date, thus leaving the door open for more business together.

Specific Actions:
As you deliver and support your solution for a customer, keep in mind your proposal and the goals it embodies. Even if you aren't aware of a problem, check in with them now and again and ask for an update. If surprises arise or the situation changes, you can return to stages 1 through 3 to update your information and amend the plan accordingly. Over the long term, keep in touch with your customer about how your solution is working out for them. If you can occasionally repeat stages 1 and 2 with them you will be able to keep on top their perceptions and interests and continue helping them achieve their goals.

A key benefit of stage 4 is that it places you in a position to cross sell and repeat sell as you and your customer recognize new needs and opportunities. This awareness benefits both you and your customer by reducing the time that lapses before you do more business together.


By spending almost all of your "sales" time listening to potential customers and helping them work out 1) whether they need to make a change, 2) their criteria for the right way to make the change, and 3) how well various alternatives satisfy their criteria, you become a trusted expert in their eyes who they would like to do business with and not merely "a salesman." Even before they understand enough about how your offering fits their need to sign on the dotted line, they will want to purchase from you.



For further reading.

Tanja Parsley provides a powerful, simple to use, easy to remember approach to asking questions for your first meeting with a potential client in her article entitled The Central Role of Listening in Sales For Service Providers.

Although aimed specifically at high-end sales professionals, Jeff Thull, Mastering the Complex Sale: How to Compete and Win When the Stakes are High (John Wiley & Sons, 2003) (>, is highly recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about sales and the role of listening in establishing customer rapport.

This section was written by Bruce Wilson, an executive coach, trainer, and facilitator who has helped individual business people and organizations across the U.S. to improve their leadership, customer relationships, and teamwork. For more information about his work, or to get in touch with him, visit


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