You’ve Got Problems? – Well, I’ve Got Watches!

Mastering the Customer Conversation

If you have been to New York City at any point in your life, you can probably close your eyes and visualize the food and merchandising street vendors as you walk through the streets and maneuver around the traffic, beeping horns, smoke coming up from the streets, and the constant scaffolding that you walk under as buildings are under continuous restoration. The natural energy and buzz of NYC make it one of the best cities in the world!  With that as my mental backdrop, I did a bit of research on the history of street vendors in NYC.  

I was surprised to learn that all the way back in 1609, the earliest known street foods were actually oysters and clams when Henry Hudson discovered one of the world’s most impressive harbors that had over 220,000 acres of oyster beds on the harbor floor, totaling almost half the world’s entire oyster population (Gannon, 2017). Isn’t that crazy?! Not sure I would be up for oysters in the streets of NYC. I’ll stick with a great hot dog.

Ever since then, people have been making a living selling on the streets of NYC through both good and bad times. Just like every business, the street vending business goes through cycles and changes but still must find a way to solve the objectives and problems of their customers to maximize their results. Today, there are over 12,000 street vendors in NYC and over 800 licenses for general merchandising with thousands on a waitlist. 

What in the world does this have to do with you as a salesperson, you ask?  A few years ago, my family and I traveled to New York City during the Christmas season to see a Broadway show and shop in the city. As I was walking down the crowded streets, I observed the street vendors selling items from their street-side booths. These booths were filled with multiple products, wide-ranging price points, and varying levels of quality. One table I clearly remember was filled with watches, jewelry, hats, and scarfs. I remember being interested in picking up an inexpensive sports watch as I walked up to the booth. I had already made up my mind that I was going to buy a watch to wear around the city before even approaching the vendor. My problem was that I had left my watch back in Cincinnati, and I just needed an inexpensive option to get me through the weekend. As I walked up to the booth, it was at that point where everything went wrong. 

Not only did the street vendor NOT attempt to make a connection with me, but he clearly didn’t try to understand my problem. He wanted to do what many of us do – you see someone that is even remotely interested in your product and service, and you rush to showing as many “watches” as possible. He immediately shifted an interested buyer to a defensive buyer, and I walked away. In the blink of an eye, his sale was gone. At that point, he actually put me into a fight or flight mindset, and I chose the flight option. I had a problem and a need, and he had a product. This should have been simple, right? 

Now you may be saying; I would never do that as a sales professional. Research from the BrevetGroup reports that only 13% of customers believe a salesperson can understand their needs and problems. The street vendor saw the interaction and conversation through his eyes and not mine. He lost the focus on solving my problem and instead, simply tried to sell me a product, any product he had, in fact. 

If you don’t understand and document your customers’ challenges and problems ahead of your interaction, you will statistically do no better than the street vendor. You have to resist the urge to see a prospect as a potential “transaction” whereby you open your trenchcoat and say “I see you have two wrists…well, I’ve got watches!”  

It doesn’t matter if you’re selling a life insurance policy, a piece of manufacturing equipment, a pharmaceutical product or a multi-million-dollar apartment in NYC, you must understand the problems your customers face in order to be a trusted advisor to them. So, here are a couple of practical tips. 

  1. Do your homework and document your customers’ problems ahead of your call, this will show them that you care about what they care about. 
  2. Do not quickly move from surface-level rapport building to your product. You must build a genuine connection, understand your buyer’s problems to allow your product or service to be the hero of the story.
  3. Ask the right questions to not only uncover the customer’s problem but show empathy towards the impact that problem may be having on them.  
  4. Do not forget to link your product value (features and benefits) back to the customers’ objectives and problems. If you do this right, it will increase the urgency to change because you are focused on them, not you. 

Lastly, it is critically important to remember that problems evoke emotions and products evoke judgment. When you realize that you are reducing emotions in your customers by solving their problems, you will win more opportunities. International best-selling author and Pastor Rick Warren illustrates it best in his #1 New York Times bestseller; The Purpose Driven Life: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. Humility is thinking more of others.” My other favorite is, “It’s not about you.”

Warren, R., 2002. The Purpose Driven Life. Michigan: Zondervan.

Coaches Corner – Mastering the Coaching Conversation 

Coaches, do you understand the problems that your team members face when they come to see you? Do you coach with their problems in mind or yours? As my business partner, Jeff Bloomfield’s Papaw, taught him many years ago, “problem solvers rule the world.” However, it is not about rushing to a quick solution so that you can get your team members out of your office and back to work. At times, there is an easy solution and no doubt that context matters. Our challenge as coaches is to understand each situation. It is truly about understanding the problem, asking insightful, and provocative questions to help your team members learn new ways to solve their problems. If you can do this in an empathic way, then your team members will grow in their trust in you as their leader-coach. 

In this episode of the coaches’ corner, I want you to think about having a stopwatch in your head. The next time one of your team members brings you a problem, pretend that you are starting the stopwatch. See how long it takes you to process your team members’ comments and move to a solution. What I would recommend is that you slow down the time, really listen to the problem, and remember that our job is not to fix everything. Great coaches ask great questions. Enough questions, in fact, until their team members can arrive at a potential solution on their own. Our job is to help our team members learn. If you solve problems from a learning perspective rather than a fixing perspective, the individual will have a much better shot at sustained change. You just have to remember that it’s not about you having the “answer”, it’s about them coming up with the right “solution”.  When you don’t care who gets credit, ironically, they will inevitably give the credit to you, their favorite coach.

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