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To Understand a Customer, Listen on All Levels

What a prospect says is often far less important than how the prospect says it.

Every human communication can be visualized as a set of layers, each of which communicates a different type of information.

All six have value, although the first is often overrated:

  • Layer #1: Content -- the actual vocabulary of the words spoken. Example: "Yes, we have a problem" means exactly that... that the prospect is saying he has a problem.
  • Layer #2: Phonetic -- the specific enunciation and tone of the words spoken. Example: "Yes, we have a problem." means something different form "YES! WE HAVE A PROBLEM!"
  • Layer #3: Purpose -- the reason or point that is trying to be communicated. For example, a prospect who wants information versus a prospect wants reassurance that a rep can be trusted.
  • Layer #4: Word Catalog -- the emotional meaning a person associates with specific words. Example: A prospect who uses profanity to emphasize anger vs. one who does so out of habit.
  • Layer #5: Internal Dialog -- the never-ending chatter of thoughts in the mind. Example: the prospect is thinking about an upcoming date, wondering whether he'd be happier elsewhere, etc.
  • Layer #6: Physical -- the manifestation of all of the above in expressions, breathing and gestures. Example: The prospect is puffing and waving his hands excitedly in the air.
In sales situations, as in most human interactions, what's said (content) is often far less important than why it's said (purpose), how it's said (phonetic), how it's heard (word catalog), when its said (relative to whatever is going on in the hearer's internal dialog) and how it appears to the eye and feels to the gut (physical) when it's said.

Therefore, if you want to understand what's really going on in a conversation with a prospect, you need to open yourself up to the entire range of communication and "sense" what's actually being said, regardless of the content.

NOTE: The above observation comes from a conversation with Steve Martin, the author of the best-selling book Heavy Hitter Selling.