3 Tips for Better Customer Conversations

I was conducting a workshop recently with a group of sales people, and we were talking about how to ditch the pitch. The vice-president of sales said, “I’ve learned from playing golf that if I try to remember too much, I’ll mess up a shot. I try to think of just a few things as I swing the club. Can you tell me three things I should think about when I’m trying have a sales conversation with a customer?”

Hmmm … that’s an interesting question.

“Sure,” I said, and then ditched my own workshop plan to answer him. After a rapid mental scan of all of the differentditch the pitch tools I’ve learned and developed, I quickly settled on the three described below.

Tip #1: Don’t talk about yourself

“The most important thing to think about,” I said, “in fact, the most important rule in sales is, Don’t talk about yourself.”

“Here’s the sad, but important, truth,” I continued. “Your customers don’t care that much about you. Yes, you have customers who really like you and want you to succeed. But no matter how much one of your customers likes you, he likes himself more. He is much more interested in his own story than he is interested in yours, and he will be much more engaged in the conversation if you are talking about him and not about you.”

The vice-president nodded along as I spoke. It always strikes me as a little ironic when I tell a room full of salespeople not to talk about themselves. But truly this is the number one rule of selling, and he seemed willing to accept this tip as the first thing he would think about when talking with customers.

Here’s my rule of thumb: I try to make sure that 95% of a conversation with a customer is about the customer, not about me. What that means is that anytime the conversation becomes about me (e.g., when a customer asks “Have you worked on a project like this before?”) I know that I have to swing the conversation back around to the customer as soon as possible. I allot myself very little time to talk about me.

When you don’t talk about yourself, you automatically practice a number of other good conversation habits. You will be curious about your customer, learning important details about him. You will be very present in the conversation, listening to your customer and responding to each thing he says. And, importantly, you will avoid monologuing, focusing instead on creating genuine dialogue.

This first tip was explored in more depth in an earlier issue of this newsletter: “Don’t talk about yourself.”

Tip #2: Leave things in your pocket

“The next thing you need to think about,” I continued, “is not saying things that you were planning on saying.”

“Huh?” said the look on the vice-president’s face.

“Salespeople tend to over-prepare and overthink their sales conversations. They create lists of the points they want to make when they meet with customers, and then look at a sales call as a chance to make every single one of those points. Don’t say everything you planned to say. You must let the conversation guide you. If the conversation doesn’t present a place to say something you wanted to say, then leave it in your pocket.”

It is very easy to overwhelm a customer with information he does not want to hear or is not ready to hear. Salespeople who enter a customer conversation prepared to make a sales pitch are very likely to say things that don’t fit the present moment of the conversation. You need to pay close attention to the immediate dynamic of the conversation you and your customer are in, and let that be the guide to what is appropriate to say.

In an earlier issue of this newsletter I wrote about the need to “Tear Up Your Elevator Pitch.” I suggested that you tear up your pitch into little pieces, but don’t throw those pieces away. Stick them (metaphorically) in your pocket, and only pull them out as you need to.

Tip #3: Use Callbacks

I then transitioned to the third tip I wanted to share with this group of sales people. “The third thing to think about is a lesson we can learn from good comedy. Notice how much audiences laugh when a comedian brings certain ideas back repeatedly into his scene.”

Watch any episode of Seinfeld or of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and notice how certain comments or themes are woven back into the story multiple times. The audience laughs more and more each time they hear an idea repeated because these “callbacks” add continuity to the story, and because they make the audience feel like they are part of show.

The “high-art” of callbacks can be seen every night of the week at Chicago’s iO theater, the world capital of what is known as long-form improvisation. The acting teams who play at iO build 20-minute improvised performances that start with one audience suggestion which is then developed into a series of short scenes. As the performance unfolds, the players create a number of comments, themes and actions, which are then woven back into the performance, creating a continuity between various scenes that make up the long-form improv.

Salespeople can use callbacks to great effect, continually weaving ideas and themes back into the conversation. The sales person’s reward won’t be laughs, as it is for comedians and improv actors, but he will be rewarded with rapt customer attention.

If the sales person is not talking about himself, these callbacks will inherently be about the customer, which is what the customer really cares about. When a customer hears a sales person take something he has said earlier and bring it back into the conversation, elevating it and making it more relevant to that conversation, he will naturally be more engaged and more interested in speaking with that sales person. He will feel listened to; he will sense a continuity to the conversation, and the conversation will feel very collaborative.

“I can handle those three things,” said the vice-president of sales. “Are there other things I need to worry about?”

“Of course,” I answered. “But just as it is with your golf swing,” I continued, using a callback, “first focus on making these few things into natural, regular habits, and then you will be able to add in some other tools.”

  1. Don’t talk about yourself.
  2. Leave things in your pocket.
  3. Use callbacks.

The three tips will set the stage for productive, fresh, spontaneous customer conversations. They will help you ditch the pitch.

Steve Yastrow

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Conversation, Customer Encounters, Ditch the Pitch, Newsletters, Sales
3 comments on “3 Tips for Better Customer Conversations
  1. Steve –

    How do you keep coming up with such brilliant stuff so consistently?!

    Love your work!


  2. Roger Blackstock says:


    Great article…concise and insightful! Your recommendations also enhance the person’s ability to connect with the client’s emotional brain from which all buying decisions stem.

    To greater success,

  3. Steve Yastrow says:

    Marti and Roger … thanks so much for your comments! Keep them coming.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Subscribe to the Blog

On Steve's Mind
Get Steve's newsletter featuring his ideas and practical advice delivered to your email inbox.
* = required field
Latest Tweets
Ward Alles
Steve Yastrow knows his stuff. That's why our management team has read all of his books. And that's why we've had him as a keynote speaker at both client and employee events. From creating brand alignment, to selling more effectively, to providing top-notch customer service, Steve offers words of wisdom based on real-life experiences. He always engages his audiences with questions, interactive exercises and great storytelling that keep you coming back for more. Read Steve's books. Then book Steve. You'll be glad you did.

Ward Alles

CEO, Core Creative
Jennifer Whelan
Our work with Yastrow and Company yielded the best long-term value of any consulting engagement we’ve ever had. As we grow and expand internationally, Acuative continues to depend on the branding approach and marketing tools Steve and his team developed. Yastrow and Company genuinely partnered with us, were exceptionally responsive and remain committed to our success.

Jennifer Whelan

Vice President of Marketing, Acuative
Craig Dwight
Steve’s approach to integrating all customer contacts into a comprehensive marketing message is a must in today’s information age. We have partnered with Steve to develop our integrated and comprehensive marketing message, and as a result of his excellent work, his new book is required reading for all of our employees.

Craig Dwight

Chairman & CEO, Horizon Bancorp
Chris Tucker
Steve is a creative and collaborative speaker who communicates his ideas clearly and concisely. He immediately understood our business needs and provided a better perspective on how our customers see us as a company. I have referred Steve to our customers in the past and I will continue to do so. He’s intuitive and has a unique way of looking at business. Steve has the experience to turn a project into something extremely valuable for any organization. I strongly recommend working with Yastrow and Company.

Chris Tucker

Director of Business Development, MBX Systems
Yastrow and Company introduced Brand Harmony and their Be the Brand concept to our team at Jenny Craig.  I believe these new ideas contributed in helping us triple the company's revenue during my years as CEO.

Jim Evans

former President and CEO, Jenny Craig
We have seen huge benefits from Steve's input. Steve is unlike any other consultant I've ever worked with. He takes a genuine, deep-seated interest in our business. He is intuitive and able to identify problem issues quickly. We wouldn't be as far along in acheiving of our long-term growth strategy if we hadn't actively and aggressively pursued Steve's Brand Harmony.

Michael MacDonald

Executive VP Sales and Marketing, American Licorice Co.
Alex von Bidder
Steve Yastrow's teachings are applicable to any business that values long-standing success based on personal relationships.

Alex von Bidder

Managing Partner, The Four Seasons Restaurant, New York
Ditch the Pitch is a great read-- interesting, fun, and easy to follow. And I’ve already seen the concepts work. Just yesterday, I called a client and had a conversation that was 95% about the client, as the book suggests. At the end of the call, he sent a new matter my way. I ditched the pitch and it resulted in new business.


Chicago, IL
Kathleen Phillips
Not only is Steve's content sound, but the energy he displays in delivering it will knock your socks off.

Kathleen Phillips

Ernst & Young, Chicago, IL
Steve put together a program that produced spectacular results, and the quality of our communication and customer satisfaction is vastly improved. I’ve been in business for 40 years, and Steve’s the first consultant that I’ve gotten my money’s worth from. We’re going to continue to work with Steve and the bright, energetic people that are on his team.

Jim Winter

COO, Dimension Design
Chris Miller
I rarely book speakers more than once. But I’ve used Steve four times! Steve has our association’s interest at heart and works tirelessly to deliver customized programs. He always ranks highly with our affiliates because he is outcome-focused, fast-paced and highly engaging. Anyone looking for insight and understanding into marketing, branding and sales should book Steve!

Chris Miller

Executive Director, Professional Systems Network International
I give Steve two thumbs up—five thumbs up, if I had that many!

Roma Maxwell

Roma Maxwell, Director of Sales and Marketing, Rancho La Puerta
Alex von Bidder
In these high pressure times of bite-size communications we all hunger to be listened to and cared for individually. Our customers know great hospitality, the kind that is not about selling but treating their needs as our highest priority. Steve Yastrow’s teachings are applicable to any business that values long-standing success based on personal relationships.

Alex von Bidder

Managing Partner, The Four Seasons Restaurant, New York
Marc Allen
We are absolutely better off after engaging Yastrow and Company. They helped us look at our business from our clients’ perspective, resulting in a cultural shift throughout our organization. These changes have made a big impact - we’ve gained new clients and strengthened relationships with existing clients. The investment was well worth it.

Marc Allen

Vice President of Sales, AMD Industries
Rhoda Olsen
Steve Yastrow has clearly described the emotional reality of customer relationships and their impact on profitable business growth.

Rhoda Olsen

President, Great Clips for Hair
Mike Depatie
Steve Yastrow is at the forefront of the next evolution in marketing. We have implemented many of his innovative ideas... and have seen very positive results.

Mike Depatie

CEO, Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants
Doug Ducey
In one morning, Steve re-energized the way we look at marketing. The only question we had at the end of the session was, ‘When can we get him back?'

Doug Ducey

CEO & Chairman, Cold Stone Creamery, Governor of Arizona
Rancho La Puerta has enjoyed continued success because of the work we did with Yastrow and Company. Together, we implemented business strategies that have contributed to our success. Steve and his team truly believe in our brand. I highly recommend Yastrow and Company to any business that needs help building the bottom line.

Roma Maxwell

Director of Sales and Marketing, Rancho La Puerta
Rancho La Puerta has enjoyed continued success because of the work we did with Yastrow and Company. Together, we implemented business strategies that have contributed to our success. Steve and his team truly believe in our brand, and our experience with them was empowering, fun and a great learning opportunity. I highly recommend Yastrow and Company to any business that needs help building the bottom line

Roma Maxwell

Roma Maxwell, Director of Sales and Marketing, Rancho La Puerta
Tom Peters
When Steve Yastrow writes, I pay close attention.

Tom Peters

Founder, Tom Peters Company
David Sank
I highly recommend Yastrow and Company to any business that is intent on enhancing their customer experience. Prior to working with Steve, we were communicating various messages to customers. Steve and his team helped us achieve a cohesive brand message that we as a company live daily. Steve is an incredible listener and learned the nuances of our business rapidly. I can’t imagine anyone Yastrow and Company couldn’t help.

David Sank

President and CEO, Calico Cottage
Jennifer Whelan
“Steve’s workshops helped bring out what is best at Acuative. His insights were fresh and long-lasting—we continue to use his tools and approach years later.”

Jennifer Whelan

Vice President of Marketing, Acuative