Sometimes the trickiest part of selling is keeping your customer’s attention. Here’s a question I received in a workshop last week, from a medical salesperson:

“How do I deal with this situation? I manage to get a short meeting with a surgeon at a hospital … he asks me a question, and as I start to answer him, he turns around and either starts working on something else or walks away.”

Any one of us who has ever needed to sell anything (i.e., all of us) has encountered a situation like this. Ok, maybe most of us have never encountered someone as rude as this surgeon, but every one of us has faced the challenge of engaging and keeping a customer’s attention.

Let’s explore this case of the rude surgeon in order to understand ways to hold a customer’s attention.

Listening is inviting –
Get your customer talking

How do you react if someone ignores you while you are telling him something? Do you talk less or talk more?

I’ve noticed that most people will start talking more when they are being ignored. However, this is the opposite of what you should do. Instead of talking to get someone to engage with you, try to get him talking.

People love to hear themselves talk. Someone who is only partially engaged in a situation will become more engaged when they are “holding the floor.” As Shakespeare wrote, “Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice. ” Listening is inviting.

Back to my workshop: I asked the medical salesperson if there were questions that he could have asked in response to the surgeon’s question. For example, if the surgeon’s original question was about the varieties in which the salesperson’s products came in, could he have asked the surgeon about the types of cases he usually has, so that it would be possible to focus on the varieties that would be most important to the surgeon.

The goal is to “prime the pump” of conversation until it starts flowing. You want to ask enough questions, and the right kinds of questions, so that your customer starts talking. Then, he’ll be more engaged.

Remember, he doesn’t care about your story (So talk about his)

Your customer really doesn’t care about your story (If he did, he’d be paying attention). So, make sure that the subject of conversation is not your story, but his. The reason for this is clear: He may not care about your story, but he is passionate about his.

The goal of the medical salesperson (and any of us, for that matter) is to make the customer’s story the subject of conversation. Once the medical salesperson is able to get the surgeon talking, as discussed above, it’s not difficult to put his story in the spotlight.

Dial up your presence

Watch what happens when one person in a conversation stops to take a phone call. Everyone else reaches for their BlackBerry or iPhone, checking messages, sending texts, reviewing emails. Then watch what happens when the first person ends his phone call. Everyone has to get back in sync and engage once again.

There are many ways a customer can disengage from a conversation, short of reaching for his phone. He may start looking at his watch, or around the restaurant.

Try something different when you sense that your customer is slipping away from your conversation. Don’t fall away yourself.Dial up your presence. Keep eye contact. Ask pointed, relevant, questions.

Bring the future forward

I’ve written before about one of my favorite brainstorming ideas, which I call “Bring the Future Forward.” The idea is simple: Imagine that today is not today, but some point in the future. Now, describe your business (or life, or marketing project, or customer relationships) at that point in time, assuming that everything is going well. It’s ironic, but I’ve found that people can sometimes be more engaged in a moment in the future than the moment they are in now.

Imagine if the medical sales person had managed to get the surgeon to talk about the ideal situation he wants, at some point in the future. Not only would the surgeon have told the salesperson what he wants, but he would most likely have given the salesperson more complete attention as well.

Here’s an example of how I used this idea once: I was speaking with a hotel executive about the need for a program to improve the way her front-line employees built relationships with guests. We were sitting in the lobby of one of her hotels. I pointed to the front desk and asked her to describe the perfect interaction between a front desk agent and a guest, one year from that day. She was able to describe this interaction to me, with great detail.

Look for opportunities for empathy

Empathy happens when one person acknowledges and validates the way another person feels. People LOVE it when others empathize with them. As your customer shares his story, look for ways empathize with his plight. This will certainly engage him.

No doubt, the surgeon has things on his mind that are bothering him. Life for him is, certainly, not perfect. If the medical salesperson can get the surgeon to reveal those concerns, and can show empathy for him, the surgeon will be more engaged.

Take Notice

Watch how others react when they begin to lose someone’s attention. Do they talk more or less? Do they talk about themselves or try to change the focus of the conversation to be about the other person?

How do you compare?

Self assess: How do you react when you begin to lose a customer’s attention? Are you proficient at winning it back, or do have you ample room for improvement?

Try this

As you begin to implement the ideas explained above, practice a heightened awareness of your customers’ levels of engagement as you speak with them. Imagine a scale of 1 to 100, with “100” signifying 100% engagement throughout 100% of the conversation. How well do most of your conversations go?

Awareness is the first step to improvement. Pay attention. As you notice times where you lose your customer’s attention, practice employing one or more of the five ideas described above. They work!

Customer attention is not only one of the scarcest resources you have, but one of the hardest to hold on to as well. If cash were as hard to keep as a grip on customer attention, all companies would be out of business. Recognize that customer attention is elusive, and make its retention one of your ongoing, daily areas of focus. Practice!

1 Comment

  • Anshul Gupta
    Jun 15, 2010 - 12:44 pm

    But don’t you think that, customer attention is dependent on other things too…

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