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How (and Why) to Speak Your Customer’s Language

Understanding your customer’s wants, needs, challenges and objectives is one of the most important factors in selling success. I learned this as a young salesperson, when one of my sales conversations unexpectedly went awry. It was one of the most important lessons about selling in my 30-year career.

That day, I really wanted to impress a potentially big customer. I succeeded in convincing my manager to approve a crazy low price, so low that my company wouldn’t be making any profit. I proudly approached the customer and announced that I could offer him the best price in the industry.

His response left me dumbfounded. He replied, “Then you must be using cheap raw materials.” He was no longer interested in anything else I had to say. Whatever respect he had for me was instantly gone. My efforts somehow created the very scenario I wanted to avoid.

This was a pivotal moment for me. I felt crushed, defeated, and puzzled. I drove back to the office and reflected on what just happened. I wondered, “What in this picture am I missing?”

The answer slowly emerged. I realized I must have been engaging in a different conversation than my customer. While I was talking to my customer, he was talking to himself. It was as if these two conversations were spoken in different languages. In my language, a low price meant more value. In his, a low price meant poor quality.

A second realization emerged after the first one—the conversation my customer had with himself was the more important of the two. As a salesperson, I’m the one who needs to adapt to whatever language my customer is speaking. For example, If I knew my customer only spoke Spanish, then I certainly wouldn’t give my presentation in English. Why should it be any different for my customer’s “internal” language?

Understand Your Customer’s “Black Box”

But learning to “speak” your customer’s language can be challenging. Traditional sales training textbooks refer to the customer’s internal conversation as “the black box.” They call it a black box because it’s a mystery to salespeople. Salespeople can’t hear those “gears” turning inside their customers’ heads.

This black box is also known as the customer’s decision process. It’s the most significant factor for determining if salespeople will win or lose a sale. Just because you can’t hear this conversation doesn’t mean it should be ignored. You can still significantly influence it.

Another way to understand this is to imagine a salesperson presenting a product. After the presentation, the customer responds by saying, “I want to talk to my expert first who’s in the next room.” Wouldn’t you want to learn a few things about this expert before giving your presentation? This scenario isn’t very different from dealing with the customer’s internal conversation. The more you learn about it, the more successful you’ll be.

When I think back on that surprising conversation so long ago, I realize I should have learned more about my customer’s background before approaching him with an unrealistic discount. Then I could have modified my presentation to align with what he valued. I would have emphasized the fact that my company was taking a loss on my offer because of the high quality of the raw materials we used, and I probably would have closed the sale.

Help Customers Gain “Self-Clarity”

You can still succeed even if your customer’s black box decision process is a mystery. It’s natural not to know what a customer is thinking. A salesperson can still get a sale even if they didn’t know why the customer is buying.

It’s more of a problem, however, when the black box is a mystery to the customer themselves. This can happen when customers are confused, distracted, or lack a clear goal. It’s much more difficult for a salesperson to be successful under these circumstances. Confused customers seldom buy.

It’s in your best interest to help customers gain “self-clarity.” A customer who’s clear about what they need will be in a better position to understand how your product will satisfy that need. You can support this process without having to know what that need is.

Often a customer’s need involves a feeling. You can’t know precisely what your customers are feeling, but you can still have an impact by helping the customer get in touch with their feelings. Just because the customer’s black box isn’t known doesn’t mean you can’t influence it.

Three Steps to Influence Customer Decision-Making

  1. Value the Customer’s Decision Process – A salesperson needs to value their customer’s unique internal decision process over their own thinking. You want customers to buy for their reasons rather than for reasons you suggest. Reasons to buy that are customer-derived are more sustainable than those suggested by salespeople. Customers value salespeople who show a genuine interest and respect for their way of thinking.
  2. Be a Learner, Not a Teacher – Salespeople must be good observers. Listen carefully for clues to decode your customer’s “internal language.” This involves learning about the customer’s beliefs, values, objectives, challenges, priorities, etc. The best way to achieve this is to ask good questions. Good observation also requires you to minimize distractions. When you negatively judge a customer’s beliefs or try to control conversations, you’re distracted by your preconceived agenda. You’ll miss out on subtle clues about what your customers are actually trying to convey.
  3. Respond to What You Observe – Salespeople must be adaptable. You must be willing to get out of your comfort zone by putting aside pre-rehearsed responses that don’t match up with the unique needs of your customers. No company training program is nuanced enough to teach all of the responses needed for every customer’s unique internal language. One of the most valuable things you can learn is how to develop versatility. You need to be versatile enough to respond to the myriad of diverse needs expressed by customers.

Beyond Selling and Buying

The ability to decode the black box of another person’s decision process is a skill that goes beyond selling and buying. We frequently find ourselves wanting to contribute in a positive way to decisions the people we care about are making. Not all of the advice we give gets acted upon

The ability to deliver advice in a way that people will be receptive to and take to heart is a fundamental skill. Motivation and commitment that lasts comes from within. Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a counselor, or just being sought after for advice, your ability to learn another person’s internal language is the key to contributing real and sustainable value.

Learn More
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About Jeffrey Lipsius
Jeffrey Lipsius is president and founder of Selling To The Point®, LLC Sales Training and Consulting. He developed the Selling To The Point® method over his 30-year sales training career. Jeffrey pioneered inside selling for the natural foods industry in the 1970’s, and trained the first sales force of this type in that industry. Jeffrey has trained over 100 salespeople, both inside and outside, as well as sales trainers. The salespeople trained by Jeffrey are some of the highest commission earners in their respective industries.

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