This article isn’t about a revolutionary way to pipe your hydronics systems. It isn’t about a perfect new product that will save you a ton of time on the installation you have planned next week. It is about the most valuable skill you can have.
The tool I’m talking about can make up for lost time. It can get you out of a jam, and land you the job of your dreams. It isn’t, however, something that you can pick up at a wholesale counter. Like a lot of aspects of the trades, it requires practice. Here is the scary part: I’m talking about effective communication.
Many people will notice that this article isn’t about a technical topic and may continue to the next page of the magazine. In-person sales trainings are some of the hardest classes to fill, especially if they share a time slot with a technical topic at a convention. As an industry, we like learning about the nuts and bolts of the trade. Most of us don’t like working on our communication skills.
I’ve met a bunch of contractors who are excellent at the wrench turning side of the business. I can probably only name ten of those contractors who are also excellent communicators. The tradespeople who can explain why they are good at what they do to any member of the general public are the best salespeople.
In my experience, the one thing that frustrates customers the most is when they don’t understand what they are signing up for. Asking good questions, however, is an easy way for salespeople to get over this hurdle. I’m going to list a few things I have heard from contractors while speaking to homeowners, and cover what worked well and what didn’t:
• “I won’t waste your time covering the premium option, since this is a budget job.” Never assume that a customer doesn’t want to hear the premium option. Even if someone tells you directly that they want to do a project as cheaply as possible, don’t avoid mentioning things that will save them long-term money. For example, that contractor could have instead said something like, “I know you said that price is important to you. I want to mention that the product I’m about to order for your job is less expensive, but it doesn’t have any replaceable parts. Even a minor part failure will mean a full replacement. Would you rather me spend a little more and get a product that I can fix and not replace if something goes wrong?”
• “I’m going to call my supplier for help programing this new module. I want to make sure I’m doing it 100 percent correctly so I don’t break something or waste your time.” There is a risk that a homeowner will wonder if you are qualified to be doing the installation, since you don’t know everything about everything. There is also a good chance that they will appreciate the honesty. A lot of homeowners hate wasting time more then anything. If you emphasize that you only want to be on the jobsite when you can be as effective as possible and not sit in the mechanical room scratching your head all day, most customers will respect that. If a customer thinks to themself, “I have no idea what is taking them so long,” you are going to be fighting an uphill battle that whole job.
• “Trust me, I’ve been doing this for 30 years.” Universally, customers don’t like be talked down to. They also don’t like boasting. In this day and age, there is an 80 percent chance that a customer of yours will go google whatever you just told them, and you will lose credibility if they find any information that conflicts with what they just heard. The Internet is full of contradictory statements, so they are likely to find something. You never get ahead by making a customer feel dumb.
• “The last guy who worked on this system was an idiot.” That statement may even be true, but it is a cheap shot to build credibility.
• “What should our company do to make sure this project is a great experience for you?” I love this type of question at the end of whatever sales steps you are discussing with a customer. They may say something that you had no idea was going to be an important issue for them. For example, “The last serviceperson who came to our house tracked mud all over the floors.” You now know that a tarp or roll of plastic over the carpet is going to make a big impression on that customer.
Whatever you do, don’t lie to your customers. Regardless of your sales approach, don’t intentionally tell a homeowner something they can prove is false. If you forgot to order something and tell the homeowner that it didn’t come in yet, they can call your wholesaler and check on that. Lies are what the caricature salespeople in movies do.
When I worked as a rep, a customer called and told us that an expensive control they ordered arrived broken. They opened the box, noticed it was broken and called us. We scrambled to overnight another one so they wouldn’t be inconvenienced. A few days later, I was at the wholesaler where the broken part was returned. The part was indeed very broken. However, I noticed that a few of the installation pieces in the box had been opened. There was a big piece of tape that was used for one of the last steps in the process that even had a few fingerprints on it.
It was easy to tell they mounted the device, maybe crooked, and broke it while prying it back off the wall. I made sure to never give that company the benefit of the doubt with something like that ever again. When I picked up a phone call from that company, I may have asked, “How can I help?” but I was thinking, “Are you trying to rip me off again?” Don’t let that happen to you and your customers.
A sales trainer named Brian Tracy has a blog post that reads: “In sales, the most important factor to effective communication is for you to improve your listening skills. You must learn to start asking questions and listen attentively, without interruptions. As a rule, you pay attention to people you most value. When you pay close attention to another person when he or she is speaking, you signal to that person that you very much value him or her and the content of their comments. This is very flattering to another person and it causes them to respond warmly to your attentiveness.”
He continues: “The major reason that most people have poor listening skills is that they are busy preparing a reply while the other person is still speaking. In fact, they are not even listening closely to what the other person is saying. They are thinking of other things and formulating their comments to be ready as soon as the other person takes a breath.”
Most people just want to be heard and understood. If you aren’t listening to your customers before you start working, you reduce the likelihood that you will meet all their expectations, mostly because the customer expectations probably aren’t all related to the technical aspects of the projects.
The best salespeople I know can tell the difference between what a customer says they want and what they actually need. They are also patient enough to ask the right questions to make sure they truly understand what will make the customer happy. If you can connect all the dots that are important to your customer and explain how you are going to knock the project out of the park, you will win the day. The way to do that is to listen more than you talk.