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When all else fails


“If customers like you they’ll listen to you. If customers trust you they’ll do business with you.”

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Everyone makes fun of the idiots who travel aboard and encounter natives who do not speak English, they then over-compensate by speaking slow as if that would make a difference.

Entrepreneurs do the same. But instead of slower, we speak faster hoping that if we could just throw in more bigger words quicker, we would eventually enlighten a path bright enough for our customers to discover better understanding.

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Contrary to popular belief among entrepreneurs, building a business is not only about building product. Building a business is about building relationship. And meaningful relationships are built by listening and not just talking.

If you want your customers to like you, start by listening.


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Let us step back and think about our Bluetooth headset. Have you ever noticed how over the years, the design of the boom that houses the microphone has gotten shorter? It used to be that the most efficient designs are the ones where the mouth piece is next to our mouth. Then the boom gradually becomes so short that the mic is only an inch away from our ear. In fact, the most modern designs are the ones that have no boom at all. It is just a plug you insert into your ear with the acoustic pickup built-in.

The realty is that you don't need a boom. The mic extender was there to overcome human misconception, similar to deploying a human driver in a BART train which is already fully automated. In fact, it was always known that the most strategic location to pick up sound is not near our mouth but near our ears.

This makes sense, actually. If we can't hear, we can't speak. All animals that are capable of making sound have biologically evolved such that there is perfect acoustic coupling between their mouth and their ears.

In business, the best communicators are the ones who could hear themselves perfectly while they speak. If they don't hear well, they don't speak well. Similarly, if we can't hear our customers, we can't communicate with them.

You can talk, but they wouldn't listen until they are convinced that you are listening.

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I have been an entrepreneur for over twenty years. And except for the last two years before I took early retirement, I sucked as a business man. I attribute my eventual modest success to four lifestyle changes that I had made: I gained weight, I lost hair, I learned to take notes and I learned to stutter.

The first two is obvious. I made progress when I started to look more like my customers. If your customers were skinny and full of hair, then you should too. Mine weren't and it didn't help me that I was.

I also have perfect memory so I normally don't need to take notes when I meet customers. I cannot recall what they say verbatim. But my senses are good enough that I can recall their mood and body language, enough so that after the meetings, I could reconstruct the pieces in order to have deeper insights into their desire.

But not taking notes really bother my customers.

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So I changed. I remember after one particular customer meeting, I wrote up the trip report and circulated it among my peers as well as the local rep. He was so impressed with my exquisite recollection that he wanted to see my notebook. I showed him. It was blank except for some unrelated hand drawn cartoons. He was astonished.

I told him I didn't need to take notes but I had to pretend to take notes in order to convince my customers that I considered what they said of paramount importance. In fact, I often asked them to slow down so I could write things down properly. And I even asked them to repeat themselves to be sure that I got everything right.

This is not about being deceptive. It is about putting my customer first and putting aside my own sense of self-importance.

Subverting our alpha male postures is the complete opposite of what we have been taught by our parents. Business is not about standing talk and squaring our shoulders. Business is about leaning forward with a subtle smile and tilting our head, putting our ear slightly closer to their mouth, to show that we are the ones being honored with their presence.

Getting customers to like you requires sincerity. Being sincere means that you must show them that you are genuinely interested in solving their problems and tending to their needs. Trying to be the smarter guy in the room (your customer's room) is the wrong way to start. Let them be better than you and let them know that this is not about you.

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Fine-tune the impedance match between their vocal cords and your inner ear cochlea, then your customers will beat a path to liking you.

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If your customers like you, how do you make them trust you?

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Entrepreneurs often do not understand that the biggest gift we can bring to a customer is to let them know that they are no longer alone.

Entrepreneurs have knowledge that our customers do not have. Unlike them, we have met their competitors and we know for a fact that everyone keeps the same secret.

And knowledge is power.

We can help our customers by convincing them that they are not alone. They are not alone with their network problems. They are not alone with their lack of resources. They are not alone with their difficulties fighting internal politics. They are not even alone in not having enough quality time with their families.

This is not to say that you give away proprietary information. They are smart. If you tell them company secrets what you have just skimmed from your last customer visit, they would immediately assume that you would broadcast to their competitors their own secrets as soon as you leave.

So you need to non-dimensionalize what you learned. Distill your knowledge to make them generic. In my last venture, in addition to being the CEO of my company, I was also the regional account manager for the Bay Area.

And my customers included Apple, Genentech, Paypal and Netflix. I never named names (until now) but I walked around with PowerPoint presentations containing network diagrams that were indicative of a consumer electronics company with a significant web presence for both media download and e-commerce, a bio-tech company inundated with government regulations, etc.

Every time I visited a customer, I would start by describing the problems that I had seen and asked if they were similar to what they were trying to solve and I listened. I talked slow and I stuttered. I would pretend to have great difficulties getting my words out because these were intellectually challenging concepts that I barely understood.

To get them to trust you, you need to shed away any remaining sense of superiority and show your customers that you are just a human being like everyone else. You speak short sentences and you use simple words. You let them mis-underestimate you. You let them be Gandalf while you act the part of Frodo.

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Selling is really simple, much simpler than solving physics problems and developing products. Make the necessary lifestyle changes such that you don't present yourself as Al Gore. What I have learned in the last twenty years is that customers actually prefer to have a beer with someone other than the smart aleck who invented Internet.

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In between my utterance, I would heighten my senses and listen to any real-time feedbacks to be sure that I was learning as well. Eventually the customer would jump in and lecture me that I was wrong. They would lose their patience and would take over the meeting to proceed to teach me why in spite of my unique vantage, I was only half-right.

They were willing to accept that I had precious data that they didn't have but they concluded that I was not smart enough to interpret them.

When they started talking, I stopped.

This is mixed-martial-arts-ultimate-Jujitsu at its best. All the sudden I was hearing my customer's problems from the horse's mouth. They were spilling their guts. The end result was that while I might have come in with some knowledge, I left with more knowledge.

Gradually, with all my imperfection and with practice, my customers would start to trust me and do business with me.

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All entrepreneurs have to learn to sell, not after you finish developing your product, but before. The biggest hurdle for entrepreneurs to overcome in order to become good salesmen is their intelligence. To succeed you must over-compensate not only your weakness but your strength.

You start your journey by figuring out how you could stop being the smartest jackass in the room. And you start by lowering your misguided high standard and getting off your high horses.

I have learned painfully that one man's intelligence is another man's arrogance.

When all else fails, learn to stutter.


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Have a wonderful Sunday and a prosperous 2013, everyone.
  

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