Listening is arguably the most important skill a business adviser can acquire. Just allowing a client to talk about problems can often help the client work towards their own solution. A major obstacle to listening is thinking about the next question to be discussed, but if you do that, you will withdraw your attention from what the client is saying.
- Listen carefully to everything the client says.
- Ask open questions to elicit further information.
- Probe if necessary. Use a mental check list and take brief notes.
- Listen actively.
- There should be plenty of eye contact.
- Look interested.
- Do not interrupt until the client has finished speaking.
- Be physically alert.
Remember that listening is not merely hearing what a client says, but observing how it is said.
- Watch for body language which may replace spoken language or express emotion.
- Do not feel that you have to jump in with advice.
- Don’t be afraid of silences – remember that people need time to think, especially if you have posed a difficult or sensitive question. In addition, if you jump in every time there’s a silence, there is a danger that you will make assumptions rather than gather information.
Do not allow yourself to be influenced by your own prejudices or biases or your experiences of previous clients with similar proposals, particularly when earlier proposals have been badly thought through. Think again about the GP scenario!
Ensure that you really do understand what the client is telling you.
As you gather information about the client and their business, take brief notes. Do not spend too much time writing or the client may perceive that you are not concentrating on them. On the other hand, you need sufficient notes to remind you of the pertinent information at a later date.
As well as gathering information from the client, you may also be assessing personal characteristics – particularly in the case of a new client. At the first session, it is a good idea to find out what your client’s expectations are and how they see their business idea developing over the next few months.
- Do they have the determination and commitment to succeed?
- Do they have persistence?
- How good are they at selling themselves?
- How much support are they receiving from their family?
- Do they have the technical skills required?
In some cases, with people who are already in business, you may find that you can only acquire some of the information you need by visiting the client’s premises, by looking at their operations, or even by talking to their staff. You may then need to feed back a summary of what you have learned to establish whether the client’s perception of their business matches the reality. Care is needed!
The acquisition phase will help you build up an overall picture of the client’s circumstances.