The way we think and communicate can have a big impact on sales. There is a wide variety of ways in which people think and communicate and these tend to differ by type of job function and by levels of seniority. The more flexible we can be with our communication, the wider group of people with whom we are likely to be effective. If you want your prospects to understand why they should buy your products and services then you should learn to speak their language.

English and French
If you want to succeed in sales you need to be understood by your prospects in order for them to even consider becoming customers. The ability to communicate with a wide range of people is a skill worth developing, not just for sales but for any aspect of business, leadership or general life. It was quite a revelation when I first discovered that just because the words had left my mouth, it meant the other person would understand them.

This seems quite obvious but most of us do not take it into consideration. For many years I had been in a world of finance and had no problem communicating with people that understood finance, planning, and systems.
It was everyone else I found a challenge! I knew this was limiting my career and I decided to work on the challenge long before becoming an accidental salesman. I became more flexible in my style and was able to communicate effectively with all levels of an organisation and all disciplines. I still had challenges and it is still something that is an ongoing work-in-progress as it is so valuable.

Communication is something we often take for granted. We constantly expect the other person to understand what we are talking about. Yet we may get frustrated at being misunderstood by some people. If the words, ‘That’s not what I meant!’ get said by you regularly then you may be suffering from the ‘English and French’ syndrome:

Imagine a group of English people on holiday in France. They are lost and looking for directions. They come across a French man who does not speak any English and they do not speak any French. They ask in English anyway and the Frenchman just shrugs his shoulders and says ‘Comment?’ (What?) The English people can tell the Frenchman does not understand so they commence to speak very loudly and slowly as if it is to be expected that the whole world should speak English as a matter of right. Naturally, when you are in France you may come across people who do not speak English. It is not so obvious that in business you may meet people who are from the same country but have no idea about what you are talking.

The need for flexibility in communication
Between two people, whose responsibility is it for communicating effectively?

To me the answer is simple. It is the person who wants to be understood. In sales terms this is always the sales person and not the buyer. If your prospect was desperate for your product and services and there were no alternatives then it could be a different matter. There are few monopolies left these days and it is unlikely that any existing ones will last forever. Let us assume that you need to take personal responsibility for being understood by your prospects and anyone else that is involved in the sales process and delivery. You can decide to increase the flexibility of your communication or be restricted by the range of people with whom you can work. If you do take personal responsibility then it gives you much more influence.

It does not matter what you think you have communicated, all that matters is what has been understood. We have already covered how your words can be saying one thing and your body language saying something completely different. But what if you are being incredibly sincere with the best intentions and yet the other person simply does not understand or, worse, thinks you mean something completely different.

As a consultant I traveled to many countries speaking to people where English was not their first language. I had to consider what sorts of words they were likely to understand and how to communicate my message so that they could understand. I remember many occasions in the early days, especially in countries like Spain and Italy, when I was regularly misunderstood, leading to tempers being raised until they understood what I really meant. The same can actually happen everyday but people are often far too polite to say anything. The result is, you just don’t get invited back.

Unless you consider how you want your communication to be understood then you leave it to chance. You can have huge empathy and still not get anywhere because your prospects just do not understand you. It used to annoy me when I went to a railway station and I could not understand a word of what the announcer was saying. The speaker would be giving what they considered to be important information but was speaking too fast and with a very strong accent. The speaker was going through the motions of speaking without even thinking about whether they were understood or not. I had not realised that I was guilty of the same thing myself, albeit in a more subtle way.

If you wanted to sell your products and services in another country, wouldn’t you naturally consider the language issue? But what if you are selling to people who speak the same language and yet cannot understand you? It’s my view that if you want someone to understand you then it is your responsibility to communicate in a way that they understand rather than expect them to make the effort to understand you. After all, if the situation was reversed, it is unlikely you would go out of your way to understand someone who was speaking a different language, especially if the conversation was about conducting business together.

There are many subtle areas that can get in the way of communication and can impact on relationships and our prospects wanting to do business.

I often go on sales visits with my sales coaching clients to give them feedback. As I work with a lot of people involved in information technology you can imagine that jargon can be a problem. On one particular sales visit I was with a person selling web design. He was visiting the managing partner of a firm of architects. It was clear from the beginning that the architect was not very familiar to websites. He used email and he looked at sites on the internet to get information but had never seen the need for a website. Yet the web designer proceeded to use a lot of jargon, some of which I had not even heard of. This web designer was used to speaking to people in IT departments of larger companies who speak the language of IT. Here he was using the same language and the prospect was looking more and more confused. Each time a piece of jargon was used he was wondering what that meant and probably was not listening to what followed.

I am fairly direct and if I do not understand something I will say so. Most people are too polite or they think that asking will make them appear foolish. As a result, the ‘nodding donkey’ effect arises where the person is nodding and you are taking that to mean they understand when in actual fact they are just not listening and are just waiting for you to finish so that they can get on with their work. You leave thinking you have had a great meeting. They leave thinking that if they ever did business with you they would struggle to understand what you are talking about. Jargon has its place but be sure that your prospect is able to understand the jargon before using it.

You may need to understand the jargon of the industry – it could add credibility.

Levels of detail
The classic area for communication problems arises when two people have different levels of detail with which they are comfortable. Some people are incredibly detailed in their thinking and like to go down to the minute detail of everything. At the other extreme you have people that tend to think at the ‘big picture level’ and prefer to stay away from even the slightest level of detail. It is actually a sliding scale with most people somewhere in the middle. It becomes an issue when you are communicating with someone closer to the extreme.

I can remember working with one client, working with the sales people to improve sales growth I was helping the sales and the accounting departments get on with each other and better understand each other. The sales people did not want detail at all; they were all big picture thinkers. The accountants, on the other hand, were all immersed in the detail and when they were communicating with the sales department would stay at the detailed level.

They would then complain when the sales people did not respond to any of their requests for information and support. They wanted the sales people to help them and yet at the same time expected the sales people to go out of their way to understand information at a level they were not used to. The reverse was true too. The sales people, on occasions, wanted information from the accounting department but were frustrated that they never got what they asked for. They had asked at a very big picture, non specific way. The accounting staff had attempted to fill in the blanks and got it wrong.

Everyone is capable of going into detail and of thinking in big picture terms. The way we think is habitual; we may be more used to thinking in detail and it may take some effort to take a more global perspective, but it is possible. Once you have done this several times, it will be possible to switch in and out of each mode. You will probably have a preference but you will not let it get in the way of your business development. If you can only communicate to people that can think at a very detailed level or a very global level then you will restrict the pool of prospects with whom you can work.

Big Picture —————————————————————————– Detailed

Consider where you see yourself on the scale above. If you are in the middle you may want to develop your flexibility in both directions. If you are at one extreme then you may want to get some practice at working closer to the middle. Remember, you are not looking to change what you currently do, only add a wider range of possibilities. It’s a bit like if you could only sing one note then learning some of the other notes would expand the range of music you would be able to sing.

To develop your ability for detail, take up a hobby or start doing some research on a particular topic that interests you. I know someone who claims to be dyslexic but has no problems reading cookery books. Its amazing how, when you are interested enough in something then you want more and more detail. The clue here is that you are interested in the topic.

If you start to take an interest in your customers and their interests and needs then it is my guess that you will be able to cope with a lot more detail and enjoy it. Start with a big picture and then keep breaking it down to a lower level. To develop a capacity for thinking at a more global level, it would be useful to start spending time with global thinkers. Read books by visionaries and start to debate the big issues of current affairs. You will soon realise that you do actually have the capacity to think at a higher level in other contexts of your life and you just need to apply that to your work.

Amount of structure
In a similar way to detail, some people like a lot of structure where others find structure very restrictive. Again it is a sliding scale as opposed to one or the other. We all have the capacity for each and it is down to what we feel most comfortable doing and what we habitually do. If I were to ask you to fold your arms you would find that it is fairly comfortable. Most of us fold our arms from time to time. When we fold our arms, we naturally put one arm on top and one underneath. For me it is my right arm that is on top. If I was now to ask you to reverse your arms so that the arm that normally is placed on top is now underneath then it will feel strange to begin with. When I try and place my left arm on top of my right, it takes time even to work out how to do it, let alone feel comfortable. Yet the more I do it, the more comfortable it becomes.

Lack of structure is often associated with people who are more creative and free thinkers. It is the very lack of structured thinking that leads to the creativity. If they are communicating with other people who are also used to having unrestricted thinking them both people will probably have a great time. The conversation will go all over the place and probably over run but they will get there in the end. Most of us have come across people who are creative to the extreme. They have lots of ideas and never put any into practice because they are not so good at planning and taking an organised approach. They work well when teamed up with people who are more organised and take a structured approach but lack the creativity. So for example, an accounting firm engages a business development consultant to develop ideas for new services to offer their clients. The branding consultants engage an accounting firm to help them get their finances in order.

The problem comes when someone who is highly structured attempts to communicate with people that are not used to very much structure. The structured person gets confused when the conversation does not follow a specific order. The unstructured person feels constrained in their thinking when they have to fit into a specific structure.

Highly structured —————————————————————————–Free Thinker

Consider where you see yourself on the scale above. If you are in the middle you may want to develop your flexibility in both directions. If you are at one extreme then you may want to get some practice at working closer to the middle. Remember, you are not looking to change what you currently do, only add a wider range of possibilities. It’s a bit like if you could only sing one note then learning some of the other notes would expand the range of music you would be able to sing.

The reality is that it is possible to be both structured and unstructured. It is hard to do both at the same time but it is possible to decide the level of structure you adopt. It takes work to develop flexibility in this area but it is worth the effort. The benefits are not only useful for communication but have impact on personal productivity and creativity too.

If you prefer structure and you are dealing with a prospect that is comfortable without structure it is still worth proposing an agenda but it may be better to not call it an agenda and just say that it is the items you would like to cover during the meeting. Do not be surprised if things start going off at a tangent but be patient to bring the conversation back to agenda. Unstructured people can often see the benefit of structure. It is the feeling of being constrained they do not like. It is more a case of meeting in the middle. If you are someone who likes to be unstructured then it is worth practicing to be more structured on purpose. If your prospects are highly structured then you will confuse and annoy them if you keep taking the conversation off on a tangent.

Other potential barriers to communication
I have covered some of the more straightforward examples but there are many areas that can make a significant difference in communication by recognising subtle differences in the way people think and process information. By making this an area of skill to work on you can become incredibly influential not just in terms of being understood but in helping to influence how people think about things and moving them to your way of thinking.

For example, some people are motivated by moving towards things they want and others by moving away from things they don’t want. You can tell someone’s motivation strategy by just listening to the words they use. If you are always talking in terms of moving away from problems and your prospect is always thinking in terms of what they want then unless the prospect knows exactly what they want you may have a very interesting conversation. You may appear to be thinking negatively whereas you think you are being practical.

Another example is to do with similarity and difference. Some people like familiarity and others like change and difference. If you are speaking to someone who sees the world in terms of sameness then talking about the differences is going to fall on deaf ears. Indeed, your prospect may even become very resistant. Instead, you will need to show how similar the new way is to what they are used to.

The more you begin to study how people think and how they communicate and begin to practice flexibility in your communication with others, the more power and influence you have in dealing with people. This is something that so-called born salesmen have but it is a skill that can be acquired and taken to a much higher degree than your average salesman.