Lend Them Your Ear

Listening for your clients’ needs, anticipating them and helping to surface them through a consultative needs-based conversation is powerful. By having a needs-based conversation versus a solely topics-based conversation, it becomes completely clear that the value being provided aligns with the value that’s needed.

Be careful not to let the expertise you provide as a professional get in the way of talking about what’s most important—which is your clients’ needs. Don’t assume providing information means you’re providing value.

It’s a fallacy that clients need more information. Chapter 4 of Conversations, entitled “Focus on Needs,” encourages you to have discussions about the needs hidden behind the topic and to consider what all human beings need. 


Always Be Prepared

A conversation is the quintessential unit of a relationship, yet relationship managers spend so little time preparing to engage in them. Addressing needs and solving problems through conversations requires planning and preparation. Being prepared will set you apart from those who give little thought to their conversations and do almost nothing to prepare. 

Do you enter a conversation with a plan? Or, are you content to improvise as you go along? Most relationship managers are. If you want to be an average relationship manager, that’s fine, but if you want to be an excellent relationship manager then planning and preparation are required.


Make Every Conversation Count

Relationships are made up of many conversations. Just like a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, a relationship is only as strong as its weakest conversation. Develop your skill in managing your relationships one conversation at a time. Make every conversation count and you’ll experience newfound success in your life, your business and your relationships. 


Read the Defense

What separates the best quarterbacks in football from the average or rookie quarterbacks is their ability to quickly and accurately read the defense by looking at how the defense is lined up and what happens as the ball is snapped. If you’re going to create a strong conversation, you’ll need to be able to read your clients like an elite quarterback reads the defense.

Getting a client talking early and often in a conversation is key. Since I know I’m going to ask a lot of questions, the first thing I do is assess how open and willing the other person is to respond to my questions. It’s especially important to get a new client talking, but there could be someone who’s been your client for years and has become very predictable. However, in each conversation, you still must read and discern what the defense is doing now. You never know what a person is bringing to a conversation on any given day. (His dog might have just died, his father might have been diagnosed with cancer, or he may have just learned he’s becoming a grandparent for the first time.) 


Exercise Self-Control

Great athletes have tremendous body control. Picture the wide receiver who leaps up in the air with a defender in his face, stretches his arms out and catches a pass, and while falling out of bounds, taps his toes in-bounds with the defender on top of him. In sports, physical body control scores points. In business, it’s self-control. You’ll become an all-pro in your conversations to the degree that you can control what comes out of your mouth and how you listen. The reality is you can’t control another person, you can only control yourself. 


Welcome Skepticism

 We encounter skepticism all the time.  It’s human nature to start from a place of distrust. We’re generally wired to be risk averse. Prospects  may be thinking: Is it worth taking the risk to buy from your company?  Can you actually do what you claim to do?  Are you really as good as your track record or reputation?    

Sometimes skepticism is blatant, but most of the time it’s subtle and in my experience most Relationship Managers handle it in a sub-optimal way. How? They resist it. In advance and during conversations, they worry about.  I hope this person buys what I’m selling...  Will they take the company spin?  What if they don’t like my argument?  

The idea that you’ll encounter skepticism causes anxiety and fear for Relationship Managers, Sales and Service professionals everywhere.  I used to fear a client’s skepticism, but now I look for it, welcome it and have found that if I handle it well, it strengthens the relationship with my clients and builds/increases trust.



If you want to be an extraordinary relationship manager, then consider that listening is the most important part of your job. Listening requires patience and hard work but it’s a worthy endeavor. In a world where talk is abundant, true listening is rare.  When I go on a business trips to visit clients around the country I focus was on listening. On my last trip, I would estimate I spent about two thirds of each meeting listening.  Chapter 3 of my book is simply titled Listen, although it could also be called Listen! (with an exclamation point) because it’s an emphatic recommendation that will help you be more effective almost immediately. 


Mission Impossible

Here’s your mission, if you choose to accept it: try to not interrupt anyone today and see how you do. If you’re like me—someone who interrupts far more than he should—you’ll need my list of 14 Strategies to Stop Yourself from Interrupting: 

1. Bite your tongue, lip or inside of your cheek.

2. Put your fist to your mouth (like Rodin’s famous statue, The Thinker) or one or two fingers on your lips.

3. Have a glass of water nearby and take a sip of water when you would normally be compelled to say something.

4. Sit on your hands. (This sounds odd at first, but it is a good reminder—especially for people who do a lot of talking with their hands.)

5. Turn your head to the side slightly such that one of your ears is closer to the person you’re talking with.

6. Put a rubber band around your wrist and when you catch yourself interrupting or talking when you should be listening, give yourself a snap.

7. Hold a small object (a rock or a marble) in your hands to remind yourself to listen.

8. At the risk of developing a different bad habit, put a pen in your mouth.

9. If you’re on the phone, put yourself on mute so you must press a button to say something.

10. To make sure the other person has finished completely, count to three slowly before you start talking.

11. Take notes. Focus on capturing key words and phrases.

12. If you can have a mentor or coach listen to your conversations, have them give you a signal to stop talking.

13. Look at a clock or a stopwatch. Challenge yourself to go longer and longer periods without talking.

14. At times you especially want to let the other person talk, say to yourself, “I’m listening now”.


Peeling a Pomegranate

A common analogy is that peeling an onion is like peeling back the complexity of a problem or situation one layer at a time. As a Relationship Manager, focusing on your client’s needs may be a lot more like peeling a pomegranate. If you’ve ever peeled one, you’ve probably experienced that it’s a lot less straightforward than peeling an onion and better signifies the complexity of your client’s needs. While in onion typically has 10 to 11 layers, a pomegranate has many sections and hundreds of seeds. In the same way, your clients have hundreds of little needs that you can discover and seek to meet over the course of a long-term relationship. ~An analogy from Chapter 4 of my book: Focus on Needs.   


Use Questions Skillfully

Relationship managers put a lot of effort into dominating conversations with their clients by doing most of the talking. The conventional belief is the person talking is the one who is in control of the conversation. The paradox I discovered is the person talking is not the one in control. The person who uses questions skillfully—then listens intentionally and powerfully—is the one who can expertly guide a conversation to a mutually beneficial resolution.  An excerpt from chapter two of my book: “Early in my career, I had consistently been told I wasn’t asking enough questions, but when I tried to ask more questions I wasn’t sure what to ask. I also felt like I was giving up control of the conversation by letting the client talk. Moreover, when I’d get a negative outcome from a question, it made me gun-shy to ask more of them. Like a lot of people, I thought it was better to focus on what I was going to say in the conversation. Everything changed once I developed the ability to ask questions skillfully.” 


Focus on Needs

Typical conversations with clients default to topics and subjects. Switch your paradigm from getting your needs met to getting your clients’ needs met. Needs-based conversations allow you to collaborate with your clients in an effective and empowering fashion. They help your clients see you as an ally and as someone who cares about them on a deeper level—beyond the normal expectations they have for their business relationships. Needs-based conversations result in positive outcomes.


Make More, Become More

Success in your career depends upon your ability to gain agreement for action. If you improve your ability to retain and grow client relationships through powerful conversations, you’ll become more valuable to your company, make more money, and increase your job satisfaction. There is no skill more important than the ability to be effective in conversations. 


The Major Problem

The major problem relationship managers have in working effectively with their clients is very few of them have a system, process, method or formula for managing their conversations. They stay too surface level and transactional and as a result don’t address their clients’ true needs.  Quite simply, they are totally unprepared. They're winging it.


The Open-Ended Question Rodeo

Relationship managers (hybrid sales and service professionals) are constantly encouraged to ask more questions. Sales trainers, mentors and coaches say: “You’ll have better conversations if you ask more questions.” In general, I agree that we need to ask more questions, but I’ve also found that simply increasing the number of questions—especially if they are asked haphazardly—isn’t necessarily better. What’s more effective is intentionally using questions in a skillful manner.

The foundation for being skillful and intentional with your questions is knowing when to use an open-ended question versus a closed-ended question. As I’ve experimented over time I’ve learned the following:

Open-ended questions:

  • Generate dialogue
  • Direct the conversation and forward the action
  • Elicit facts, feelings, motivations, needs and wants
  • Help foster learning and understanding

Closed-ended questions:

  • Request a quick answer
  • Check for acceptance of what you’ve put forward
  • Determine if you’ve obtained agreement
  • Make a statement or point
  • Typically cause you to lose the ability to direct the conversation

I remember one of my clients, James, who had a particularly tough time remembering to ask open-ended questions. In conversations with his clients, James only asked questions that started with: “did you”, “are you”, “do you”, or “have you”. As a result, his conversations were awkward and constantly stalled.

James lacked the self-awareness to see how the type of question he was asking was inhibiting his conversations. I kept pounding the table, “You have to start using open-ended questions!” I strongly encouraged him to start his questions with “who”, “what”, “when”, “why” or “how.”

Because he’d been using closed-ended questions exclusively James’ conversations were unnecessarily short. His client’s responses in turn were brief. He failed to maintain control and he wasn’t able to probe the client’s thoughts or feelings at any significant level of depth. Any information he got from a client was because the client thought he needed to share it with him, not because James sought it out.

So, I said to James, “Look, we’re going to play a game. It’s called the open-ended question rodeo. I’m going to play the client in a mock scenario and the only way you can respond is with a short open-ended question.” I handed him a list of questions and we started to play. In professional bull riding, a rider needs to stay on the bull for eight seconds or he fails to receive any score. In my open-ended question rodeo, although it’s not easy (neither is staying on a bull for eight seconds) the target was using five open-ended questions in a row even as the mock client asked questions in return.

After this role play, James finally started using open-ended questions and got positive results immediately. One of the benefits he experienced was by keeping his questions open-ended (and working off of a list) he didn’t have to work so hard to come up with the right questions to ask. His clients responded by warming up to him. They wound up sharing much more than they would have because his use of open-ended questions also helped him to listen better and build more rapport.


Questions are the Swiss Army Knives of Conversations

16 Ways to Use Questions Strategically

I’ve always been intrigued with Swiss Army Knives and amazed by their multitude of functions. There’s a Swiss Army Knife made by Victorinox called the “Wenger Giant” that packs 141 functions into 87 implements! Although you’d need a rather large pocket to hold your Wenger Giant, that’s not true with the abundance of question types available to you in a conversation. You just need experience, skill and knowledge for when to pull them out of your pocket. 

Questions are essential tools to help you manage your conversations. They can be used to accomplish multiple objectives. Here’s a list of 16 to keep in mind. 

With a question you can:

  1. Start or end a conversation
  2. Obtain important information (facts, feelings and motivations)
  3. Clarify needs
  4. Confirm an understanding
  5. Engage someone in a dialogue
  6. Show a sincere interest
  7. Make a point
  8. Provoke thoughts or feelings
  9. Connect, relate to and learn about another’s experience
  10. Open other’s minds to a world of information and ideas
  11. Direct and guide the action in a conversation
  12. Interrupt politely
  13. Be consultative
  14. Direct the focus of a conversation
  15. Provide a useful distraction
  16. Keep someone talking—something that will help you to listen better

While it’s commonly believed that the results of your conversations are driven by what you say in them, I’ve learned that isn’t necessarily the case. What matters more in conversations with others is what they say in response to my questions. Their answers to my questions drive the results.

Despite the powerful benefits and utility of using questions, my observation is that most people don’t ask them with confidence or intentionally use them as conversational tools. Some don’t ask any questions at all. Their default is talking about topics important to themselves rather than asking questions and listening to others talk about their needs, their experiences and their lives. 

Challenge yourself to use questions in a strategic fashion. Take advantage of what questions can do to increase the impact of your conversations. 


The Art and Science of Rapport

Have you ever found yourself in an awkward or difficult conversation? Of course, if you interact with people, both situations are inevitable. When it’s awkward you might think, “I wish we were more at ease.” When it’s difficult you might think, “Why does this have to be so hard? We’re just talking!”

Consider this concept: whenever you or the person your talking with are having a negative experience in a conversation, it’s a signal that rapport is missing and you need to build it. Being successful in life, in business and in your relationships requires you to become comfortable in the face of awkward or difficult conversations. The best way for you to become comfortable and put your clients at ease is to master the art and science of building rapport.

There are four strategies I discuss in Chapter 1 of Conversations: How to Manage Your Business Relationships One Conversation at a Time. 

The four strategies are:

1. Systematically Gather Information

2. Make a Rapport Sandwich

3. Match Non-Verbal Communication

4. Support and Adapt to Style Preferences

Here are a few key observations about rapport:

  • Rapport acts as the context, background and setting for all your relationships.
  • Rapport creates comfort. It’s like an anti-anxiety medication. When you have rapport with someone you can sit in silence and it doesn’t feel awkward, or you can speak freely without a high degree of fear.
  • Rapport continuously impacts the effectiveness of every one of your conversations and goes a long way to determining their outcomes.
  • Metaphorically speaking, the rapport in a conversation is like the ambiance in a restaurant. A good ambiance creates a background for an enjoyable meal. 
  • Rapport is much more than having things in common. It could simply be using similar words or expressing yourself in similar ways. It’s about finding a way to put yourself on the same side of the table. It allows you to relate to your client’s experience before transacting business.


Go into a conversation with a clear plan for getting rapport—especially with people you would consider difficult to interact with. It’s a surefire way to make your life and your conversations easier. Moreover, lest you think you have nothing in common and cannot build rapport with someone, the lesson in Chapter 1 of Conversations is that everyone has communication preferences that you can match. If you show interest, gather information, make a rapport sandwich, and match or adapt to non-verbal and verbal communication styles and preferences, you’ll be able to build rapport no matter what the circumstances.