I’ve long believed that when salespeople ask customers lazy, unfocused questions like “How are we doing?” they’re asking for trouble.
What they hope to hear, of course, is “Great!” But all too often it goes the other way, leading to a litany of complaints that leaves the seller reeling.
Some would say the complaints were there all along, and the seller did the right thing by getting them out in the open. But what if the question itself creates dissatisfaction where it didn’t exist before?
There’s scientific evidence to suggest that’s exactly what happens. It involves a psychological phenomenon known as the “availability heuristic.”
Give me an example
About 40 years ago, psychologists learned that people give disproportionate weight to an idea if they can call to mind an example that supports it. For example, your friend says: “I don’t wear seat belts because I knew somebody who was wearing them and got trapped in a burning car.” You can cite all the statistics you want, but you’re probably not going to convince your friend that seat belts save lives.
Something similar happens when you ask, “How are we doing?” Buyers will rack their brains for an example of how you’re doing. And chances are, the first one to come to mind will be a negative example. Not because there are more of them, but because negative experiences are a lot easier to remember. As MIT neurobiology Professor Matt Wilson puts it: “If you present stimuli with a strong negative emotional component, the memories do seem to be more easily retrieved than neutral stimuli or even those that are somewhat positive.” (Time Magazine, June 23, 2008)
In other words, “How are we doing?” is basically the same as asking, “Can you give me an example of something we’ve done badly?”
You might as well hand your buyer a stick and ask them to beat you with it.
Of course you want honest feedback from customers. And there’s a way to get it without creating dissatisfaction. The key is to get specific. “Have you had any shipments arrive late? How long is it taking to train your people on the new system? How much are you saving on raw materials since we launched the program?” That’s the way to find out how you’re really doing.
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