Customer Retention: Is your radar picking up the iceberg dead ahead?
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Customer Retention: Is your radar picking up the iceberg dead ahead?

Everybody knows that 90% of an iceberg lies beneath the surface of the ocean. That’s what makes icebergs so dangerous — like the one that sank the Titanic, they can open a hole in your craft before you’re aware of it.

But did you know that when talking to customers, you may be navigating iceberg-filled waters?

Imagine this scenario: You’re reviewing the account of a big, longtime customer. As the meeting draws to a close, she throws in a seemingly offhand question: “By the way, I read an article about some new technology that supposedly could reduce our costs. Are you on top of that?”

You do know about this new technology, and you’re not impressed. “Yes,” you say. “It could save you a little up front, but it’s riskier and could cost you more long-term. It’s probably best to stick with what you have.”

“OK,” your customer says. “I guess that makes sense.”

Blindsided

Three weeks later, this customer calls you up to say that she’s taking her business to a competitor. You’re blindsided, but should you be?

Not if your customer radar is working at full capacity. When this customer asked you in a seemingly offhand way about the new technology she’d read about, she was actually testing you. When you answered the way you did, she said to herself, “Have these people even looked into this technology, or is this guy brushing it off just so he can keep my account?” And when a competing supplier called her a few days later with a proposal involving the new technology, she jumped on it.

Think of a comment like this — or any comment about your relationship, your product or the customer’s operations — as the tip of an iceberg. What you perceive above the surface may look harmless, but it could indicate big trouble below.

The thing about conversational icebergs is, though, that people miss them all the time. Behavioral research explains how and why.

Limited bandwidth

In one study, Canadian researchers led by a McGill University professor interviewed volunteers about how much they recalled from past conversations, comparing their memory of what they said with what others said to them. The researchers found that while people were good at reporting what they said to their conversation partners – such things as asking questions and raising new points — they weren’t so good at remembering what their partners said to them.

There’s one big reason these icebergs don’t get spotted in time, and it’s part of human nature: When people converse, as in a sales situation, speakers pay more attention to planning what they’re going to say than to what the other person is saying.

Why is this? The researchers said it appears to be a matter of bandwidth. When your brain is busy building the next sentence you want to say, you’re distracted from paying close attention to the other person’s comments – even if they reveal the ominous tip of an iceberg.

The ‘ping’ technique

It’s because of these conversational icebergs that you need customer radar. To see how this works, let’s revisit the initial conversation with your customer.

Again, she raises the issue of the new technology that promises to save her money. This time, though, you treat her remark as a possible iceberg, and you send out a “ping,” a probing message, so you can see what comes back.

You say, “I hear you telling me you’re interested in cutting your costs. Could you tell me how you think this new technology might achieve that? If it can be done without increasing your risks, we should explore it.”

And you get an unequivocal signal back. She says, “Yes, we are very interested in containing costs right now. We’ve had some increases in our input costs, and we urgently need to find ways to balance these out through cost reductions elsewhere.”

See? Your customer radar has detected an iceberg, a dangerous one that could cause you to lose business if you hit it. But now, since you can recognize the iceberg for what it is, you have a chance to avoid it and retain — and even reinforce — an important account.


This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Account Retention: Little Signs of Big Trouble,” based on the following research study:

Fichten, C.S., et al. (1992). Verbal and Nonverbal Communication Cues in Daily Conversations and Dating. Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 132, No. 6, 751-769.

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