Listen and Learn When Meeting Clients

Chris Unwin writes that we send out numerous visual and non-visual signals when communicating with clients, both over the phone and during face-to face meetings. Here, he offers a range of useful tips to help you keep the channels open with clients – so dialogue leads to good decisions…


When meeting someone for the first time, we need to be very aware of the adage “you never get a second chance to create a first impression”, and that first impression is formed very quickly – if not immediately. Whether you like it or not, the very first impression you create will always be a visual one.

You know how it works because you have been in your client’s shoes when you met with your accountant, solicitor, doctor or dentist for the first time. The moment you laid eyes on him/her you either thought: “Oh, he/she looks nice” or “I don’t like the look of him/her”.

So it’s crucial that, when greeting someone for the first time, you have a (genuine) smile on your face and are therefore exuding warm fuzzies, not cold pricklies.

So let’s talk about the handshake. When you greet your client (male or female), you will extend your hand and deliver a nice firm handshake whilst saying something like: “Hi, Chris Unwin (you may want to use your name here) – nice to meet you. Follow me through…”

The first key thing here is the firm handshake. When offering a firm handshake to someone, you will get a handshake in return which can often tell you something about this person in a business context. If you get a nice firm handshake in return, then this quite often indicates that this person is quite good at making decisions.

However, if you get the ‘limp wrist’ or ‘wet fish’ handshake, this can often indicate the opposite i.e. they are not very good at making decisions. Finally, you make get the ‘bone-cruncher’, which they would like you to think means they are totally confident and secure, but often signifies the complete opposite. If you let this person take control, then they will, but as long as you take control from the word go, they are actually happy to be led.

The “Follow me through” means that you should have the client follow you to wherever your meeting is taking place, thereby taking control from the start. So this brings us to the set up for the meeting i.e. the furniture being used and the physical positioning of you and your client(s). Please refer to Chrisism#48  for what I believe to be the ‘golden rules’ in this context.

Whatever the furniture being used is, be it a round table or rectangular table or desk, the most important thing to ensure is that you and you client(s) are sitting alongside each other not across from each other.

This physical positioning is crucial in that it is designed to denote working together, collaboration, teamwork and a “we” situation rather than a territorial set up, confrontation, a “you and me” situation with a huge barrier between the parties.

Lastly, it is worth pointing out some of the classic negative body language signals you may encounter when you first sit down with someone you haven’t met before. I have to say that I am a bit sceptical about over interpreting individual body language signals, but when you are confronted by the following cumulative negative body language signals, you need to make sure you don’t launch into any business discussion until you have succeeded in breaking down these signals and making the client nice and relaxed.

The most obvious signals are arms crossed, fists clenched, inside shoulder turned away and inside leg crossed. This adds up to a classic “What’s it all about?” attitude and you would be advised to get them talking about themselves, which is usually the best way to relax them.

What’s Your Understanding of “Communication”?

The 7%, 38%, 55% Rule that I am about to share with you dates back to research carried out originally in 1971 by Albert Mehrabian, currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA, and what it is designed to demonstrate is the relative importance of the three component parts of face-to-face communication.

So let’s start by identifying what these three component parts of face-to-face communication actually are:

  1. Firstly there is what is called “Content” i.e. what we actually say
  2. Secondly there is what is called “Voice Tonality” i.e. how we say it
  3. Thirdly there is physiology i.e. body language

Now if I was to go out on to the street one lunchtime in the CBD and conduct a random survey on a variety of people asking them what percentage of face-to-face communication was made up of the “content” component i.e. what we say to someone, I guarantee that the large majority of those people would answer in excess of 90% on the assumption that “I said this and he/she said this” ergo we ‘communicated’. So how right or wrong would they be in this assumption?

Well, the reality is that it is estimated that approximately 7% of face-to-face communication is down to ‘what we say’. Then 38% is down to ‘how we say it’ i.e. how we are coming across to the other person, and 55% is down to non-verbal communication i.e. body language.

There are a number of important aspects of communication that we need to take on board as a result of this research, some of which are important to keep in mind when we are communicating with someone over the phone and some of which are important when we are communicating with someone face-to-face.

As far as communication over the phone is concerned, when of course we can’t actually see the person with whom we are communicating (assuming it’s not Skype or a video conference call.), then the very important lesson we need to learn is that in this instance only the “content” and the “voice tonality” components are relevant.

What we need to be very aware of is the relative importance of these two component parts, and if we refer back to the percentage contributions made by each of these two component parts, then the message we need to take away is that typically, when communicating over the phone, it will be five or six times as important how we are coming across to someone i.e. voice tonality as opposed to what we are actually saying to someone – and I like to add here “within reason”.

As far as face-to-face communication is concerned, then the important message to take away from the research is that non-verbal communication i.e. body language makes up the majority of face-to-face communication.

Smile Down the Phone

Most business owners would agree that the hardest part of any business is prospecting for new clients and even in the modern world of all sorts of alternative modes of communication such as texting or emailing, the large majority of first appointments with prospective new clients are still made over the phone.

So how important is it that we understand what the single biggest determinant of the outcome of any prospecting call is? I would say pretty important – and the reality is that the single biggest determinant of the outcome of any prospecting call will be your mindset when making the call.

For this reason, one of the most important rules for prospecting is: never pick up the phone to make a prospecting call if you are not in the right frame of mind. Your thought process when dialling the number should be “Obviously this person is going to want to want to meet with me – it’s just a case of arranging a time”. As opposed to “I bet this person is going to give me all sorts of uphill, but I’m going to make the call anyway”.

As you will gather from the above, the variable in this scenario is you not the person at the other end of the phone, and if you are not in the right frame of mind when dialling the numbers, then put down the phone and go and do whatever it takes to put you in the right frame of mind.

When prospecting – or making any business call for that matter – you must be smiling genuinely down the phone, which means you must be in a positive frame of mind rather than smiling through gritted teeth.

For those of you who remain sceptical about the importance of your mindset when calling prospects or clients, and the need for you to be smiling down the phone, I want to take you outside  the business context and into a social context.

I want you to think of the last time you had to call someone and ask for a favour. This could be a relative, a partner, a friend, a bank manager, or anyone else for that matter.

When the other person answers the phone and extends their greeting to you, within a couple of seconds I guarantee one of two thoughts will go through your head: either “Oh, good timing – they sound in a good mood” or “ Oh dear, not good timing – they sound in a bad mood” – and what would this perception be based on?

Answer: their voice tonality. When speaking to someone on the phone, how you are coming across to someone – i.e. your voice tonality is five or six times as important as what you are actually saying.

Two Ears One Mouth

We can all be guilty of loving the sound of our own voice and this can often lead to us using our ears and our mouth in the inverse proportion to how they were provided. I’m sure you have all been at a social gathering where somebody has demonstrated this transgression; they go on and on about nothing in particular and feel that they are doing you a favour by sharing their knowledge and experience(s) – and you just can’t wait to get away.

I believe we are sometimes guilty of this when sitting with clients. Especially if we are newer in the business, we often feel the need to show off our knowledge to impress a client which we believe will make business more likely to happen. However, more often than not, what I have discovered is that the majority of clients do want to perceive that you have the knowledge (or that you know where to access it), but typically there is a little voice in their head screaming “But please, please, please don’t share it with me.”

The key to making business a natural consequence of our engagement process is not telling people why they should do business but rather selling them on the benefits of doing business, and this is best done by asking them questions rather than just imparting information. Once we understand the importance of asking questions, we than need to appreciate what represent the best type of questions to ask and the type of questions not to ask.

The best type of question to ask is one to which there is (at least logically) only one answer e.g. “In the event of you suffering a serious illness or accident, where between 0% and 100% would you want your income to be replaced?”, but it is crucial to get the client to verbalise it.

Alternatively, you can ask a question to which there may be more than one answer, either of which is fine by you e.g. “So would you like to pay the first premium annually or monthly?” Either way, the business gets done.

Finally the type of question you want to avoid asking is a question to which the answer could legitimately be “Yes” or “No” e.g. “So would you like to go ahead with the plan?”, because one of the potential answers is one that you don’t want to get.

A lot of advisers also have a fear of silence, but actually silence can be golden as long as you are in control of it. What I mean by that is often the silence occurs when you have asked your client a question, and in this instance it is the client’s turn to talk. More often than not the silence is because you have asked an excellent question, the answer to which will result in business and that is why you need to shut up and wait for the answer. If necessary, you can always repeat the question.

The only time in the engagement piece when I tended to do most of the talking was during the introduction to the first meeting. After trying nearly every alternative approach, I found that the best course of action for me at the introduction stage was to take the opportunity to “set out my stall”, which involved outlining and getting my client’s agreement with the purpose of the meeting we were about to have, removing as many of the unknowns as possible right up front and getting my client’s buy-in to the concepts of long term business relationships and regularity and continuity of service.

Because this process was largely one way traffic i.e. me doing most of the talking, it was crucial that I continually sought the client’s agreement or buy-in to what I was saying in order to keep them involved. The reason I was happy to do this was because I knew that, once we got to the Fact Find, I would be passing the baton over to my client and asking them all the necessary questions to facilitate them verbalising what it was that they really wanted – in terms of outcomes not product.

The content in this quiz is taken from the catalogue of 101 releases comprising Chris Unwin’s ‘Chrisisms’ series. Unwin is a former financial adviser of more than 35 years standing and was a specialist risk adviser for 22 years. His training and consulting business has operated for 16 years and it specialises in helping advisers across the full spectrum of experience with their client engagement skills, both in the risk advice specific space as well as in the more generic soft skills space.


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