Want to Help Your Customer? Then Just Shut Up

April 11, 2012

There are two words of advice that all good salespeople and customer service reps know:

Shut Up

Customer service and sales are remarkably similar in this respect. When confronted with a prospect or a customer who has an issue, reps often immediately start talking, offering assistance and mostly trying to avoid the discomfort of silence. Salespeople do it too — throwing out every thing they know about the product and hoping the shotgun approach will work.

Both the customer service rep and the salesperson innately feel that if they are talking then they must be helping the customer. More often than not, they are making it worse.

Sales Lessons for Customer Service… from The Shark Tank

Since I don’t get to talk about sales much on this blog, let’s use this opportunity to look at an example from the sales world.

One of my favorite shows on television is Shark Tank, which has small business owners pitching a group of wealthy investors for business funding.

The ideas are for real businesses, and the investors invest their own funds if they like a concept.

I recently saw an episode where a very confident (to be nice about it) gentleman was trying to get Shark funding for a corporate sales training program. In his pitch, he basically presented himself as something just short of the greatest salesperson ever born — a pretty gutsy claim to make in a room full of high powered investors.

The funny part was that after a pitch filled with bravado and very aggressive performance claims, Shark Mark Cuban handed the gentleman a pen and gave him the age old interview role play “sell me this pen.” Now, in our own businesses, we have been using a version of this question forever, so I have a very good idea of what to look for when someone gets the question. (Hint: job applicants read below.)

The main thing I always look for is questions. On the front end, questions should be used to identify what the prospect needs. Before I tell you about my line of pens Mark, let me ask you what qualities are you looking for in a pen?

What do most people do? They immediately start rambling about features. What you’ll like about our pen is that it is stainless steel… If you are lucky, they might stumble onto a benefit: This means your pen won’t corrode. I know you live in a humid climate…

Of course, the people who knock the pen challenge out of the park, first, ask questions, then shut up and listen.

What did the greatest salesperson ever born do? He hardly asked a single question, and in fact, Mark Cuban actually had to push him at the end to ask closing questions.

Instead of using careful questioning and active listening to elicit what his prospect wanted, the gentleman kept talking in the hopes that something he said would eventually address the prospect’s need.

This rarely works — either in sales or customer service.

Talking Is Not Solving

Want To Help Your Customer | Man With Taped Mouth

There is an old expression in sales: telling is not selling. Well, in customer service, talking is not solving. When a customer shares a problem with you, you have two choices: act on the information or probe for clarification. Sometimes the problem is simple enough that further clarification isn’t needed, but for most situations asking questions is the best way to start. It’s the difference between:

I’m so sorry that you feel the cashier was rude to you. That cashier is one of our best… blah, blah, blah.


I’m so sorry that you feel the cashier was rude to you. Can you tell me a little bit about what happened so I can help assist you with this?

In the first scenario, we have started down the path of listing every reason or excuse in our playbook and hoping one of them sticks, instead of clarifying what it is the client feels or wants. Sure, we know they were aggrieved in some way by the cashier, but we have not delved into what that really means to them.

In the second scenario, we have given them a chance to be heard. We have shown that we care about what they feel — half the battle — and we are gaining valuable information on how to really address their needs in the process.

We’ll discuss some specific techniques on what to ask and how to listen in a future post, but far greater than any specific technique is remembering the most fundamental concept of all when trying to help a customer:

Shut up

If you let the customer do most of the talking, the few words you do use will have more effectiveness and will resonate with the customer far more.

Feel the need to talk right now? Our comment section is a great place for that!  🙂

24 thoughts on “Want to Help Your Customer? Then Just Shut Up”

  1. Excellent stuff my friend:) “Telling is not selling. Talking is not solving.” I always harken back to one of my favourite quotes: “We were given two ears and one mouth to listen twice as much as we speak.” And I always say…stop, ask and listen. Cheers! Kaarina

    1. Thanks Kaarina… and so true! – I’ve always loved the expression about two ears and one mouth. I wonder how that applies to social media, since we have ten fingers. 🙂

  2. Adam, this should be required reading for everyone — EVERYONE — who works in any way with human beings. I learned so much about myself here. Thank-you.

    You must be an awesome husband and Dad. Well, if you’re applying this to your personal relationships, that is…and we all should!

    1. Much appreciated Michelle! I’ll have to let my better half comment on my husbanding skills, but I am quite confident that there is ample room for improvement! 🙂

  3. People love to tell their story; especially if they are in a “complaint situation” or putting money on the table. Many times customer service in the problem solving realm is a thinly veiled way of telling you why things didn’t happen the way you think they did and why you are wrong about it.

    From a sales perspective this was a needed reminder for me; talk less.

    1. Hi Jacob, You make a great point. The ironic thing is that naturally helpful people tend to have more trouble talking less; it really takes a conscious effort and practice to remember in the moment. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  4. Terrific post, Adam, with some great examples. I think your common sense advice is more easily understood than followed. For example, many people don’t realize that our natural brain functions can often make it difficult for us to shut up and listen. When our brain thinks it knows what the other person is asking, it automatically stops listening and starts formulating a response. This causes people to miss some key ingredients, but strangely we think we *are* listening because we think we get it. It’s possible, but not easy, to learn how to override that part of our brain, but most customer service employees never receive this kind of training.

    Here’s a link to a blog post I wrote that elaborates more on why listening can be difficult:

    1. Thanks for sharing the link Jeff! That’s such a perfect complement to what I was talking about. As you point out, that tendency of our brain to complete what it thinks is the beginning of a recognizable pattern is really tough to overcome. We begin with the answer but we don’t really know the question.

      Appreciate the great insights!

  5. Did my wife put you up to this? That ‘shut up’ sounded just like her voice.

    I do have a tendency to over talk when I think there is an awkward silence; I’m aware of it however and continually working on it.

    Sometimes silence really is golden.

  6. Great examples sir. I’d be a crappy sales person.. but would have fun poking holes in the process. I like the ‘what do you want in a pen?’ retort, but it’s me: I’d come back w/ “I rarely use pens, I’m going paperless. NOW sell it to me.” Then it’s the ‘ok you rarely use, but when you do it’ll be the miracle, forever ink, LoJack never lost pen.” 😉

    Best I can think of is tech support, customer service; I do NOT get the insistence of call center managers that staffers must follow the script. If they’d shut up, listen to me, they could 1) tell I’m not that dumb 2) know I already tried X, Y, Z solutions and have a real problem and 3) save everyone time/money by getting to the real problem. And possibly find out that I’d be willing to pay more to get more. FWIW.

    1. That’s the problem with role playing — the buyer can always be impossible to sell to. But if I had a forever ink, LoJack never lost pen… I bet I could sell it to someone! 🙂

      That is very frustrating with tech support. I have a technique that works 2/3 of the time. As soon as they ask what the problem is, I tell them and don’t even pause for a breath before going into the things I’ve already tried. Doesn’t always work — and it really doesn’t solve the problem from the company side that you talk about.

      Great to see you Davina!

  7. G’Day Adam.
    Reminds me of that old saying, “when you ask for the order, shut up!” And I totally agree with the question based approach. Before moving my business online four years ago, I was a keen user of Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling. It stresses not only using questions, but to have questions carefully prepared before you’re face to face with a prospect.

    Of course it’s not much use using lots of questions if you’re not prepared to listen carefully to the answers.

    Best Wishes

    1. Hey Leon, You know I’ve tabbed through Spin Selling a few times in the bookstore over the years but never made it to the counter. Might have to check it out. You’re right, Sales 101 is once you ask for the order, don’t speak. The real sales mavens (which I am not) can wait you out forever and make it feel completely natural.

      Great seeing you!

  8. Hi Adam,
    I’ve worked as a tech support and in outbound sales and the points that you mentioned were part of my training.
    In tech support, we were advised to let the customer air their concerns and just listen. One reason for that is to let them blow their steam first so that when the right time comes, we can ask questions and they will be more willing to work with us towards a solution.
    In outbound sales, we have to ask probing questions to identify the customer’s needs.
    In both of these, active listening is really essential. Most of the time it’s kind of hard to shut up and it really takes some effort to just listen.
    I think that’s what we need to work on not only in sales and customer service but also in our everyday lives if we really want to connect.
    Thanks for the reminder!

    1. Sounds like you had some good training Theresa. Thanks for bringing the perspective from both the sales and customer service worlds! It really does take an effort to overcome our natural instincts to talk in these cases, but the rewards are almost always worth the effort.

      Welcome to CTS!

  9. Great advice! How can you possibly solve a customer’s issue if you don’t pay attention?! I know that, as a customer, I can’t stand to have a customer service representative try to “help” me by fixing problems I don’t even have. Don’t assume you know what’s going on the minute a customer starts talking, you may not have the whole story.

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  12. I can believe that letting the customer explain their situation and that in helping your customer, it’s better to listen to them first instead of throwing every idea to them.

  13. Pingback: The Importance of Listening in Customer Service | Customers That Stick

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