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Graduating from problem solving to problem listening

Growing up I spent a lot of summer breaks in the Ozarks at my grandparent’s house, especially on their screened in porch. Whether it was looking out over the peaceful lake during morning breakfast or taking a break from the water in the heat of the afternoon, you could often find me there. The walls were adorned with keepsakes from various trips my grandparents had taken, brain teaser puzzles, and a number of mildly humorous plaques. One of them said, “you don’t learn nothin when you’re talkin”. That plaque came to mind as I’ve dove deeper into the topic how will service professionals differentiate themselves in the future as more knowledge and products become a commodity.

One thing I imagine we all enjoy is telling someone a story about a frustration and before we’re finished, they interrupt you and tell you how to solve it. Don’t you find that to be a true joy? No? Why not?

If we don’t like being interrupted in our personal lives I suppose it’s valid to ask, do we think clients like it when we interrupt them? They’re halfway through telling you about an HR issue or a financial headache and suddenly our need to help takes over. We interrupt them with a solution before they’ve even had a chance to share their whole story.

In The Trusted Advisor David Maister discusses how the culture of advising is built around problem solving to a fault. Advisors are so hardwired to pose suggestions and solutions that we are regularly guilty of interrupting the clients we seek to serve.

There are four problems that can arise as a result of this interruption

  1. We upset the client because we cut them off, which makes them less likely to take our advice or trust us as much going forward

  2. Since we jumped in before the story was over, we don’t have all the facts and might recommend the wrong solution

  3. Remember that situation above about interrupting your significant other? Can you ever recall a time when you tried to help and they said, “I don’t need your help solving this. I just want you to listen!” It can be the same way with clients. We can be so keen to solve something, we forget to assess whether they’re seeking input or just a friendly ear.

  4. Because we interrupted we may not only have missed crucial details to the current situation but they may have been working their way towards sharing a whole other series of issues on their mind.

Each of the problems above are important to remember but I believe the fourth warrants additional discussion. One thing most professionals don’t care to admit but is often the case is many of the problems you typically solve for clients could be solved just as well by a competitor.

One of Maister’s insights I have found most valuable is the importance of advisors listening for client problems that are unique (or less common) rather than those that are familiar. Sure, you should help them with their cash flow issue or address their risk exposure but your competition is good at those routine tasks. It’s when you’re able to avoid the reflex to quickly solve a problem and instead patiently listen with the hope that you not only hear the entire story but also the story behind it. This not only opens up potential new lines of business and deepens the trust they have in you, but may also differentiate you from the competition who are likely so keen to solve the common problems, they miss the uncommon ones. It’s time to listen between the lines.

Problem solving is an important skill you bring to the table but perhaps it’s time to strengthen your listening skills so you can go deeper with the client, which may uncover issues they weren’t aware you could help with or might not have felt comfortable sharing. This allows you to strengthen your relationship with them and differentiate from the competition.

Go Forth Boldly

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