How to Tune In to a Customer's Contextual Clues

Customers give you contextual clues about the meaning behind what they're saying — or not saying. You just need to interpret those contextual clues to best serve your customers.

  • Listen closely to both what the person says, and how he or she says it. Tune in to the feelings behind the words being said.

  • Note who’s talking. The status of the person who’s talking (boss versus subordinate, for example) and your status can heavily influence the meaning and significance of the words. A customer may respond differently to an employee than to you, the business owner.

  • Observe the person’s body language carefully and try to pick up on gestures and nonverbal signals. If a customer appears to be listening to you but has a frown or questioning look on his or her face, it may mean he or she disagrees with you or doesn’t understand what you’re saying.

  • Become as familiar as possible with the customer's culture. Whatever your customer's culture, be sensitive to how the physical setting, relational cues, or shared understandings affect meaning.

  • Look for hidden meanings in comparisons or analogies. A customer may discuss an issue without directly referring to the actual parties or situation involved. This is like a patient in a psychiatrist’s office who says, “I have a friend . . .” when she’s really talking about herself.

  • Avoid conflict. If your customer is communicating indirectly, mentioning a sensitive issue or directly disagreeing with that person can be insensitive and insulting. Your goal is to maintain harmony with your customers.

Become an active listener, listening with your ears, eyes, and mind. Focus not only on the text, but the context, emotions, and gestures.

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