How to Listen to What the Client Really Wants

I’ve said time and again in these pages how important it is to give the client what he wants. But to do that, you have to know what that is. And how do you find out what your clients want?

Well, you talk to them, and you listen. This is such a simple, fundamental task, and you’d think that more people would do it. But they don’t.

First, make sure you talk to the all right people. Your “client” is usually a combination of people who will have input in the project planning and decision-making. Identify not only who will make the final decision but who will have input into the final decision. Find out what roles they play. Unless you know who will participate in the decision, you can’t develop a solution that meets all the clients’ needs.

Listen carefully to what each member of the client’s community says and give him credit for knowing what he wants. As the “experts” we too often don’t give our clients enough credit for knowing what they want. This is arrogant, and it shows.

Listen carefully for the underlying need. Now, as the “expert,” listen hard for what the problem really is. Very often, the client does not know what he needs. For example, he may not fully understand that the solution he thinks he wants will only serve as a Band-Aid for the current problem, and will not be a long-term solution. Your job is to help him see this. This is your best chance to make sure the client is asking for the right solution from the beginning. If you wait until you read the RFP and say, “They don’t know what they really want,” then you are too late.

Don’t offer a solution until you are sure you have heard everything. Sometimes it’s tempting to leap into the fray and offer a solution. Sometimes it’s hard to barely restrain ourselves.

But resist temptation. Make sure you have all the information about the client’s situation before you offering solutions. This may take time—weeks or months even—but you’ll get the real story. You won’t go off on a tangent and develop a solution that you discover is addressing the wrong issues.

And above all, don’t twist what you’ve heard the client wants into what you want to give him. It is very easy for us experts to listen to the client and begin plugging his needs into our pigeonholes. This is the quickest way to lose a potential project before you even write the proposal.

These elements are just common sense. But as the saying goes, if it’s common sense, how come it isn’t as common as you’d think? How come firms make the same mistakes over and over again?