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The most difficult Total Customer Focus™ skill (and possibly the most important one)

A key element of Global Partners Training’s Total Customer Focus™ program is a pre- and post-training self-assessment on the Total Customer Focus™ (TCF™) skills. TCF™ participants are asked to estimate how often they are able to effectively apply a specific skill and achieve the desired impact from applying the skill. This approach requires participants to think about their specific behavior and the impact of that behavior before and after the training.

Having trained thousands of TCF™ participants, across multiple industries, many job roles and dozens of countries, some consistent and very interesting trends have emerged from the assessment data. Perhaps the most interesting result comes in the area of using communication skills to draw out all of the issues and concerns that are hidden by another person. We refer to these as ‘below-the-waterline issues’, since they are hidden like an iceberg below the waterline. And like an iceberg, undetected these issues are the ones that can cause the most damage to relationships and prevent people from solving complex problems.

The graph below, based on aggregate data from our most recent approximately 1400 participants, shows that in the area of getting to the customer’s real needs, this skill of identifying BELOW-THE-WATERLINE issues is the lowest-scoring both before and after the training. However, getting below the waterline showed the biggest improvement among this subset of TCF™ skills, indicating that training in this skill has a significant impact.

Participants typically rate their skill highest in having OPEN DISCUSSIONS with customers,

Lower in using questions to gain insights into ALL ISSUES,

And lowest in getting to BELOW THE WATERLINE issues.

Why is getting below the waterline so difficult?

In discussions about the assessment results, program participants identified several reasons behind the difficulty in getting below the waterline, especially before the TCF™ training. The first is FEAR. Participants feel that asking about someone’s unspoken concerns can be perceived as too personal or intrusive. Questions that probe into a customer’s possible uncertainties about their own abilities, the abilities of their team, the stress they may be experiencing or lack of trust in the supplier, for example, can be difficult to articulate in a way that doesn’t alienate the customer.

The second reason given for not getting below the waterline is that people don’t know how to do it. Before the TCF™ training, participants tell us that getting below the waterline relies on having close relationships with customers that they have built up over a long time. Of course, people are changing jobs all the time and often don’t have the opportunity to build long-term relationships. What’s needed is a skill that enables you to safely ask questions that get below the waterline of someone you don’t know well.

Related article: Field Service Training: How to Improve the Effectiveness of Your Field Service Organization

The third reason given is simply not having time to engage with a customer, discover that there may be hidden issues, acknowledge the below-the-waterline issues and then address them. Without a practiced and ready ability, all too often the service provider, for example, gets only enough information to address the technical issue and then moves on.

The payoff from getting below the waterline can be massive

At the end of the Total Customer Focus™ program, participants are asked to submit a case study that demonstrates how they applied their new TCF™ skills to improve business results for their company as well as for their customers. Participants identify the TCF™ skills/tools that they used in their case, and interestingly, participants consistently identify getting below the waterline as the number 1 skill more often than any other. Likewise, when asked to identify their top ‘Growth Priority’ areas that they plan to work on going forward, using their new toolkit to identify below-the-waterline issues is rated number 1 most often.

So, why is uncovering below-the-waterline issues viewed as such an important skill by frontline technical service providers and other roles?

First of all, frontline service providers very often find that fixing a customer’s technical problem does not satisfy the customer. Customers expect that the service provider will solve their ‘real’ problem. What they really want is someone to understand their personal, often emotional problems. If the service provider doesn’t determine what those issues are, they may or may not solve the technical problem, and they certainly won’t fully satisfy the customer.

Acknowledging someone’s below-the-waterline issues creates empathy immediately with the other person. Empathy, according to Humans are Underrated author Geoff Colvin, means understanding what is going on in the mind of another person and then doing or saying something about it. Showing empathy immediately creates a connection with the other person and causes them to open up.

As a result of creating empathy and the open discussion that follows, the technical service provider, sales person or product manager gains a huge amount of important information and insight about the problem at hand and the customer’s situation. In short, you understand ‘what’s really going on’.

Case studies where TCF™ tools were used to get below the waterline and create empathy have resulted in thousands of hours in reduced troubleshooting time, reduced escalations and improved installation time, as well significant cost savings for customers and suppliers.

Results from the Field

Getting below the waterline is also an effective way to uncover a customer’s resistance to buying new equipment, etc., even when the customer knows they need it. For example, a hospital equipment supplier couldn’t understand why their customer was so resistant to the idea of replacing badly outdated equipment that the customer wouldn’t even schedule a meeting with the supplier to discuss it. The supplier used TCF™ tools to discover that the customer didn’t have the funding for the new equipment and didn’t know how to get it. They avoided meeting with the supplier because they were afraid that they would be subjected to a ‘hard sell’. After surfacing these below-the-waterline issues, the supplier acknowledged how difficult it could be to get funding for large equipment purchases. They then worked with the customer to find alternative sources of funding, such as a regional health system. The result was a significant sale for the supplier, and the customer acquired equipment that it badly needed.

To learn more about other Total Customer Focus™ skills, like getting BELOW THE WATERLINE, sign up for our Insights blog series.

And if you are interested in the Total Customer Focus™ skills assessment for your organization, contact Paul Hesselschwerdt, Partner at Global Partners Training.

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