Home HRCommunication Uncovering the “Music” Buyers Hear In Their Heads

Uncovering the “Music” Buyers Hear In Their Heads

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George Constantopoulos

George Constantopoulos

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” – a phrase that is extremely important and applicable in the professional services sector. It is important to note that while goods or products are consumed, services are experienced. Professional services firms that are experts at projecting a caring image, are well ahead in the marketplace. By George Constantopoulos, Director SBR Consulting*

For professional services firms, a primary means of achieving a competitive advantage is to have a better understanding of the wants and needs of clients than does the competition. This deeper understanding can be obtained from a very straightforward activity: listening to clients.

“What do our clients want, and how are their needs changing?” must be continuously addressed through a structured programme of information gathering, research, and analysis. “What clients want” is a source of endless debate and speculation in many firms, but few make use of the most obvious means of answering this question: going to the horse’s mouth and asking the client. Stated simply, professional services firms don’t listen to their clients enough, and consequently miss out on new opportunities that lead to improving their competitiveness and developing new services.

The legal landscape is a prime example where many law firms have too few partners accounting for the majority of the revenue generated. In order to achieve continued success, law firms need to increase the number of partners securing new clients that lead to new and significant revenue opportunities. For this to happen, lawyers must expand their communication skills to enable them to achieve the same level of success in business development as they do in their practice of law.

In the professional services business, the words of the old song remain true: “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it: That’s what gets results.”

Research tells us that “Across the board, sellers and buyers have a different opinion about what’s important. For example, sellers vastly overestimate the role of price in closing a sale. They see it as more than twice as important as the buyers view it. (Although 58% of sellers identified cost as a selection criteria, only 28% of buyers did – Hinge Research Institute).” After all, buyers make purchase decisions based on their perceptions. This is what matters. Too many sales models are about the selling process rather than how clients want to buy.

There is an old saying about doctors that they “get fascinated with the disease, but are not interested in the patient.” Unfortunately, this attitude or behaviour is paramount in a wide range of industries. Too many professionals get overly focused on technical matters, and lose sight of the essential nature of professional transactions. This doesn’t mean that technical skill is irrelevant – it is critical. However, having technical skills is only a necessary condition for success, not a sufficient one. Above all, the client is looking for that professional who has both technical skill and a sincere desire to be helpful. The key is empathy – the ability to enter the client’s world and see things through their eyes.


Connecting the needs of the buyer with the services and overall capabilities of the seller defines the consultative sales concept. Typically, there is a heavy emphasis on the seller “diagnosing” the needs of the buyer. The need for diagnosis implies the buyers don’t have a thorough concept of why they find themselves in their current undesirable situation or what to do differently. Through diagnosis, the seller figures this out like a doctor might with patients who feel sick but don’t know what they have or what to do to get better.

Recent research suggests that diagnosing the needs isn’t nearly as important as simply demonstrating understanding of the needs of the buyer. Diagnosis can be important from a situational perspective. If the buyer wants to make improvements but doesn’t know what the issues are, diagnosis is necessary. Now, at a macro level, it’s not as important as it used to be. However, although sellers may not have to diagnose as often or deeply anymore, they do have to demonstrate understanding of the needs. This is critical.

What’s happening during buyer-seller conversations and why deals fail to move forward, may have something to do with the curse of knowledge.

In 2007, Chip & Dan Heath wrote a book titled Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. One of the more memorable parts of the book is where the authors explain a phenomenon called The Curse of Knowledge.

The Heath brothers describe The Curse of Knowledge as “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it.  Our knowledge has cursed us, and therefore, it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily recreate our listeners’ state of mind.”

Here’s the story: “In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford by studying a simple game where she assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.” Tappers received a list of 25 well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You” and “God Save the Queen.” Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener by knocking on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped. — By the way, this experiment is fun to try at home if there is a good “listener” candidate nearby.

The listener’s job in this game is quite difficult. Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5% of the songs—3 songs out of 120.  But here’s what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that the odds were 50%.

The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why?

When a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head. Go ahead and try it for yourself—tap out “Happy Birthday to You.” It is impossible to avoid hearing the tune playing along in your head. Meanwhile, the listeners can’t hear that tune—all they can hear are a bunch of disconnected taps like a kind of bizarre Morse Code.

In the experiment, tappers are flabbergasted at how hard the listeners seem to be working to pick up the tune. Isn’t the song obvious? The tappers’ expressions, when a listener guesses “Happy Birthday to You” for “God Save the Queen, ” are priceless. How could you be so stupid?

It’s hard to be a tapper. The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge – in this case the song title that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it is like to lack that knowledge. When they are tapping, they can’t imagine what it is like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the Curse of Knowledge.”

When sellers and buyers have a conversation, both are tapping and both are listening. When the seller talks, they have the curse of knowledge – that is, they have a tune playing in their head that the buyer doesn’t hear. As the “tapper”, sellers have the benefit of knowledge that the buyer doesn’t have like how their solution works, the value it brings, what problems it solves. It can be difficult to get in the buyer’s position, since they don’t have the benefit of the seller’s knowledge.

Sellers shouldn’t assume buyers will know what they mean when, for example, they use industry jargon. On the contrary, when a buyer describes their needs to a seller, they are now the tapper and the seller is the listener. It is the buyer, in that instance, who suffers from the curse of knowledge.

It’s the seller’s job to bring clarity into the conversation – sellers are only hearing the buyers’ tapping. If they don’t ask questions that uncover the “music” buyers hear in their heads, sellers will likely head down the wrong path – and that’s where disengagement occurs. Sellers are always at risk of focusing on the wrong thing and when that happens, they come across to the buyer like they aren’t listening.

The nature of how a trust relationship is established between the buyer and the seller is changing. The solution is simple: If professionals focus on the buyer, learn their language and choose to be guided by their preferences, while seeking at every interaction, whether direct or indirect, to create value for them, then they will be very successful. However, as with all things, simple does not equate to easy.


*George Constantopoulos

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