A text message. A voice mail. An unreturned phone call. Have you ever had one of these communications be misinterpreted? You meant one thing, but your friend thought you meant something else? Sometimes, the miscommunication can result in the confusion of a meeting time or a place to get together. Or worse, it can be entirely misunderstood and the communication may have a negative impact on your relationship.
Communication, the exchange of information or ideas between sender and receiver, is a challenging aspect in your personal life, at school, and especially in selling. Today, it’s even more complex with business being conducted around the world and with various communication methods. Did you ever hear the saying, “You only have one chance to make a good first impression”? It couldn’t be truer when it comes to communication: the first few seconds of communication are important because once an opinion is formed, it is very difficult to change an opinion even with lots of evidence to the contrary (Sussex Publishers, 2020).
Communication has often been referred to as a soft skill, which includes other competencies such as social graces, personality traits, language abilities, and ability to work with other people. Soft skills also encompass emotional intelligence, which Adele B. Lynn, in her book The EQ Interview: Finding Employees with High Emotional Intelligence, defines as “a person’s ability to manage herself as well as her relationship with others so she can live her intentions.” (Zemanski, 2008). But in today’s business world, communication has become part of the new “hard skills” category, a technical job requirement, because of the critical role that it plays in business (Buhler, 2009). According to Peter Post, great-grandson of the late Emily Post, “Your skills can get you in the door; your people skills are what can seal the deal.” (The Emily Post institute, 2023).
Misunderstood = Miscommunicated
It is almost impossible to be in sales without developing relationships inside your organization and with your customers. Your relationship skills build trust, allow you to be a true partner, and help solve your customer’s problems; both internal trust and external communication are essential keys to your ability to deliver on your promises. How are these qualities intrinsically related? The way in which you communicate can determine the level of trust that your colleagues or customers have in you (Thomas et al., 2009). Just as relationships are the cornerstone of trust, communication is the foundation of relationships but it is difficult to establish and develop relationships; it takes work and a lot of clear communication. You might think that sounds simple, but consider this: nearly 75 percent of communications that are received are interpreted incorrectly. At the same time, interestingly, many people consider themselves good communicators. The telling disconnect occurs because people tend to assume that they know what other people mean or people assume that others know what they mean. This is compounded by the fact that people tend to hear what they want to hear—that is, a person may interpret elements of a conversation in such a way that the taken meanings contribute to their already established beliefs. When you put these assumptions together, communication can easily become “miscommunication” (Buhler, 2009).
The Communication Model
The standard model of communication has evolved based on two parties—the sender and the receiver— exchanging information or ideas. The model includes major processes and functions categorized as encoding, decoding, response, and feedback. In addition, the model accounts for noise, which symbolizes anything that might disrupt the sending or receiving of a message (Belch & Belch, 2020).
The internal cognitive process that allows participants to send, receive, and understand messages is the encoding and decoding process. Encoding is the process of turning thoughts into communication. As we will learn later, the level of conscious thought that goes into encoding messages varies. Decoding is the process of turning communication into thoughts. For example, you may realize you’re hungry and encode the following message to send to your roommate: “I’m hungry. Do you want to get pizza tonight?” As your roommate receives the message, he decodes your communication and turns it back into thoughts in order to make meaning out of it. Of course, we don’t just communicate verbally—we have various options, or channels for communication. Encoded messages are sent through a channel, or a sensory route on which a message travels, to the receiver for decoding. While communication can be sent and received using any sensory route (sight, smell, touch, taste, or sound), most communication occurs through visual (sight) and/or auditory (sound) channels. If your roommate has headphones on and is engrossed in a video game, you may need to get his attention by waving your hands before you can ask him about dinner.
The model helps describe exactly how communication takes place. For example, if you send a text message to your friend to ask them if they want to go a movie, you are the source, or sender, of the message. You translated or encoded your message into text characters. A cell phone is the channel, or the method by which you communicated your message. Chances are, if your friend does not have their cell phone with them, your message will not reach them, and you might miss the movie. So in this example, the cell phone is the channel. When your friend, the receiver, reads the message, they decode it or determine what you meant to communicate, and then they respond. If they were talking to another friend while they were reading your text message and didn’t see the time the movie started, that conversation would be considered noise because it would be interfering with the communication of your message. Noise interferes with communication or causes distraction, whether it is heard or seen. When your friend responds to you by saying that they want to go see the movie, they are providing feedback (or a response to your message). This example shows how the communication is applied.
The same thing can happen in a selling situation. For example, if you call a prospect to set up a meeting, you are the sender. The message is the meeting information (e.g., date, time, and place) that you encode into words. The channel is the telephone, and the receiver is the prospect. It sounds easy enough. Assume, however, that the prospect responds to you and agrees to the meeting but because they were checking their email while they were talking to you (which is noise), they put the wrong time on their calendar. When you come for the appointment, they are out of the office, and your sales call doesn’t take place. Now you have to start the communication process all over again. This is only an example of simply setting up a meeting.
Now imagine the challenges if you started explaining the features and benefits of a complex product or negotiating a contract. You can see why understanding the communication process is so important in selling.
Did You Know…?
- Positive e-mail messages are likely to be interpreted as neutral.
- Neutral e-mail messages are likely to be perceived as negative.
- People who send e-mails overrate their ability to communicate feelings.
- There is a gap between how a sender feels when they write the e-mail and the way the emotional content is communicated that can cause an error in decoding on the part of the receiver.
- One simple e-mail can lead to a communication debacle if the e-mail is not clearly written and well thought out from the recipient’s point of view (Dean 2010).
Tips for Effective Communication
How do you avoid the pitfalls of poor communication and build productive business relationships? It’s best to always communicate in a timely manner and in the method that your customer prefers. That may be easier said than done. Here are six tips that can help you increase your chances of making your communications effective.
Tip 1: Empathy Is Essential
One of the key elements of being a good communicator is having empathy. That means thinking about your communication from the receiver’s point of view. It’s focusing on what they want to learn as a result of your communication, not what you want to tell them. Empathy is about demonstrating that you care about the other person’s situation. Think about when you received your acceptance letter from college; the letter probably mentioned what an exciting time it is in your life. The author of the letter demonstrated empathy because they focused on the situation from your perspective. A purely factual letter, without empathy, might have said that you were accepted and that now the school can make their budget since they met their enrolment goal. That would be quite a different letter and would make you feel very different (and probably not very welcome).
Empathy fits with emotional intelligence as a sales skills because it’s the ability to know what another person is thinking or feeling. “Without empathy in sales, a salesperson can’t influence others, and prospects don’t buy from salespeople who don’t understand them” (Stanley, 2020). Empathy is an integral part of emotional connection, one of the elements of a brand that you learned about earlier (Keep in mind that when you are in sales, you are the brand to the customer). It is especially important to have an emotional connection and empathy when apologizing to customers. Chances are the customer is already angry, or at least disappointed, when you are not able to deliver as expected. You can express empathy in your communications by saying or writing, “You have every right to be upset. I understand how you must feel. I apologize for the late delivery. Let’s work on a new process that will help prevent it from happening again (Guffey, 2008).
Tip 2: Think Before You Communicate
Quick responses, whether verbal or via electronic methods, can be less effective than those that are considered and can even cause misunderstanding. Although a timely response is critical, it’s worth a few minutes to think about exactly what you want to say before you say it (or type it).
Tip 3: Be Clear
It seems obvious, but not everyone is clear in their communications. Sometimes, people are trying to avoid “bad news” or trying to avoid taking a stand on a topic. It’s always best to avoid confusion and clearly say what you mean by framing your message in a way that is easily understood by all receivers. It’s also a good idea to avoid buzz words (or jargon)—those words, phrases, or acronyms that are used only in your company. If they can’t be avoided, explain them in the same communication terms. You should also avoid jargon on your résumé and cover letter—help your reader see your brand story at a glance without needing a decoder ring.
Tip 4: Be Brief
Business communication should be short and to the point. Your customers are busy and need information—whether it’s a proposal, report, or follow-up to a question—in a clear, concise way. Brevity is powerful– people who can speak or write concisely and to the point are more successful (Mackay, 2017).
Tip 5: Be Specific
If you go to dinner at the Cheesecake Factory and there is a wait to get a table, the host will hand you a portable pager or take your cell phone number and tell you that the wait will be twenty to twenty-five minutes. Perfect. You have just enough time to run a quick errand at a nearby store at the mall and be back in time to get your table. If, on the other hand, they told you that you will be seated shortly, you might have an expectation of being seated in five to ten minutes. Meanwhile, “shortly” might mean twenty to twenty-five minutes for them. You would probably forgo running your errand because you think you are going to be seated soon but end up waiting for twenty-five minutes and being frustrated. Being specific in your communication not only gives clarity to your message but also helps set your customer’s expectations. In other words, your customer won’t expect something you can’t deliver if you are clear about what exactly you can deliver and when. Specificity avoids surprises and sets expectations. Examples of general statements that can be communicated more effectively when made into specific statements can be found in Table 4.1.1.
Table 4.1.1: General versus Specific Statements
|I’ll get back to you shortly.
|I’ll get back to you by Tuesday.
|It will only take a few minutes.
|It will take less than 5 minutes.
|It will cost about $5,000 plus installation.
|The cost is $4,800 plus $200 for installation.
|Everything is included.
|It includes your choice of entrée, vegetable, dessert, and coffee.
Tip 6: Be Timely
Timing is everything in life and most certainly in selling. It’s best to be proactive with communication, and if you owe someone a response, do it sooner rather than later. If you are slow to respond to questions and communication, it will be difficult to develop trust, as prolonged responses may seem to imply that you are taking action without informing the customer what it is you are doing. In 2011 the Harvard Business Review wrote that one hour was considered “timely”—“when companies reached out to prospects within an hour, they were seven times more likely to qualify the lead” (Maksymiw, 2014). Timing is especially important when you are communicating a negative response or bad news. Don’t put it off; do it as soon as possible and give your customer the benefit of complete information.
Rules of Engagement
At the beginning of each relationship, ask your customer how they prefer to communicate. Getting the answers to these simple questions will save time and confusion throughout your relationship and help ensure good communication.
- How do you prefer to receive regular communication (e-mail, text, phone, in person, hard copy)?
- What can I expect as a standard turnaround time for response to questions and issues?
- How do you prefer to receive urgent communication (e-mail, text, phone)?
- Who else (if anyone) in the organization would you like to also receive communication from me?
- When is the best time to touch base with you (early morning, midday, or later in the afternoon)?
- How frequently would you like a status update and in what format (e-mail, phone, in person)
While you may think you are ready to communicate, it’s a good idea to stop and listen first. Creating your message is only half of communication; listening is the other half. But it’s difficult to listen because we listen faster than we speak—that is, based on what the other person is saying, we are already constructing responses in our minds before they have even finished. As a result, many people are guilty of “listening too fast.” (Dunning, 2001). Listening, in fact, is so important that companies like Starbucks believe that it may directly improve profits. According to Alan Gulick, a Starbucks Corporation spokesperson, if every Starbucks employee misheard one $10 order each day, it would cost the company one billion dollars in a year. That’s why Starbucks has a process to teach their employees how to listen. Although listening may seem passive, it is actively linked to success so it’s worth it to hone your listening skills now so that when you get into the business world you can be successful. Here are a few tips:
- Use active listening. Confirm that you heard the sender correctly by saying something like, “Just to be sure I understand, we are going to move forward with twelve cases for your initial order, then revisit your inventory in five days.” Review the communication model in this chapter and take notice of the importance of decoding. If you decode a message from your customer incorrectly, the communication is ineffective and could even be costly. In the example above, the customer might have said in response, “I meant that the initial order should be five cases, and we’ll revisit the inventory in twelve days.” That’s a big difference.
- Ask questions. Questions are a way to gather more information and learn about your customer and their business. They are also an excellent way to demonstrate that you are communicating by listening. You learned in that asking the right questions is critical to being a successful salesperson. Focus on listening and asking the right questions, and you’ll be rewarded with great information.
- Focus. Although multitasking has seemingly become a modern virtue, focus actually helps create more effective communication. Stop and focus on your customer when he is speaking. This is a sign of respect, and this concentration allows you to absorb more information. Take notes to remember exactly what you discussed. There’s nothing more important than what your customer has to say (Dunning, 2001).
- Take notes. While it may seem like you will remember everything that is said at a meeting or during a conversation, taking notes signals that you are listening, and it provides you with an accurate record of what was said.
There’s more to Communication than Meets the Eye…or Ear
It’s important to remember that you will be communicating with many different people about many different topics in selling. Sometimes, you will be communicating one-on-one and sometimes you will be communicating with a group. Just as people have varying social styles it’s important to know that people also absorb information differently. Research conducted in the 1970s indicates that people comprehend information in four distinct ways:
- Why: They want to know the reasons for doing something.
- What: They want to know the facts about it.
- How: They want to know only the information they need to get it done.
- What if: They want to know the consequences of doing it.
This can be a helpful road map of the elements you will want to include in your communications, especially if you are communicating with a group, since you may not know everyone’s best method of absorbing information. It’s been proven that if people don’t receive the type of communication they prefer, they tend to tune out or reject the information.
You’ve probably noticed that both people and brands communicate the same message multiple times and usually in multiple ways. Creative repetition is key to successful communication. Think about the advertising Pepsi ran when it launched its new logo in early 2009; it used a television commercial during the Super Bowl, created a billboard in a high-traffic area of a major city, part of an e-mail and banner ads campaign, could be viewed on YouTube, and of course all of the packaging had the new logo. Pepsi’s ad campaign illustrates the “three-times convincer” concept, which claims that 80 percent of people need to be exposed a message three times to buy into it, 15 percent need to be exposed to it five times, and 5 percent need to be exposed to it up to twenty-five times (Zmuda, 2009).
“5. 1. Ready, Set, Communicate” from The Power of Selling by Dr. Michelle Clement is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
“1.2 The Communication Process” from Communication in the Real World by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
“8.3 Communication Barriers” from Organizational Behaviour Old Version is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.