Adaptable business: have opportunities land in your lap with this one mindset shift

By Susan January 10, 2018 18:15

Adaptable business: have opportunities land in your lap with this one mindset shift

What’s an essential, vital success skill that business owners and salespeople absolutely can’t do without? A skill that, if they have it, will guarantee their success, and if they don’t have it, will precipitate their downfall?

Business acumen? An ability to take calculated risk? A “Never take no for an answer” attitude?

All these are very important, but the skill I have in mind is one that’s too often forgotten and perhaps not practiced enough in the business world. And still I have so many stories where remembering to practice this skill was the one thing that got me the contract.

It’s this: listen to your customers.


A case study: how I was asked to tweak an offer

for a new market I hadn’t thought of

– but which made perfect sense in hindsight!


As you know, I send out a newsletter once a month, with my latest articles and blog posts, and my monthly Savvy Podcast episode. Over the years, the newsletter has been invaluable in helping me regularly keep in touch with my audience. It helps me follow them through their journey and I have been very excited to meet several readers in person as a result.

The best kind of marketing is not a one-way broadcast, it’s a two-way street: my newsletter is an opportunity to ask myself where my readers are at, what is on their mind on this particular day, and how my articles and podcasts will add value to their trajectory at this point.

And this is where serendipity comes in: the first time I let readers know about the #SavvyTeenAcademy in my newsletter, I thought readers who were also parents or relatives of teenagers might be interested.

While we did have enquiries, what I hadn’t foreseen was this: a company that receives the newsletter approached us to run an in-company version of #SavvyTeenAcademy so they could offer it to the teenagers of their employees and clients. From there, we developed our corporate sponsorship offering and now, we’re expanding into Transition Year Work Experiences.


Being adaptable stacks the odds of success

in favour of the business


It is something that often stymies people who are thinking of creating a business: what is a good business idea? This is akin to asking “How long is a piece of string?”

Stereotypes about business and entrepreneurship too often forget that business is cooperative and collaborative. It’s less about “doing something against all odds”, and more about finding ways to work in synergy with your employees, your providers – and your clients.

That is why a widely accepted piece of business wisdom is that you shouldn’t fall in love with your product: you should test it and see whether clients actually like it and are ready to buy it. I devoted a whole chapter of my book The Savvy Guide to Making More Money” to this. (Read an excerpt from my book: Market research – how to ask the right questions for true market insights)


Let potential buyers help you design

the product they dream of buying


This is a great piece of advice and you can take it one step further. Before even testing a product, let your clients weigh in when you are designing it. Your product or service won’t spring fully armed from your forehead: be flexible enough to let your clients co-create your offering.

That way, you will be certain it’s exactly what they want and need.

There is a myth that entrepreneurs come up with an idea, offer it to the world and watch as the money starts to pour in. That is not exactly how it works… Many startups crash and burn because there was no market for what they thought was a genius idea. But if nobody is buying “it” (or not enough people), it means “it” is not solving a pressing problem.

A successful product or service does just that: it answers the question of potential buyers – “Where have you been all this time? I’ve been looking for exactly this solution for years!”

For your business or offering to be the answer to that question, you have to ask questions of your own: “What do you need?” Or “I’m thinking of this offer: would you be interested?” Ask questions first, and find out about the pain points of your potential buyers.


Don’t get defensive when you feel resistance in clients:

probe and let yourself be surprised


Being willing to ask questions and to listen deeply has been absolutely invaluable in my career as a business owner and main salesperson for the company.

Countless times, I have sat down for a meeting with a client or potential client, and I had a clear idea of how we could work together – only to be very (pleasantly) surprised when my idea turned out to be on a different track than what the client had in mind.

In each case, taking the time to listen deeply to the client’s need was what opened the way. Listen in a spirit of being helpful, even if it’s not directly profitable for your business. The secret is to be very open, in order to pick up on as many cues as possible – instead of constantly thinking about how you can sell this or that service.

That happened to me while meeting a new client in the UK. The objective of the meeting was to develop a briefing for a keynote speech they asked me to deliver. The client wanted me to present the economic return on investment of their project, at the project’s closing event.

Half an hour in, the client got an email that made her put her hands to her face… She looked genuinely worried. I gingerly asked what was wrong.

She said, “I’ve been given an extra £5000 in the budget for this year and I have to spend it productively by the end of the month. How am I going to manage that?” Extra money might sound like a “good” problem to have, but the client needed to show, in the space of only a few weeks, that she could be an excellent steward of that budget. That put her under a lot of pressure.

We spent three hours going through every little detail. At the end, she had briefed me extensively on everything that went on in that project. At that point, we took a look at the company website. There were several details that were well out of date, or entire pages that had been saying “Coming Soon” for years. Her schedule was full to bursting point and she simply didn’t have the time to update those pages.

That’s when I had my value proposition. I was going to have to process all the information anyway for my keynote speech. While I worked on the content from one point of view, my team could take the same content and look at it in a different way, in order to prepare the copy for the site. Producing the content for the website was just an extension of something that was already part of my brief.

Doing this would mean she could generate a much higher return on her time spent with me, she could get an infinitely better website without having to put in any more work on her part, and she could spend some of the money in a way that was productive and useful, and clearly added value to the company’s customers. And she would also be able to show that she had managed that extra money well and wisely.

That’s how the HayesCulleton content development service was born. Since then, we’ve worked with several clients and we’re expanding what we can offer all the time. This new offering started with a deep conversation with a client. It constantly evolves and is enriched by other deep conversation with clients. Each time, the content development service is refined further to better answer the exact needs of each client.


What you think you sell, and what you are actually selling,

are two different things


Whether you are an employee or a business owner or a service provider, when you deal with clients you don’t do what you think you do: you don’t “deliver financial training” or “design websites” or “provide secretarial services”. What you do is solve people’s problems, and the medium is training, or design, or secretarial services.

You know the joke: “To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. If you want to delight your clients and reach the next level of success, you have to abandon that narrow mindset and stop focusing on the exact nail that your own brand of hammer can hit: you have to zoom out and ask in what ways can your hammer be most useful to your customer. Hitting a certain kind of nails is only one way.

An agile business is an adaptable business: sometimes the problem you think you solve isn’t quite the exact problem your customer needs to solve, and you have to be open to listening in order to pick up on certain “vibes”, like uncertainty, reticence, lack of enthusiasm. These can all be clues that something, somewhere, needs to be reframed.

Once, a potential new client asked me about speaking at an event but as I started asking about logistical details I sensed a problem. So I dropped the questions about specific logistics and asked for information about the bigger picture. They replied “The thing is Susan, I don’t know the answers and nobody in here does. I need you to help us figure out both the answers and the questions.”

That day, I realized that an important part of the value I bring as a speaker is that I have extensive experience of events. My role is not just to speak to a brief I’ve been given, but to share my experiences of the hundreds of events I’ve spoken at. Clients are looking to me for guidance and advice about what makes a successful event. Now, I can work with the client on the design of the event as well as my own presentation. This is particularly important when I’m there in the capacity of MC. I give insights on format, how to optimize interaction, effective technologies, promotion, and many, many other things that are integral to a successful event.


Why don’t you ask for the exact service you need

– especially if it doesn’t exist yet?


Let’s turn the tables on this, too: I would encourage you to ask for the product or service that you actually really want, even if it’s not quite what is being offered. You may well inspire the next iteration of a company’s product or service when you articulate out loud what a segment of their market was already thinking. When customers demand the thing they would pay for, this is free market research; even better, it gives the business an idea that they may not have had before.

In each of the above cases, these conversations led our company to think “If these people want this, who else in our client book might too? What new clients could we target now? How does this change how we articulate what we do? How can we offer a more rounded, cohesive, value adding and profitable package as a result?”

What I have experienced, time and time again, is that you don’t need to be absolutely sure months or years in advance of all the steps you will be taking. Just take the first, most logical or even the easiest step right now. Then keep taking steps as they become obvious to you. The path will become clear – and will even veer in unexpected, exciting directions.

It’s important to be clear about how you can help a client so that you can paint a picture of how life will be better after they work with you. However, they may have bigger ideas. Ask open questions about the problem they want to solve and let them talk. Listening will open up your imagination to possibilities you hadn’t even considered.


Here is the LISTEN framework I use

for every conversation



The LISTEN framework shows how to approach important client conversations

Do you know how to L.I.S.T.E.N. to your customers?


L – Let them have your full attention


It sounds obvious, but it’s so important to be fully and totally present when talking to clients (and staff and stakeholders and everybody really!)

Put your whole focus on them. It’s only then that you will be in the right frame of mind. That’s when you will truly be able to solve their actual problems with your solutions.

Eliminate all distractions. Put your phone in mute mode: silent and without the vibrate, and put it away.

Make sure your mind is clear, free of clutter and random thoughts, by having a “digital download”: write down all stray thoughts before you go to the meeting so that you’re not mentally reminding yourself of random to-dos over and over during the conversation.

If you need to leave at a certain time, set an alarm on your phone and make sure to let the other people know that you have x amount of time. Rather than be worried about it, and constantly keep thinking about the clock, you can relax into the situation and simply wait for the notification on your phone.

If the meeting is a phone or non-video Skype call, turn off your e-mail, social media, etc. It’s even more important to put your concentration completely on the call because neither of you can pick up on the body language of the other.


I – Investigate their world


Be willing to explore and forsake all assumptions about how you can help them. And be willing to go back to the drawing board and redesign your product or service.

Ask open questions and be interested in the answers. “What’s going on in your world? What’s crossing your desk at the moment? What’s the most important thing that you’re working on right now?” are all examples of questions that prompt the other person to share their stories.

Just listen. Don’t be waiting for your chance to cut in and talk about how you’re going through the same or how things are different in your line of business. Just let them talk and ask follow up questions to enable them to elaborate.

On many occasions, there won’t be an opportunity for other business, but these conversations will develop rapport. This may lead to something in the future or give you a more rounded insight into their business. This kind of contextual understanding can help your relationship with your entire client book and network.


S – Stay open-minded


Whenever a client seems reticent, hesitant, uncertain, it’s your cue to probe deeper: step out of the sales mindset and instead of trying to bulldoze over their objections, step into deep listening mode.

Let your client tell you what they want. Don’t try and box them into a neat category in your mind. Let them express exactly how they would like you to solve their problem and if you can do even better, faster or cheaper, then great! Tailor a solution to their issue, and then you won’t just have a customer, but a happy one who may then be an advocate for your business. Open your mind to their suggestions.


T – Think on your feet


If a gap opens up between what you had in mind, and what the customer might want, bridge that gap if you can. You may need to be creative. You may need to go outside your comfort zone. You may need to source outside help from other service providers. You may need to flesh out the details and come back to them with a more developed outline.

Put your mind to work about what you can do or brainstorm directly with the client. That’s how our content development service was born – we didn’t have it before that customer came to me with too much money and too little time.


E – Embrace opportunity


This isn’t just a part of active listening, but a piece of good business practice in general: Ask for the sale. Ask for the sale. Ask for the sale. If you’ve done everything that I’ve outlined up until now and there is an opportunity for a new piece of business, ask the person if they would like to go ahead.

Don’t assume that it’s their job to ask you to proceed. Don’t expect them to know that their problem can be solved through buying your services, just because you’ve talked about doing things differently. Ensure that, by the time the meeting or conversation is over, you have asked them very clearly if they would like to give you the business. Clearly, and in as many words.


N – Nurture the relationship


The world of business is a dynamic place. People’s priorities change over time. Technology can disrupt the status quo. Personnel in a business can move around. Customers’ tastes and preferences can evolve. Trends can start and stop in unexpected ways.

Ensure to use this acronym at every meeting and don’t presume that, just because things were the way they were the last time you spoke, they will remain that way. Take care of your customers and they will take care of you. Likewise, let customers know what you are working on, and let them know in such a way that they can respond and reply to your announcement (that is what I did when I announced #SavvyTeenAcademy, our content development service and my MC offering in my newsletter). (Read more: 7 Best Practices for a Successful Email Newsletter)


These are the guiding principles have allowed me to spot opportunities and seize them when they arise, because I wasn’t hellbent on one idea. Instead, I let my clients help me cocreate the offering that best suited them.


Positive Economist

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By Susan January 10, 2018 18:15