Listening Beneath The Surface

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“In archeology, context is everything. Objects allow us to reconstruct the past. Taking artifacts from a temple or an ancient private house is like emptying out a time capsule."

Sarah Parcak, archaeologist

Ten years ago, when I was just starting out in my consulting business, I had an interesting conversation with someone with a lot more experience than me.

This guy – we’ll call him Joe, because frankly, I don’t remember his name for the life of me – was decades ahead of me.

As you can imagine, this was a pretty one-side conversation, where the grizzled veteran was dropping wisdom on a rank amateur.

Anyway… Joe got around to telling consulting war stories. And one of them stuck out for me. I still remember it to this day.

Basically, this one time, Joe got hired by a local furniture store to help with their advertising.

Now, Joe and I are both in direct marketing… and that means we have one job: Get more customers. Period.

In other words, we’re not interested in Madison Avenue branding and fancy artsy ads. Our style of advertising is measured… and it either works (it got customers), or it doesn’t work (it got no customers).

So Joe went and created some advertising for this furniture store. They’re ugly as sin, because that’s what works and gets people in the door when you’re a small shop in a small town.

Before this, the owner was buying up full-page splashes in the local newspaper that said nothing except his furniture store’s name… and some gimcrackery like “selling fine furniture in podunk town since 1888” or something.

They didn’t really get him business. Go figure.

So Joe shows the owner the ugly-ass direct response ads he created… and he hated them. It made his “brand” look bad. But at the same time, he went with it because he had already paid Joe and figured it couldn’t hurt.

Mr. Owner was probably also curious if ads like that really worked.

The problem was – those ugly-ass newspaper ads?

They worked.

In fact, they worked… too well.

On a Tuesday evening (a school night, no less)… A hoard of people piled into this dinky furniture store. They’re shopping, buying stuff, they were all there because of the ad.

It was noisy as heck.

So Mr. Owner stormed out of his quiet office wondering what all the commotion was all about. He was like: It’s Tuesday night for crying out loud! What’s going on?

“They’re customers!” His overwhelmed staff told him. “They’re all here because of the ad you put in the weekend papers!”

Well, Mr. Owner didn’t like it. Not one bit. And even though he had prepaid the newspaper for three more weekends running this same ad that Joe had created… he cancelled it all. Without getting a refund.

He just couldn’t take the noise that came with extra business.

So here I am listening to Joe tell this story, and I’m dumbfounded. Mr. Owner wanted ads to grow his business. The ads worked. He probably made more money that Tuesday than the last thirty days combined. What the hell, man?

Joe chuckled. “I don’t get it either. Some people just don’t want success I guess.”

I thought back to that story several times over the last ten years.

I can honestly say now, I get it. I get where Mr. Owner is coming from… and it’s not because he doesn’t want success.

It’s more like Joe didn’t really do his homework, or Mr. Owner didn’t really know what he wanted. I mean, if you have any common sense at all, and took some time to think about it… you’d quickly realize that Mr. Owner wasn’t really motivated by “increased sales”.

At the end of the day, he was already happy with his low maintenance business (with quiet Tuesday nights). Maybe it was his retirement business. Maybe he just liked owning a store and being the man around town. Maybe he liked talking to customers and that was his social outlet. Who knows?

The point is - money and growth was not his motivation. He wasn’t interested in rocking the pleasant boat ride he had going.

But Joe the consultant never saw that. Or if he did, he didn’t care. There’s an old saying about consultants that says “when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I think that was the case here.

There are a ton of lessons we can get from this story.

One, the most obvious, is context is everything. One of my favorite sayings about sales is from a sales guru named John Paul Mendocha. He said, “Sales isn’t about qualifying people, it’s about disqualifying people.” And in this case, Joe didn’t disqualify Mr. Owner. He went forward with selling his services whether he really wanted it or not.

Maybe Joe had bills to pay. Maybe Joe had good intentions and really thought “more sales” was what was good for Mr. Owner whether he wanted it or not. Maybe Joe just misread the situation in the initial consultation. I don’t know. But obviously, it didn’t work out for both parties.

Secondly, and related to what I just said, listening is also everything. I don’t care if it’s business, love or friendship. That sounds so obvious… and I can hear your head nodding… But it’s really hard to do. And it’s hard to do not just because it’s hard to shut up. It’s hard because listening is deeply interrelated to context.

In order to truly “listen” to people, we need to be able to read context. Let me paste what I wrote earlier here…

Maybe it was his retirement business. Maybe he just liked owning a store and being the man around town. Maybe he liked talking to customers and that was his social outlet.

But here’s the thing…

Mr. Owner would never just say, “No, I don’t want a whole bunch more customers. I like my happy little homeostasis.”

These kind of things are subtle. You have to pick up the clues for them when the person is talking in turnabout ways, dropping hints or just being vague about stuff. You have to “listen for” what’s really going on.

The archeologist I’m quoting this week is most famous for popularizing “remote sensing satellite” in her field. So instead of getting on your hands and knees and digging around like you see Indiana Jones doing… you use satellite imagery to see “beneath the ground”

Sarah Parcak Is A Space Archaeologist. Soon You Will Be Too.
By Elizabeth Stinson published on 2016/02/16

That’s pretty cool. Remote sensing imagery is kinda what I’m talking about here with listening. You have to look beneath the surface.

We all know people rarely say what they really mean. And it’s not because they’re being deceptive. They could be protecting their ego. They could be saying what they think you want to hear. They could be trying to act clever, brag, be modest, disengaged or whatever.

But it’s not enough to just “look beneath the surface” either… you also have to know what to look for.

If you take a look at the picture1 above, (and assuming you’re not a trained archeologist), you have no idea what you’re looking at. The right half of the picture is obviously what happens when you turn “remote sensing” on. And it’s safe to say those rectangles are buildings of some sort. But are they residential? Commercial? Temples?

That’s where context kicks in. Looking beneath the surface is listening. Knowing what to “listen for” is context.

To me, context is having a databank of experiences, stories and situations to draw from. People like to say empathy is placing yourself in the other person’s shoes. But you can’t really do that unless you have a library of emotional experiences you can sort, match and relate to first.

So to summarize those two lessons, we have a bit of a Möbius strip… context is listening and listening is context.

But there’s a third lesson here.

And it’s the fact that Joe, and myself, were dumbfounded by Mr. Owner’s reaction to what any other business owner would be delighted to see.

I mean, what business owner wouldn’t want increased sales, higher profit and more growth? Amirite? Every red-blooded entrepreneurial American wants growth right? If you don’t want growth, you’re unAmerican!

I repeat that oft-repeated saying about consultants: “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you’re a specialist. You spend years mastering a craft and you see life through a certain filter. But it blinds you to everything outside of that lens.

What’s worse is when people like Mr. Owner don’t know what they really want, and some consultant sells them on their thing. And these consultants are really good at selling their thing. It’s their livelihood. They believe in what they do and they’re passionate about it.

There’s nothing wrong with that…

But when you sell without listening and context, you’re basically assuming everyone wants what you have. And when you do that… you end up with a hot mess like a bunch of rowdy customers wanting to give you money on a Tuesday night when all you want to do is sit in your quiet office doing inventory.

  1. From a WIRED article Sarah Parcak Is A Space Archaeologist. Soon You Will Be Too. by Elizabeth Stinson published on February 16, 2016 ↩︎

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