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View from the business school: Successful salespeople need to be able to listen as well as talk

By Professor Jim Saker, director of the Centre for Automotive Management at Loughborough University’s Business School

I was speaking at the AM Hit for Six Conference in Oxford, elaborating on the thesis that customer satisfaction is a weak measure of loyalty or even repurchase intention.

The basic tenet of the argument is that loyalty comes from the depth of the relationship we have with customers, something we fail to measure in most customer satisfaction surveys.

A question was asked about the role of emotional intelligence in building relationships in the retail automotive sector. Emotional intelligence is a concept that has been doing the rounds since Daniel Goleman first published his book on the subject in 1996. In summary, emotional intelligence includes issues such as self-awareness and impulse control, persistence, zeal and motivation, empathy and social deftness. He argues that these are the qualities that mark people who excel, whose relationships flourish and who are stars of the workplace.

The interesting aspect of this was that the person who asked the question at the conference was Keith Kingham (Kinghams of Croydon), who has recently finished his Master’s thesis at Loughborough on the subject. His research explored the emotional intelligence of dealership staff and how that impacted on their interactions within the business. Having staff who are emotionally intelligent is critical to building relationships with customers. One of the biggest issues is that we have historically recruited people who can talk, but often fail to listen and understand the other person’s perspective.

Customers are often taken through a sales process without anyone actually listening to responses and understanding the nuances of behaviour. To slow this procedure down, we now emphasise the need for a ‘qualification process’ which supposedly identifies the customer need and collects relevant contact information.

Maybe I am too old and cynical but, having been on the receiving end of a so-called qualification process recently, it appears that I somehow magically ‘qualified’ as being in need of precisely the vehicle and model that the dealership had in stock at that time. Irrespective of the fact that it was neither the colour nor the fuel option that I wanted, the salesperson got into process mode and started to sell something that I was never going to buy.

One of the areas where this is relevant is in accident repair or bodyshop activity. Anyone bringing a car into that area of our business has two things in common – firstly, they have been in an accident and, secondly, they have survived it. Customers entering bodyshop reception often come in fairly nervously with what appears to be a certain amount of almost embarrassment. These people have been through a trauma of some sort, whether it was a small scrape or a large impact. Whatever the situation, whether the car has been towed or driven in, the customer feels vulnerable. How that situation is handled will stick in the mind of the customer for years.

In reality, at that moment we are repairing the customer, not the car.

As opposed to the usual opening question, ‘Is this a cash or insurance job?’ a more empathetic reassuring approach might just build a relationship of trust that benefits the business for years to come.

With the increasing use of online communication, it is going to become increasingly important for our staff to be able to write in a manner which shows both courtesy and empathy and is delivered with a level of literacy appropriate for the communication. The email you think simply contains the facts can be received and interpreted as terse and unfriendly.

The style of writing we use with customers has to be well crafted and in a style that attempts to reflect our own levels of emotional intelligence. A poorly written email can affront a customer and break any attempt at subsequent relationship building.

This is the time of year when one’s emotional intelligence is often called into play as you navigate through the traditional family Christmas. One is often left treading carefully between distant relations who would not normally meet at any other time and appear to have long-standing grievances that date back generations.

Understanding why Aunt Nellie does not wish to sit next to Uncle Sid requires empathy, understanding and patience. It could be argued that if Golman had written his book a hundred years earlier and Uncle Sid and Aunt Nellie had understood how to read each other perhaps that family feud might not have festered and we could all have a quiet, peaceful and joyful Christmas.

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