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Many thoughtful salespersons are (rightly) aware that using the word “I” too often in client dialogs can be a danger signal—  we’re focusing on ourselves and our product/service, rather than on fulfilling the client’s needs.  Ironically, an especially beneficial communications device called the “I-message” is a reassuring sign of a client-centered attitude.  Here are some examples of how it works:

Reviewing the client’s needs:  In the Consultative Selling Skills model, the final step of the Situation Analysis phase is called the “review of needs as understood.”  This phraseology is a continuing reminder that, despite our best efforts, we may not have completely and accurately determined client needs through our supportive questioning process.  By beginning each perceived needs restatement with an appropriate I-message, we take responsibility for our understanding of what we heard, and also make it easy for the client to correct us or add any needs that we missed.  I-messages like, “If I heard you correctly, you need…..,” or, “You didn’t state this explicitly, but I sense that you may need…..” invite the client to help us improve our needs analysis.

Acknowledging the client’s objection:  Given that this first step in the issue resolution process is primarily a signal of respect and empathy for the client’s frustration, the I-message is virtually a mandatory component.  While a generic statement such as “I know how that feels” is helpful, a more issue-specific response has much greater power, e.g., “I know what it feels like to have cost concerns threaten an important program.”  Indeed, any time the client reveals a personal need, an I-message response underscores our own commitment to a mutually trusting relationship.

  • An important caveat: beware the temptation to allow an empathetic I-message to ramble on— stealing center stage from the client.  Our attempt at making a connection soon produces exactly the opposite effect if the I-message expands into an “I-monolog.”

Reframing the client’s objection as an “unfulfilled need”:  This is arguably the most important application of the I-message: when we paraphrase a client objection as an objective to be reached, we are almost literally putting words into his/her mouth.  What the client said was a complaint (e.g., “It’ll add to our workload”), but our reframe is a task to meet the underlying need (e.g., “If I understood you correctly, you need to be confident that our plan fits within your existing workload.”)  Since we’ve taken the liberty of transforming a brick wall into a goal post, we need client confirmation that she/he agrees with our paraphrase.  The I-message spotlights this reframing process.

In a nut shell: far from being self-centered, the consultative salesperson’s I-messages underline his/her conviction that “it’s all about the client.”  They do double duty:  signaling the client that we’re working to meet his/her needs— and reminding us to “check our egos at the door.”

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