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Why Customer Conversations Go Wrong

How would you rate the quality and impact of your customer conversations today?

It’s a question we must all be mindful of. 

Your answer will confirm how effective you are currently at influencing, shaping and supporting your own ability to work effectively with your customers.

Have you ever come out of a customer meeting believing you had clearly communicated one thing, yet the next time you speak with that customer they either haven’t done it, didn’t understand it or completely misinterpreted it?

Yep, this happens more times than we want to believe. 

However, the really scary thing is that most customers won’t tell you there was an issue. Not necessarily because they want to hide anything by what is sometimes called “saving face”, but actually because our lens, environment, physical or emotional state at the time makes a difference to what we hear and, most importantly, how we hear it.

Does what we intend to communicate to our customers always translate into what we want them to really hear, feel, understand and do?

Sadly, the answer is probably not, and that’s a big problem!

Why Customer Conversations Go Wrong

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. Just because you say something, doesn’t mean they heard it, believe it or will do it.

This was a quote shared famously by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. 

It’s as true today, as it was for him in the early 1900s.

We often (and I include myself here) believe that because we’ve said it clearly and we’ve seen an understanding “sign”, our customer got the message. 

Surely they have understood every word exactly as we communicated, and they are therefore totally ready to take action. 


Based on the research, there are more than a dozen common communication fallacies we make. 

I’ve listed some of the most interesting to me below, plus a few I see discussed less often as the reasons that customer conversations go wrong.

  1. Mind reading – involves making assumptions about what the other person thinks or feels. Instead of asking questions, you draw conclusions about why someone behaves in a certain way.
  2. Filtering – is zoning in on the points that reinforce your point of view or discounting anything you don’t want to hear. Filtering out the rest of the message can lead to unnecessary disagreements.
  3. Timing – not being aware of the environment in which your customer is currently in. Hence it is easy to not tailor your request to where they are.
  4. Matching – hearing what your customer says but matching it to a scenario you’ve experienced before. Your response will come based on the view of another customer, not the one in front of you. 
  5. Unprepared – we use familiarity with customers as an excuse for a lack of preparation. Without a clear intention, the importance and what we want most for the customer, we won’t have the desired outcome.
  6. Too many requests – often we can make too many requests of varying demands to the customer in a single conversation. We don’t weigh up what is needed for each action and consider that each request may require a different commitment.

This is not an exhaustive list as there are more than a dozen. 

Which one or more of these six do you find yourself unintentionally doing?

In a world where the ability to connect seems endless, how is it that our customers say they don’t feel as connected to the providers they use?

It is time to make better use of the knowledge of what goes wrong, to have more powerful and meaningful conversations with our customers.

Creating meaningful customer conversations

You have the ability to design the customer conversation you want to experience.

This might sound bold, yet it is true. 

With an awareness of what things can go wrong, it’s time to pursue what I call “meaningful customer conversations.”

Conversations that contribute to moving relationships and customer results forward…

Four Customer Conversation Principles

  1. Don’t limit your customer conversations. Go a little deeper, where appropriate, to explore the values and beliefs that really shape and drive their view of the world and business.
  2. Become a great facilitator of ideas. The best facilitators aren’t the ones who have the ideas – they are the ones that help others and groups cultivate their own by challenging them to create even better ones. This is a core role you should play in your customer conversations.
  3. Leave the customer better than when you found them. Set a new value standard on each call. What is it you want your customer to feel, know, understand and do that would be inherently and undeniably beneficial to them?
  4. Every conversation matters. Day-to-day customer conversations, that may seem unimportant or non-specific, are actually very important. It’s in those moments you can make your conversations count even more as most take these for granted.

I’m not saying applying any of this is easy, because it isn’t.

That’s why there aren’t many great conversationalist or outstanding customer conversations that leave your customer thinking about it later.

Every time you’re in front of your customer, you’re in the greatest competitive position to increase your value and deepen trust.

Your competitors would love the opportunities you have to speak to your customers. 

By putting a value on each conversation you have with your customers, you can train yourself to engage at a much deeper level.

Five Conversational Practices

There are five powerful conversational practices you can start to implement and invest in for every customer conversation you have. I’m confident that when you apply these, you’ll immediately notice the quality of your engagement and ultimately start to have really meaningful customer conversations.

ONE: Make the conversation enjoyable

When I say make the conversation enjoyable, I don’t mean learn some jokes, be overly positive or bring treats. Although, sometimes these might be helpful. 🙂

Regardless of the type of conversation you have (see point number three), you should think about your conversation through a four-step lens, one that almost every professional communicator will agree with.

This simple practice will not only help you become a master communicator, but it will also get you seen as an expert in your area.

 Make what you say and share easy to:

  1. Follow.
  2. Understand.
  3. Believe.
  4. Remember.

Why is this so powerful?

Simple: The person who is able to help their customers gain clarity, certainty and confidence, is the person who wins first. 

Why? Because we’re all looking for direction. In almost every case customers will follow the path with the clearest road. That is true for whatever we communicate, whether good or bad news.

Ideas for each area:

  1. Follow – use visuals.
  2. Understand – eliminate acronyms.
  3. Believe – use appropriate evidence like testimonials or statistics.
  4. Remember – describe what the core idea is in a single sentence.

The easier we make it for our customers, the higher the chances that they will take action.

TWO: Know what you want to say and why

This may seem arbitrary and obvious but we can often miss this very important stage in our customer conversation preparation.

What do you want your customer to:

  1. Know – What is the big idea for the conversation?
  2. Feel – How would you like them to experience the conversation?
  3. Understand – What do you want them to take away from the conversation?
  4. Do – What would you like them to act on as a result of the conversation?

We will often have situations when we don’t have much time to prepare for a meeting, presentation or important conversation. By applying this framework you can formulate your ideas quickly, and communicate more effectively. 

Here is an example of how this could work in practice when having to communicate something challenging:

Know – state what you want to discuss factually with no ambiguity.
Example: We have a delay in the project, but we have corrective measures in place.

Feel – acknowledge the fear that might be in the way, and tell them what positive feeling you want them to have.
Example: This might be a hard conversation, but in the end we’ll have much greater confidence on the best steps to achieve your goals…

Understand – state the 2-3 things you will share to support them getting more of the positive feeling they want, and move them closer to their goal.
Example: We’ll talk about X, Y and Z. What else could we cover that would support you as we think about the next steps together?

Do – ask the customer for mutual commitment moving forward based on their agreement of what they have understood.
Example: Now that we’ve come to an agreement, what is the easiest and most practical place for us to begin?

This is just one iteration of hundreds of different conversations you can have. 

The point here is that thinking through these four points before a conversation enables you to have more control over the outcomes you want, and most importantly ensures the customer gets a positive experience even if the conversation is difficult.

THREE: The type of conversation matters

There are many different types of conversations we can have with our customers, such as: 

  • Negotiations
  • Updates
  • Casual
  • Review meetings
  • Feedback
  • Delays

Every conversation will have both content and feeling attached to it, as the type of conversation will determine the potential risk and implications to the individual you speak with.

There is a hot debate on the way in which we should communicate with our customers.

Over the phone, virtual with no video, virtual with video, in-person 1:1, by email, in-person with multiple people, via chat, via social media etc…

There are many different scenarios and ways to communicate with our customers. However, the type of conversation matters in choosing the right communication medium.

What do we need to be aware of?

Below are some examples of general principles, based on four different communication mediums:

In-person Virtual (webinar/
Telephone Digital (including email, chat, social)
If the message has complexity and requires direct interaction from more than one person. If the message is simple but requires a visual walkthrough. If the message has layered nuance in meaning. If the message is instructional only.
If you want to influence a specific customer decision, particularly with a group of people. If you want to reach larger customer groups across a geography with a similar core message. If you need to get a specific response, action or communicate something that has the potential for misinterpretation. If the message requires a quick response with a simple solution e.g. reference of an FAQ.

The big idea here is that in every possible customer interaction, you want to put yourself in the position where you can firstly eliminate misunderstanding and then secondly increase clarity, customer experience and the likelihood of your customer taking action the first time. 

You may not be able to deploy the ideal communication channel at all times, but including points one and two will help it become a more meaningful customer communication.

FOUR: Follow the thread

Great coaches do this, as do great customer professionals. 

Following the thread is about going deeper into a particular customer area discussed. 

For example, if your client has mentioned a specific challenge at work a few times, simply say “Tell me more” or “How did you feel about that?”.

All of a sudden you’ll open up a door to new information and understanding about your customer that you never had before. 

Too often we can get distracted with our own agenda or even the agenda a customer has come up with.

But it is still your responsibility with your customer to help them see what’s most important. That will mean going deeper into one area at times.

Following the thread requires one of the elements of Relational Influence – Courageous Challenge.

Courageous challenge is all about how you lead yourself, your client, teams and colleagues so there is mutual and collective consistency in the relationship. 

If you’re not leading your customers, you’re losing them.

Among the six critical elements, there are three I want to highlight:

  1. Deep listening.
  2. Curiosity.
  3. Great questions.

Embracing these elements as skills to master puts you in a powerful position of authority with your customers. They’ll see you as truly caring and wanting the best for them.

FIVE: Pay attention to what’s not being said 

Your customers are human, just like you. 

As humans, we have an innate ability to sense someone’s frustration, anger, genuine excitement and more. 

We may hear the frustrated breath or cautious tone in our customer’s voice. Or see the open hands extended when the customer speaks with you about a new project. 

Picking up on these subtleties, noting them and sometimes naming them can show real care and consideration. 

Never underestimate the seemingly small gut feelings you have in the moment with a customer. But that doesn’t mean you should always trust it, either.

However, if you do get that feeling, it’s worth exploring it with your customer as it could save your relationship.

I had a very similar experience with a customer when a colleague of mine came with me to a meeting. 

The meeting was very sensitive and personally, I needed someone with me who had a level-head to see what I couldn’t see in the meeting.

In my mind the outcomes were clear, and I had a view of the customer’s position.

Throughout the first 30-40 min of the meeting, there was what seemed to be a very open and amicable conversation between everyone in the room. However, my colleague noticed the CEO had been opening and closing their fist consistently for almost 10 minutes straight.

This surprised me, but I went with my gut and named it in the room.

Me: “Hey, Bob (not their name) for the last 10 minutes it seemed as if we’d been moving in a helpful direction. Like you, we want what’s best for you and the team. However, we noticed that your hand had been clenched for that entire time. Now we don’t want to assume anything, and also know you’re a straight-talking guy. So for clarity, have we missed anything important to you in this conversation?”

Bob: “I don’t like anything that has been said!” (shock from his colleagues in the room)

Me: “When you say anything Bob, can you give me one important and specific issue to you that we can address?”

Bob: “I want to be confident that we won’t be at risk.”

Me: “Right, let’s walk through what risks you see, then what we see and close the gap. Would that work?”

Bob: “Yes, let’s do that.”


I didn’t go any further than this. 

The result of that meeting was Bob and I got onto better terms and after three months reengineered a deal that would extend the relationship. This was hard work but if my colleague hadn’t been in the room looking for those unseen moments, the conversation may not have gone well at all.

Here’s the big idea…

Emotion drives attention. Feelings show where that attention is, but emotion leaks and can show up in different manifestations on a person’s body.

If a customer has shared something of personal value to them then it is tied to emotion and something of importance. 

Remaining aware of the things unsaid will ensure you can confidently address areas that may block your progress and eliminate future frustration.

What next?

Effective customer communication is a core foundational skill and a system of approach that will support and shape our current and future customer success.

Are your customer conversations achieving the results you expected or want?

If the answer is no or you’re not sure, then I’d like to help you, your team and organisation to learn Customer Mastery.

You can also subscribe to our mailing list and get access to weekly targeted insight on the area of growth you want most from your key customers.

Just get in touch here.

Jermaine Edwards
Your Customer Growth Guide