Communication Principles

There are many different ways to communicate with your customer. Good communication relies on relationship building, nonverbal communication, listening versus hearing, clarification and confirmation. This month, we will discuss ways to build those skills. We will also give you some communication rules to follow when initiating your research.

Relationship Building

  1. A customer relationship is just like all other relationships.  Treat it as such and maintain it.
  2. Be open to build trust.  Your customers must trust you and your intention to help them before they will open themselves up to you and share their needs.
  3. Build rapport and common ground.  You need to take the first step in initiating that relationship and finding the common ground.  Do not expect your customers to come to you with ideas, needs, experiences, etc. Set the example for opening up and being vulnerable to your customer, and they will do the same.
  4. You can try to avoid the personal but your relationship will be strengthened if you know more about the person.  By learning more about your customer, you also gain insight into their world and environment and how you could affect it.  Many companies shy away from the personal with their customers because they are afraid. (I want to clarify that I am not suggesting unethical practices but simply advocating gaining a practical understanding of your best customers.  You want to understand their environment and how it relates to your product. There is nothing unethical about this. If unsure, always get the consent of the customer.  For example, most companies would not feel comfortable opening up someone’s closet, or refrigerator, trash can and taking pictures.  This could be very helpful in the research process.  Many consumers do not mind this, but they must be asked and must be given an incentive to allow this.)
  5. Be aware of cultural differences.  In the U.S., we like to restrict ourselves to business and ignore the personal.  In other parts of the world, building the personal relationship comes first.
  6. Every communication is a form of negotiation, even within the family.
  7. Each time you talk it should be a two-way exchange, mutually beneficial.  Every time you talk, you should learn more about your customer both on a personal and business level.  Make sure to write it down because you will not remember it later.

Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is anything expressed to another person that is not said in words.  This could be body language, voice inflection, facial expression or other things.  Statistics say that words are actually only 7% of communication.  The remaining 93% is through tones (55%) and other nonverbal communication (38%).  The goal is to make those that you are talking to feel comfortable and open to talking with you.  Your tone of voice and other nonverbal signals can communicate a lot when you don’t even realize it.  It is important to understand what you are communicating to others – especially your customers.  It is also important to pick up on the subtle cues your customer will give you through body language.  The following is an acronym for things you should keep in mind when talking with another person to make them feel more at ease. 

Exercise: People Watching

Objective: To get a better feel for non-verbal communication and what is being communicated through it.

Start looking at others and watching their verbal and non-verbal communication

Start looking at your own interactions and what you are communicating

1 Start looking at others: People watching

  • Take paper and pencil.  Go to a public place (park, mall, street corner, lunch stand)
  • Find a pair or trio of people and watch them from a distance.  Since you can’t hear what is being said, look for non-verbal communication signals.
  • Write down your observations about the non-verbal communication and then the implication of what you think is being expressed.

2. Start looking at other’s interactions with you: Interpersonal Communication Management

  • When in conversations with others notice their non-verbal communication
  • Write it down after the conversation has ended and debrief what the implications could mean.
  • If appropriate, check with the other person to see if your assumptions were correct.

3. Start looking at your own interactions with other people

  • When in conversations with others notice your own non-verbal communication signals.
  • Write it down after the conversation and debrief it with yourself.  Determine what you might be communicating to the other person. Determine if this is what you want to be communicating to other people.
  • If appropriate, check with the other person and clarify what you are communicating.

4. Modifying your non-verbal communication signals

  • When in conversations with others notice your own non-verbal communication signals.
  • Modify your non-verbal signals to express different things.  You could even test abnormal non-verbal signals in safe situations – like having your arms folded when you are very excited about something. In these types of cases, you must think about the signal ahead of time because it is unnatural.
  • Notice how others’ reactions may differ.
  • Write down your observations after the conversation has ended.  Debrief it with yourself. 
  • If appropriate, clarify with the other person.

Listening vs. Hearing

How many times have you heard, “that’s not what I said?”   Many miscommunications happen because people are hearing instead of listening to who is talking to them.  Hearing is when you physically hear what is being said but you are not processing it.  When you hear something, you are not empathizing with the person speaking or are only listening until you can add your“two cents worth”. 

Listening is when you genuinely could repeat back what the person has said to you in your own words. Listening is clarifying unclear messages and empathizing with the person speaking. 

Active listening takes a large amount of energy and most of us do not do it often.  In our busy world, we are constantly asked to listen, and many different stimuli are fighting for our attention.  There are three things working against a person who is trying to actively listen.  The first is our attention span.  A typical adult only listens to the first five to seven words of any advertisement, lecture, or other spoken language.  The second is our mind.  Normal speaking rate is 120 to 150 words per minutes, but our comprehension rate is closer to 400 to 500 words per minute and some say our mind is processing information 1000 to 3000 words per minute.  This leaves us with a lot of lag time to wander off into another world while someone is talking to us.  Lastly, we are also taught from society howto tune things out and discern what is important enough to listen to. 

It is important that you learn to actively listen to your customer.  If you only hear, you are more likely to alienate them and are more likely to be influenced by your biases.

There are three types of listening:

  1. Listening to learn (education)
  2. Listening to feel (empathy)
  3. Listening to connect with the other person (relationship)

Clarification and Confirmation

Clarification and Confirmation

The best way to actively listen is to use the technique of clarification and confirmation.

Asking questions to understand the what and why of what is being said.

In your own words, paraphrasing the what and the why of what the person is saying. 

A conversation might go something like this:

Person A:  So, when we got home, I spent 30 minutes trying to rearrange my pantry because the new packaging took up more room than it had before.

Person B: What I hear you saying is, that you rearranged your whole pantry to fit this new product in because the packaging had changed.  Is that right?

Exercise: Clarification and Confirmation

Objective: To use clarification and confirmation as a means to draw a picture from verbal directions.


  1. Find a partner to do this exercise.  Assign each person a role.  Role 1 is to be the describer, Role 2 is to be the drawer
  2. The describer is to use the picture below as reference material, but is not allowed to let the drawer see the picture.
  3. The drawer is to draw the picture on the next page as the describer describes the picture.
  4. The rules are as follows:
    1. The describer cannot watch what the drawer is drawing.
    2. The drawer can ask clarifying questions of the describer.
    3. The describer cannot show the drawer the picture, but must describe it.
  5. Now,switch roles and repeat the exercise
  6. After a few minutes, compare pictures and then debrief the experience with the questions below.

Communication Rules for when you enter a site

  1. Confidentiality with those you interact with.
    1. It is important to build rapport with people on site.
    2. It is especially important to build trust and rapport with those people on sites you will be visiting over a long period of time.
  2. Ethical Considerations
    1. When looking for a research site, always start at the top of the value chain (i.e. top management).
      1. This helps with buy-in.
    2. Don’t agree to spy on the workers for the head boss.
  3. If entering into an unknown research site, plan ahead. 
    1. Use any contacts you have available to you to make yourself feel more comfortable and begin building rapport with people.
    2. Network your way to the right people.
  4. Get to know the physical and social layout of the site.  It will help you to feel more comfortable.
  5. Get the customer to sign a non-disclosure agreement and give them an incentive to talk with you (gift, money, discount). This covers your liability later on if you choose to implement one of the ideas you learned from your customer.
  6. Use the power of observation to notice body language when face to face, and when on the phone, listen for the tone and notice the communication style.
    1. Modify your body language and communication style to the style to best draw your customer out.  In some cases, this may be mirroring your customer’s body language.  Realize that this technique to make your customer more comfortable takes a lot practice and discernment.
  7. Relate to your customer in the style he/she prefers realizing that this style may change over the course of the interaction. Some people do not like small talk and will always stick to the business facts.  Cut the small talk in this case.
  8. Before entering an interview or observational site be sure to set expectations each time so each person knows what to expect from the visit.  This will help with creating trust and a better understanding of the context of the relationship.
    1. What professional organization you are representing
    2. Purpose of the visit
    3. The customer’s role in the visit
    4. Length of visit
  9. Do more listening than talking.  Ask open-ended questions rather than yes or no questions.
  10. If you find the person in a bad mood, don’t take it personally.
  11. Their cat could have died today.
  12. Have unconditional positive regard for those you interact with.  If you enter a site with preconceived ideas,then you will be limited those ideas (remember self-fulfilling prophesy and biases).

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment