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The art of listening: Better results start with understanding your customer

Listen more than you talk and use the insights you gain into your customer’s needs and decision-making processes to close more sales.

This is a simple but powerful idea – and aren’t many of the best strategies both? – and it is at the heart of how educator and consultant Magdy Attalla approaches his work.

Mr Attalla has more than 20 years of teaching and consulting experience in prestigious Swiss hotel and business schools as well as with British and American universities. In addition, he has over 15 years of managerial and marketing experience in luxury hotels, resorts, and tour operators in the Middle East and Switzerland. Currently, Mr Attalla is a Regional Marketing Director at Benedict International Education Group (Bénédict) and Business & Hotel Management School (BHMS) in Switzerland. He spends much of the year travelling in Russia and the CIS states on marketing and recruitment assignments, and he speaks regularly on sales training and sales strategies for agent counsellors.

In the following video interview, Mr Attalla emphasises the importance of customer segmentation and identifying the decision maker.

He explains how crucial it is to develop personas for your customers – detailed profiles of key customer types that include important geographic, demographic, and psychographic characteristics, that are differentiated by market, and that include key aspects of motivation and preference.

Mr Attalla also stresses that one of the first things you need to do is identify the key decision maker in the sales process – whether that may be the student, a family member, or otherwise, and understand the factors most important to him or her.

“When you meet your clients, you need to very quickly discover who the decision maker is,” he says. “And once you learn who it is, you need to change your language to appeal to that person. At the same time, you cannot isolate the other people in the room. You can never ignore the consumer, the student, even if he or she is not the decision maker.”

He also reminds us of the importance of listening as a way for student counsellors to deepen their understanding of their customers’ needs and preferences, as well as serving as an aid in identifying decision makers and key decision factors. He says, “The best counsellors spend 80% of their time listening to customers, and 20% talking.”

Developing customer personas

The development of detailed customer personas is a tried and true idea in sales and marketing, and the process of building such detailed customer profiles can be valuable in itself as a way of consolidating insights about customers and markets, refining key sales and marketing messages for each customer type, and providing a more concrete basis for strategic sales planning.

Such personas can be an important frame of reference during the sales process, as Mr Attalla sets out in his interview. But they can also have a range of additional applications as well, whether as an aid in the development of promotional materials or for use in the targetting of online content to specific customer types.

These days, online channels often provide a variety of important inputs to the persona development process, particularly in the forms of website analytics or other observations of visitors to your website or other online channels.

There are shelves of books, articles, and scholarly works on the subject of developing and using customer personas. For a compact and illustrative introduction to the process, we recommend a recent post from Kevan Lee, a content specialist with the social media application Buffer. Mr Lee’s post nicely expands on the concept of a customer persona, sets out a process for persona development, and provides a variety of illustrative examples. The post is heavily oriented to persona profiles of online users, but the process and structure it describes has much broader application, including within international education.

Beyond the specifics set out in Mr Lee’s article, we would highlight again that the process begins with listening – with gathering together everything you know about your customers and analysing and reflecting on those key characteristics to build rich profiles of the decision makers and consumers that are most important to your business.

Additionally, we would underscore that this is best thought of as an ongoing process, rather than a one-time exercise, where your customer personas become richer and more meaningful over time as you add new insights and observations, all gained through the art of listening well.

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