There’s a reason I won’t begin by stating that as a business you need to understand “your audience.” That’s because not everyone is your audience. You’re going to meet with people at some point who may or may not be your target consumer. But one thing will be constant – they’re human. And as humans, we’re unique. We don’t all know the same things; aren’t in line with everything happening in the world; and all of us are at different levels with various talents and knowledge.

This means when you meet someone, you need to anticipate his or her needs and act on them. How? By taking the time to understand that individual.

Here’s something to consider: A twenty-something person is in your cell phone store. The customer is constantly looking down at his current phone while he’s there. While he waits in line, he continues to text and keep his gaze fixed on his phone. When you call him to your counter, the customer tells you what phone he wants, what color and maybe what plan he wants. Depending on which store he’s in, he could be out in 30 minutes. Contacts are transferred to the new phone and papers are signed. He walks out, texting on his new phone.

In a similar scenario, an eighty-something person is in your cell phone store. She looks around, then shakes her head. She waits in line. When she approaches the counter, she asks the young person behind it what kind of phone she should get. She only has a few people she calls regularly and probably won’t use it much. The sales person points to the latest phones and tells her to pick one. The sales person quickly explains the plan, including all the data included. The customer signs the papers. She takes the box and heads to her car. She tosses the package on the seat and sighs.

It isn’t difficult to figure out that the customer in the first scenario is pretty adept at the technology. He knew what he wanted and he was satisfied with his decision. The sales person could still ask questions to determine other needs, but overall, the customer has been through the process a few times.

In the second scenario, the customer’s body language and comments made it clear she was unsure of what she needed. This does not mean to stereotype; some of our mature customers are also adept at technology and we shouldn’t immediately assume they aren’t. But in this illustration, this customer was not as familiar with the technology. In this case, the sales person needed to start asking questions. She needed to listen and take more time with the customer to learn about her needs and habits. She could have offered to allow the customer to play with a few phones to determine her comfort level. And she could show her how to use the basics. If the customer has another cell phone, does she need help transferring her contacts? Don’t assume she knows how. Walk her through the steps and process. Make sure she’s comfortable using her new phone and that she’s leaving the store feeling satisfied.

And dignified.

Understand people

We can’t deny that we size up people in about 10 seconds. We know first impressions mean a lot. We’re not always right in the initial assessment, but this is something we do automatically. While we need to be cautious about jumping to conclusions based on what we see, we can use our keen observations to our advantage. We can look at a customer, or employee, and anticipate certain needs. The more we ask questions and get to know the individuals, we’re better able to predict their needs and act on them.

The key is to understand people. We’ve heard it said that we need to put ourselves in others’ shoes. But really, that means we’re still thinking about what we would want in those shoes. We need instead to think: “if I was that person, what would I need?” Anticipate, but ask questions. Then listen.

The latter is what people often skip. You can show the person you heard him and understand his needs by repeating what he said and then asking additional questions.

What can employers do?

Train your employees to think of others. Teach them to be kind and patient with each person they encounter. Help them understand they need to put aside their personal needs and feelings while they’re there serving the public. Employees should be proactive and reach out to the people.

They will do this if management takes the lead in this regard.

Have a list of questions during this training that employees can learn to ask their customers. They can be basic questions such as: How can I help you? What are you hoping this item/product/service will do for you? Is this your first purchase with us? How have you used this item/product/service in the past? What did you like or not like about the item/product/service?

As you role play, the answers will carry the direction. You might learn the “customer” is with a competitor. Or the service or product is entirely new. You’ll have to help the customer feel comfortable doing business with you by explaining how you operate. Show them you’re willing to work with them. Be excited about the product yourself. Make sure you use it. Your enthusiasm will appear in your voice and facial expressions and positively influence your customer.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to train people to use values they may never have learned. But if they don’t have those values to begin with, why are you hiring them?