Think Like Your Customers Or Lose Sales

Changing the sales narrative

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking like a customer. If you do, you’re done! This warning has been pounded into the heads of life insurance agents from day one —and it will follow them until their last day on the job. Thinking like customers is a noxious notion that leads down a dark and dismal path to serious trouble—lost sales.

If agents dare let themselves think like a customer, they will be distracted from their mission, become soft, overly sympathetic, and even find themselves “walking in a customer’s shoes.”

Yet, those who make a success of selling life insurance work hard at sharpening their understanding of what customers are thinking. It takes effort and skill to get inside someone’s head and it starts with asking questions:

  • What’s important to them?
  • What are they looking for?
  • How motivated are they?
  • Are they focused or unsure of themselves?
  • What are they trying to tell me?
  • Do they expect too much?
  • Will they be fair?
  • What are they not telling me?
  • Are they worried about being taken for a ride?
  • How concerned are they with making a mistake or getting stuck with a decision they will come to regret?

Accurate answers to these questions help create a clear picture of what’s going on in someone’s head—and that changes the sales narrative.

Instead of thinking about how to get customers to do what you want, your questions tell an important story. It lets them know you’re on their side and your mission is to help them meet a need, get to their goal or fulfill their dreams. When this happens, you will have overcome their wariness and doubts. You will have earned what you need to make the sale: Their trust.

It only happens when you do the opposite of what so many life insurance salespeople have been told to avoid—thinking like a customer.

What is it that the customer is trying to say? Some people—no, many people—have trouble expressing themselves clearly, either unwittingly or at times on purpose. People often want others to think well of them, so they answer questions in ways that they hope will impress you. They may let it be known, for example, that they can afford a purchase that’s far beyond their financial means. On and on it goes.

We all use shortcuts for coming up with assumptions so we can get the job done as quickly as possible. In sales this leads to believing we know more about how customers think than we do. Without even realizing it, opinions become facts and certainty supersedes questioning, doubt, and curiosity, the essential tools for understanding customers’ thoughts and behavior.

And at what cost? Lost sales.

Four common sense rules for understanding customers
Here are four basic rules to help zero in on gaining a better understanding of how customers think. And that means more life insurance sales.

Rule #1. Never assume you know what a customer is thinking.

This is the place to start. Believing we can know what someone is thinking is useful–it gives us the feeling of being in control, even though the deck is stacked against such a belief.

The neurologist Robert A. Burton, MD, writes, “We make up stories about our spouses, our kids, our leaders, and our enemies. Inspiring narratives get us through dark nights and tough times, but we’ll always make better predictions guided by the impersonal analysis of big data than by the erroneous belief that we can read another’s mind.”

Rule #2. Avoid thinking about what you want to say or do next.
In other words, the human mind isn’t up to speed on multitasking. When we’re with a client and our mind is on our proposal or what we want to say next, we simply can’t concentrate on what a customer is saying.

Here’s the point. Nothing is more important than what a customer is telling you. If you don’t get it at that moment, it’s gone forever. Try as hard as you can, you can’t recall what you missed.

Rule #3. Make key word notes.
A similar problem occurs when you’re concentrating on what a client is saying so you don’t miss anything. You don’t want to be taking notes because it disrupts what the client is saying. Using a smartphone to record the meeting may not be appropriate, and often makes people uncomfortable and cautious.

So, how can you keep your attention on what you’re hearing and still recall back at your office? Keyword note taking can help. Instead of trying to jot down even four or five words at a time, let alone sentences, just one or two key words can aid recall.

Rule #4. Use “rewind reviews.”
Missing essential information, or getting it wrong, undermines an agent’s credibility—and the chances of making the sale.

An effective way to avoid such unnecessary mishaps is the “rewind review.” You might say to a client or prospect, “I want to be sure I understand what you’re telling me, so let me put it in my own words. Correct me if I get it wrong.” This not only will help get it right, but it sends the message that you’re a serious listener.

The battle for the control of a life insurance agent’s mind is relentless. “Don’t give in. Don’t let yourself think like a customer,” they say. “Always remember, it’s what you want to accomplish that counts.” Yet, at the same time, we are quick to tell our customers that we put them first. But how can those words ring true with customers unless we think like them? If we do, then just maybe life insurance sales will go up.

John Graham, of GrahamComm is a marketing and sales consultant specializing in the insurance industry. He writes a free monthly eBulletin, No Nonsense Marketing & Sales Ideas.

Graham can be reached via email at or