In the world of sales and customer service, what people say and what they mean are not always the same thing. Unfortunately, many of us are listening impaired when it comes to getting to the heart of our customers’ messages.

“Maybe in six months.”

“I’m just looking.”

“I’m sure I can get it cheaper somewhere else.”

Sound familiar? Probably. Do you understand what people mean when they use these objections? On the surface, sure, but do you really get your customer’s or prospect’s intended meaning? Maybe. If you don’t, you could be losing business.

The good news is there’s hope. With some practice and a little bit of discipline, you can tune up your service ears and grow your relationships.

Slowing down and focusing on what others need versus what you can provide is the first step. The second is to listen for a few key phrases and appropriately respond. The following are some of the most common red flags to which you should pay attention.

1.When customers say “maybe,” they often mean “no.” “Maybe we’ll place an order in six months.” “Maybe” may mean never. When you hear that word, keep asking questions. Don’t wait six months and then act surprised when no order is forthcoming. You have your prospect’s attention now and a chance both to clear up some misconceptions and make a sale or, at a minimum, to understand what they are saying.

  • “I understand that you’re on the fence and committing now isn’t in your plan. Between now and the time when you might order, how will you get ABC done?”
  • “When you start our services six months from now, tell me a little about how it will help you or impact your home or business?”
  • “What other solutions have you considered to accomplish ABC?”

Any of those follow-up questions will give you insight into the other person’s needs and decision process. Notice, too, those questions aren’t “salesy.” Your follow-up questions — and you, for that matter — should show a genuine interest in your customer and his or her concerns. The better you understand people and what motivates them, the more likely you’ll be able to help if there is a fit or to get a straightforward answer if there isn’t. The point is, when you hear “maybe,” investigate.

2. In the same lane of the vagueness that “maybe” occupies is another phrase that communicates very little. You’ve heard it before and probably used it yourself, and that’s the word “fine.” “How is everything?” “Everything’s fine.”

Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. You can’t know unless you do a little more digging. People will often say “everything is fine” in lieu of “go away” or “totally horrible, but I don’t feel like engaging in conversation about it.”

If you find yourself getting a lot of “everything’s fine,” make subsequent inquiries. At the same time, try to determine if you’re setting yourself up to hear this unhelpful response.

By that, I mean if you ask something specific, you’ll learn more. “Which part of the meal was your favorite?” is hard to answer with “fine.” Instead, you’ll most likely discover what your customers liked and what they didn’t. “Which part of the meal did you like best? “I loved the salmon. The beans were a little spicy for me but still good.” Now that’s better, isn’t it? The takeaway to remember is “fine” doesn’t mean fabulous, fantastic or flawless. Respond to “fine” with a follow-up question.

3. When customers ask “why,” they are usually expressing displeasure of some sort. “Why is this so expensive? Why is this offered only in that region?”Too often, service and salespeople miss the real meaning behind these inquiries. “Why is this so expensive?” translates to “This costs too much.”

Listen for “why,” and respond with something better than “I don’t know” or “You’ll have to ask my manager.” Although your customers aren’t jumping up and down with steam coming out of their ears or carrying gigantic flags with the word “why” emblazoned across them, somewhere lurking behind the question are people who are on their way to being unhappy.

Imagine a busy traveler on a tight schedule in an unfamiliar city. He hasn’t seen his own bed in two weeks, few of his daily flights have followed their published schedules, and he’s missing another one of his kid’s ball games. It’s 11:30 at night and he’s just entered the door of his hotel where you work at the front desk. You exchange pleasantries, take his credit card and give him the Wi-Fi code. Just before you send him on his way, you explain that you will have a wonderful breakfast waiting for him the next day. He then reacts to you with a “why” question. “Why is breakfast only served between 6:00 and 10:00 in the morning?” At first you might be thinking, “Because that’s when people eat breakfast.” Fair enough, but the minute that three-letter word passes the traveler’s lips, your internal radar should pop up, and you brain should realize danger is in the air.

The traveler’s “why” is a complaint and one that, if handled correctly, can offer you an opportunity to shine. Let’s look at a few possible responses.

  • “Great question. We’ve found most of our guests prefer that window,” and one of the following:
    • “We do have to-go bags here at the desk. If those times don’t work for you, just see the person back here, and he or she will gladly give you breakfast for the road.”
    • “We have a mini-store with a few breakfast items you can purchase if those hours don’t work out. There’s also always fresh coffee and fruit in the lobby.”
    • “If those times don’t work for you, I have a list of restaurants that serve breakfast outside those hours. I would be happy to give you a copy.”

Any of those answers is better than, “I don’t know. My manager decides that, and he isn’t here.”

Whether you’re uncovering the details behind “Maybe” and “Fine” or recognizing that “Why” is often a complaint, better listening can help you build your relationships with people, improve your sales and enhance the service experience. Take the time to slow down, ask questions and get to the core of a customer’s message.