Every customer has a story to tell, but the most important story a customer tells is the one that remains unspoken. If you want to grow your business and cement its reputation at the top of your industry, make sure your sales and customer-service teams know how to hear the story the customer isn't telling.

Consider the unspoken messages behind the following sales calls.

1. The customer says, "I'm really busy right now." The customer may be busy, but chances are good that this is his simple way of putting off a conversation he is not yet ready to have. The backstory the customer is really expressing is "I have not decided whether or not I want to buy your product" or "I don't have money right now" or "I really need to get a purchase done, but I am overwhelmed by other things happening in my world currently.

A great salesperson picks up on this underlying context and can ask questions to further identify the source of the hesitation. Is it an information issue, a budget issue, or an organizational problem? Taking a minute to ask a few quick questions is not a nuisance, even to a customer pressed for time.

An extra 30 seconds in the moment eliminates the need for further pestering, takes the pressure to invent excuses off the customer, and helps to establish the go-forward plan. A salesperson who is able to hear this subtext can offer to provide better product knowledge, better explain product value, or identify a time when the customer will be ready to commit to the purchase--all of which lead to either closing a sale, or understanding that the customer and the product are not the right fit.

2. The customer says, "You messed up my order." A customer experiencing a problem is usually angry, and his anger either grows in proportion to his fear that the customer service representative will not solve his problem, or subsides as he feels he's being helped. But it is important to keep in mind that he is rarely upset just by the problem itself; his problem is also the trigger for a story that is taking shape in his mind as he dials your company.

This story is one he does not give voice to--but it goes something like this: "I just know this company is not going to send me a replacement" or "I'm sure I just got ripped off" or "I feel so foolish for ever buying from this company in the first place."

A great customer service rep can put an end to this back story, first by making sure the customer feels heard, and then by clearly explaining resolution options or by insuring the customer has all the information he needs to understand what happened and how. Even the most difficult situations can result in increased customer loyalty when handled by a rep who accurately hears the customer's unspoken concern, rather than just focusing on the vocalized complaint.

3. The customer says nothing at all. The most valuable dialogue your staff can miss out on with a customer is the one that never happens at all. Most customers, if they decide to purchase from a competitor, don't contact you to let you know that they have decided to use someone else. They simply stop calling your company.

Your team--from the accounting department to the business development team--should know that no news is really not good news. They should be in touch with both prospective and existing customers on a regular basis, asking questions about what your company is doing right, and most importantly, what it could do better.

Most customers will not spontaneously tell you when they are unhappy. They imagine that their comments will not be heard anyway or assume it is not worth their time or energy. However, customers will give you feedback when asked--and moreover, they will appreciate the fact that your company cared enough to seek their suggestions or consider their criticism. 

Listening is the most important activity your company can engage in. But listening for the unspoken is an art that most people have to cultivate. Train your team to hear between the lines and build better customer relationships and a stronger company in the process.