In my youth I was told many times that one day I would be a great salesman because I had the “gift of gab.” This became a real problem for me until it finally sank in that the most successful sales professionals I knew actually listened more than they talked.
The legendary Ben Feldman, the first insurance salesman to pass the goal of $25 million in one year, when asked his secret to success would always reply: “Work hard. Think big. Listen well.”
Every major study done in the past 20 years confirm that salespeople need to talk less and listen more. The research shows that sales careers depend upon improved listening. When we listen, we show the customer that we are truly interested in his or her needs. If we listen well, we will understand those needs and we get the solution right the first time. A good listener will beat a fast talker every time.
Unfortunately we are poorly trained in the skills of listening. In fact, the first sales training many of us got was learning how to give a scripted “presentation” or pitch. This type of training left little or no room for listening at all and generally lead to customer alienation. Typically, the type of orders one would get might be, “Get out and stay out.” Today there is even less tolerance for this type of approach.
Poor listening is more than just socially unacceptable, it is career inhibiting. The real sales professional must learn to listen well if her or she is to expect any type of success in the marketplace of the 90’s. It would be wise to remember that while many have talked themselves out of a sale, few have listened themselves out of a sale.
Here are some listening principles you can take to the bank:
1. Prepare to listen.
The customer holds all of the information we will need to know if we are to answer his needs. We must understand that, we can’t learn anything new while we are talking. If you are to discover anything about the prospect you must be prepared mentally to be open to the customer’s comments. Since all customers see their needs as unique, it is absolutely critical that we sell him the way he is comfortable buying instead of trying to sell him the way we are comfortable selling.
2. Develop questions that stimulate listening.
You and I must develop a list of “open-ended” questions that will get the prospect talking and us listening. “Open-ended” questions are those questions that stimulate conversations beyond one or two word responses like “yes” or “no.” Generally an “open-ended” question will start with words like “what,” “tell me about,” “how,” “why,” etc. Questions like “What do you like about your present vendor?” or “Why is that important to you?” will get the prospect giving you valuable information if you are listening.
3. Look for opportunities to listen.
There are a lot of salespeople around who think when the customer isn’t talking, then they should be. Many times however the prospect may pause to think of a particular point, when that thought gets interrupted by a salesperson. Look for ways to encourage the prospect to talk. Try phrases like: “Go on.” “Tell me more.” “I see.” “Then what happens.” These conversation extenders will show the prospect that you are listening and will give them the opportunity to talk about their needs in more depth.
4. Practice the art of listening.
Like any skill you want to improve, you will need to practice listening and paying attention to the prospect. We recommend that you consciously practice in conversations outside of the selling situation. Find a selling partner, a sales associate who wants to increase his or her selling skills and work on techniques over lunch or early breakfast meetings. Try to keep conversations going by asking open ended questions which lead the other person to do 80% of the talking. (The most natural place to practice is with your family. They will love you for it.) Within a couple of days you will be comfortable enough with this new habit you will want to do it with all of your prospects and customers. They will love it too.
5. Concentrate on the prospect.
Many of us say that we can’t remember names, when in fact we just don’t pay attention to people. If you will concentrate on listening, you will do a much better job of remembering names. Most selling amateurs are so busy concentrating on what they are going to say next, it’s amazing they hear anything. These salespeople want to impress a prospect immediately with either themselves or some benefit of whatever they sell. They tell me that the logic of this approach is that they will only have a few minutes with the prospect and want to make an immediate impact. I explain that the prospect is more interested in how much you care about them and their needs than how much you know. If you want to impress a prospect, listen to them and show them that you are more interested in opening a business relationship than “closing a deal.”
6. Give them feedback.
Concentrate on listening with your mind and body as well as your ears. Be an active listener. Make eye contact and show them with your facial expressions and physical manner that you are listening. When you do this, your whole body language will reassure prospects that you are interested in their needs and concerns. The prospect may easily interpret passive listening as indifference. The more feedback they see, the more information they will share with us, better equipping us to find solutions to their situation.
7. Block out distractions
I remember meeting a prospect at a hotel swimming pool one time. After getting the business he told me that I was the only person he talked to who paid more attention to him than to the women at the pool. I confessed that I wasn’t sure which lady might be his spouse, so I didn’t dare let my mind wonder. A client of mine has a very plush office with a breathtaking view of a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains. It is where he works every day and now, after several years, he takes it for granted. Visitors, however are constantly distracted by the view. He figures it costs him over a hundred hours a year, just trying to keep people on track. Wherever you are meeting the prospect, you can’t afford to let yourself become distracted and waste everyone’s time and your attention.
8. Focus on feelings and ideas as much as facts
We need to get factual information like sizes, quantity power requirements etc. but we also need to understand the “why” behind all of the facts. Listening for “feelings” means that we are interested in the intent of the speakers comments as much as the words. If a prospect says something like, “I think we need to replace our existing system,” many sales people will jump in with a series of features and benefits. On the other hand, a real pro will ask the prospect to explain, “Why do you feel that way?” or “What would you like to accomplish with a new system?” We need to encourage people to talk about their feelings and ideas and when we do, they will appreciate our concern and help us sell to them.
9. Practice listening with empathy
Most people will not reorder from a company the salespeople are indifferent towards their needs. While you may not be indifferent to the needs of your customers, if they think you are, the results will be the same. You and I have to establish empathy or an understanding of our prospect’s feelings. Always try to discover something new about your clients and prospects. As you listen to them, try to put yourself in the same situation that they are describing. Once you practice listening with empathy you will begin to see how shallow your listening habits in the past have been.
10. Get confirmation that you heard and understood correctly.
You have probably been in situations where two people listen to the same conversation and each walks away with a different message. Make sure you understand what the prospect is saying by asking confirming questions, such as; “To insure that I understand your concerns let me review….” When you are able to do this, you will also reassure the prospect that you have listened well. Another benefit is that if you have missed the intent of his or her comments, they will correct you immediately, which can save you lots of time and lots of lost sales.
ABOUT RICK PHILLIPS
Rick Phillips, a veteran of two decades of sales and management, discovered several years ago that much of the training being offered in American business was at best inadequate or woefully misplaced. He established Phillips Sales and Staff Development in 1984 to offer integrity-based sales training… more