The Art of Listening

Written by salesmd

February 25, 2021

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” — Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

I totally agree with Mr. Covey. Too often, hearing and listening are considered one and the same — and that can be a fatal mistake for a salesperson. Along with asking impactful questions, listening to answers is a critical skill that must be mastered to achieve the coveted role of being a problem-solver, the prelude to closing sales.

It should go without saying that beginning a dialogue with a pitch isn’t a recipe for success. How can you possibly know someone’s wants and needs without a little probing? When you have that information — which is easily obtained by listening — you’re able to tailor your approach in a way that makes people feel catered to, and when their wants and needs are met, they buy.

Here’s an instance that may resonate with you:

When I treat myself to a burger, the server always asks how I want it cooked, and I always answer, “medium rare.” She hears me but clearly doesn’t listen, since I usually receive an overcooked burger. After that happened a few times, I decided to take another approach; in addition to stating my preferred temperature, I said if the burger was overcooked, I’d send it back. I emphasized what was important to me and it registered with the server.

While you might see this example as trivial, it does illustrate the danger of failing to really listen to customers. While I continue to visit the restaurant — yeah, the burger is that good — my frustration led me to ensure I was communicating what was important to me. As a salesperson, your job is to ensure frustration never occurs by allowing customers to tell you what’s important to them — and really listen to their answers.

When You Fail to Listen

If you don’t take the time to learn what your customers want by asking them questions and carefully listening to their answers, you’ll fail in a number of areas.

  • You’ll be disrespecting them by not providing the opportunity for them to air their challenges and frustrations — so you can offer specific solutions.
  • It’ll be crystal clear that your focus is on your agenda — getting the sale — rather than their unique situation.
  • You’ll be pitching from your perspective of what’s important, not theirs — so you may be totally missing the mark.

Of course, the biggest impact of not listening is losing the sale, but it can go even deeper than that; you can actually damage your company’s brand. 

I’ve actually switched coffee shops because the one I used to visit never could get my order correct. I would say no foam on my latte — but it would always come to me with foam. Again, rather trivial, but you certainly don’t want customers choosing to do business with a competitor because you’re failing to listen to them.

The Value of Listening 

Learning what your customers want and need is just the start of the value of flexing your listening muscle. Let’s say you’re dealing with a number of players in the same organization, and have listened to discover the different perspectives of the marketing director, CIO, and CFO. You may be able to triangulate their responses and provide unique insight to senior management, something that supports your objective of being of service — as a lead up to making the sale.

During the sales process, listening has a number of benefits:

  • It’ll provide you with the next question to ask and give flow to the conversation. Instead of walking into a sales situation with a list of prepared questions, you’ll be better served when you ask questions that follow up on customers’ answers.
  • You’ll build credibility faster, because people really like to be listened to. They don’t like to be “sold to.”
  • You’ll be more likely to make a strong connection by learning what’s driving them — uncovering not just their needs (rational), but their wants (emotional) as well.

You’ve certainly heard it said that people do business with those they like. So, it should come as no surprise that customers are more likely to develop good relationships with salespeople who really listen to them and are thus regarded more like consultants than vendors.

A long time ago, a senior VP at Intel explained this approach in a way I’ve never forgotten. She told her sales team while it’s beneficial to get so close to customers that they believe you’re part of their team — you never want to cross the line, since you work for Intel. 

Improve Your Listening Skills

Becoming a better listener isn’t difficult, but like any new habit, you need to practice to make it second nature. Here are a few things to help sharpen your skills:

  • Prepare mentally for meetings by clearing your mind.
  • Be present in the moment. You’ve probably heard that before, for good reason. 
  • Remove distractions. This is especially important if you’re not face-to-face. Don’t be eyeing your email or doing anything else that pulls away your attention from the customer.
  • Focus on the customer. Honor them by giving this time to them. If you’re meeting in person, remember that listening doesn’t stop at your ears. Your body language as well as the tonality of your voice reflects how well you’re listening.
  • Really be interested — in them. Don’t focus on the deal at hand, but on what’s important to customers, their stresses, challenges and pressures.

Also, as meetings progress, take stock mentally of who’s doing all the talking. If it’s you — you’re not listening, so you’re missing out on the all richness I’ve mentioned so far.

One tool I’m happy to share with you is what I call “parrotphrasing.” Unlike paraphrasing, which allows your perceptions to creep in, repeating exactly what customers say to you — parroting them — can have huge benefits.

Let’s say a customer says something is absolutely critical. If you paraphrase and say you understand it’s extremely important — the customer may react negatively, feeling you haven’t really listened to him. Now if you parrotphrase, and say you understand it’s absolutely critical, the customer will feel much better — you understand! — because you’ve used his exact words.

Now get out there and listen!

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