A Greek philosopher once said that God gave us two ears and one mouth so that we may listen more and talk less. Stephen R. Covey also identified in his famous book The Seven Habits of Successful People that one of the seven habits is “to seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
While these observations can be useful for helping us in many aspects of everyday life, they are particularly relevant for successful sales people. This is because ‘active listening’ is a critical selling skill that quite simply separates the good sales people from the rest.
The importance of listening…
Listening is a great skill to have because it provides buyers with an opportunity to open up about their problems and needs. This gives the seller something to solve and, hence, sell to.
Specifically, active listening encourages the prospect to provide you with useful information about the challenges facing themselves and their company. In turn, it gives you an opportunity to gain a better understanding of their company’s’ needs and desires.
Through active listening and gaining a greater understanding of the client’s issues, you will thus be in a far better position to align your solutions with their strategic needs and desires. Moreover, the client won’t even feel like you’re selling to them. Rather, they’ll feel as though they have struck a working partnership with you that will lead to mutual benefits for both parties.
Listening is in short supply
Having worked with thousands of sales people as both a sales director and a sales coach, it is apparent that most sales people talk far too much during conversations with buyers. They tend to live on adrenaline and administer the “drug of desire” (for the win) or “fight for survival” (to avoid failure) at the point of sale. This usually results in the sales person ‘telling’ rather than actively listening to their customers’ issues and, hence, selling rather than consulting.
Active listening requires an inner calm and professional poise. However, for most adrenaline-driven sales people, awareness, calm and listening are in short supply. The more a sales person talks at the client, the less of an opportunity they will have to uncover the client’s crucial needs and desires that will drive the sale. In addition, the buyer will feel that you’re only interested in making the sale, rather than understanding their issues and letting them vent. This is a serious turn-off for buyers because, not only do they love talking about themselves, but they are only likely to buy if they feel that you understand their pain.
But what can you do to become a better listener and improve your customer relationships?
Getting the customer to open up
A great way of developing your listening skills is to practice following a sequence or process. This can be done by ‘funneling’ from open questions, through to probing (semi-open) questions to closed questions at every stage of the discussion.
By following this process you will encourage the customer to get talking and open up about the issues facing their business. It will allow you to be silent while the customer provides you with crucial information (including their pain points and buying signals) that can later be used to make the sale. Furthermore, it will encourage the buyer to perceive you as a trusted adviser rather than somebody who only cares about making a quick sale.
Consultative role plays
Another great way of developing your listening skills is to engage in consultative role plays with colleagues. By practising how to ask open and probing questions and actively listen, role plays can provide a great medium for giving one another individual feedback. This should help you to gain a greater understanding of you’re own listening strengths and weaknesses.
If you’re a sales manager and you want to encourage your people to engage in active listening, the promotion of coaching role plays within the team is a crucial element in preparing sales people for real life situations with buyers.
Written by: Steve Eungblut, Managing Director of Sterling Chase