Salespeople continually ask me what the one single most important skill is to master to have a successful sales career. My answer is simple: Listening.
"If speaking is silver, then listening is gold." -- Turkish proverb
A good salesperson is a good listener. A great salesperson is a great listener. However, before exploring how to become a better listener, I suggest you first evaluate yourself as a listener by asking yourself how often you do the following:
- Stereotype the sender. If you have a low opinion of the sender, you tend to discount the value of her messages. On the other hand, if you have a high opinion of the sender, you tend to place greater value on the sender's messages than the messages deserve.
- Prematurely predict the message. If you have a habit of tuning out too soon, you may interrupt and finish the speaker's message for him. This negates the speaker's right to express himself fully.
- Overreact to key words or phrases. You often respond to information emotionally, reacting to loaded words and missing the message intended.
- Think mostly of what you want to say. You inadvertently block out the prospect's viewpoint, making it tough to absorb the information because you're focussing on your rebuttal.
- Jump to conclusions. You tend to be judgmental, often offering solutions before all the information is known.
It's key to regularly remind yourself of an important rule in communication: Most people prefer talking to listening. Yet many salespeople mistakenly believe that listening consists of simply sitting and waiting for the other person to stop talking. In other words, they think that as long as they are not talking themselves, they are implicitly listening -- regardless if they're even paying attention.
But we all know the difference between passive and active listening. We feel good when people prove that they're paying attention, and we feel dismissed when it's obvious that the other person is off in their own world. The fact is that listening is a real art, and it requires action on your part. You can do this either passively or actively.
In passive listening, you demonstrate to your customer that you are awake and interested by:
Nodding your head. Saying "yes" or "uh huh." Showing appropriate facial expressions. Asking a question now and then. Making a simple remark such as: "Wow!" "That's great!" "Tell me more."
"Opportunities are often missed because we are broadcasting when we should be listening." -- author unknown
The problem with passive listening is that you can do it without really paying attention. Your prospect knows this. So passive listening is never as good as active listening.
"Gee, you must have been really mad when that happened." A comment like this proves that you not only heard what the other person said, but also understood the meaning and the emotion behind their words.
The key to active listening is to "mirror back" what your customer said in a slightly modified format, whenever possible including a feeling statement. If your comment is accurate, your customer's face will inevitably light up in surprise. That's because they feel "heard," possibly for the first time in quite a while.
Following are many active listening sentence starters.
"If I'm right, what I hear you saying ... " "I'll bet you felt really ... when ... " "As I understand it, you're feeling ... " "You must have been surprised ... "
Active listening is usually the best way to deepen rapport and move a conversation along. But sometimes you may need to merely acknowledge what your customer is saying, without delving deeper into the issue. In this case, try a nonreaction. Remember these?
I see. I understand. I can appreciate that. That makes a lot of sense. If I were in your shoes, I'd probably feel the same way.
After you use a nonreaction, the conversational ball is back in the customer's court -- which is right where you want it to be most of the time.
And although obvious, it's important to remember that good listeners don't:
Look at their watch or the clock. Interrupt in the middle of a sentence or thought. Maintain an expressionless face. Ask a question about something the customer has already covered. Sit still in silence. Change the subject abruptly. Insist that the customer stick to a rigid set of predetermined topics.
Once you become good at active listening, you can use it practically any time. In fact, it is invaluable in virtually every phase of the sales cycle, from Approach and Qualification right through to Cementing the Sale. You'll find that customers magically "open up" to you after just a few moments of active listening -- because it's so unusual to find someone who hears (and cares about) what we say.
You can also use active listening in your personal life. People of all ages, including very young children, respond instantly to active listening. Your circle of friends will rapidly increase. The only problem may be that you become frustrated, wanting others to learn the skill so that somebody will actively listen to YOU!
"It is the province of knowledge to speak. And it is the privilege of wisdom to listen." -- Oliver Wendell Holmes
Good listening skills not only allow you to collect valuable information necessary to qualify a prospect and answer their needs, but also demonstrates your sensitivity and understanding. These skills prove that you can focus on the prospect, rather than on yourself, allowing your prospect to lower their defenses, giving you the honor of their trust. And it's their trust that makes listening the most important skill in selling.
Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.