Listening is arguably one of the most important skills in life. And for sales reps, the ante is even higher. Understanding what prospective buyers are saying—and what they aren’t saying—makes or breaks a sales reps ability to solve problems.
But how good of listeners are we?
As it turns out, not that great.
We spend roughly 60% of our communication time listening but we retain just 25 percent of what we hear. A solid F-grade, we all generally fail this life test.
How can we listen better?
There are ways to develop your listening skills, but improving your listening is more of an art and focus on intent than it is a list of tactical motions. What’s most critical is to distinguish between becoming a better listener and simply following the motions of technique.
Listening better involves free-flowing conversation, and an environment to truly listen to what is said. Doing this well sets you up with the information you’ll need to be effective at motivating, persuading and selling.
5 steps to selling with better listening habits
Step 1: Determine your baseline.
What type of listener are you now? These types draw from John Jantch’s Duct Tape Selling – Think Like a Marketer Sell Like a Superstar.
Passive. AKA “barely listening”
You’re listening but might be emailing or otherwise multi-tasking. If you’re emailing, texting or tweeting… come on, are you really going to call this listening?
Selective. AKA “time traveling”
You’re participating but mostly thinking about what you plan to say next or your own agenda. You’re listening to enough pieces to get the gist of what is being said, but waiting for the other person to pause or stop so you can get out what you plan to say.
Active. AKA “paying attention”
You’re reacting to words. You are capable of repeating back to make sure person knows you heard them. You’re looking for some non-verbal cues. Let’s be clear, this isn’t a “technique” where you repeat back what’s said for the sake of it, you should really understand what was said. Dave Brock talks more about this distinction.
Perceptive. AKA “actually listening”
This is about hearing and interpreting what’s said, and being on the lookout for what isn’t said. This is the most effective category of listening. And it’s definitely your best approach to better understanding buyers who don’t communicate their needs well, don’t know how to communicate their needs (i.e. they don’t know what they need, but it’s your job to listen and help them solve a problem), or who don’t necessarily want to communicate their needs.
Step 2: Create a purposeful mindset.
- Be self-aware enough to know how good (or bad) of a listener you are compared to what you’re capable of.
- Be purposeful about creating a listening space and mindset. Are you guilty of multi-tasking? Try turning off your email alerts. Maybe you need a room without distractions. Is it quiet enough? Maybe no computer in the room at all and take notes the old fashioned way? Research shows we remember more and connect more deeply with content we write down versus type.
- Put yourself on hold for now. This is about them, not about you. Your goal is to focus on them and their perspectives, needs and problems.
Step 3: Tip the bucket.
This concept is about asking an open-ended question that prompts the person to get everything off their mind. This is an effective way to learn motivations, concerns and opinions. Don’t time travel and plan how you’ll react to each item (which is different from being prepared for objections). Take notes and plan your response once you have all the information.
Step 4: Take meaningful notes.
Take notes in a way that will help you remember the conversation points.
- Sketchnotes is a popular way to capture more than words with hand-written notes, and help you remember the key elements of your conversation.
- Recording calls can be quite valuable in the right circumstance. This will give you verbatim notes and free you from thinking about note taking while you’re listening.
- Don’t just listen to words. Take notes on emotions, mindset and reactions. Planning to track these elements will remind you to pay attention to them. Even noting smileys can help you focus on the interview and remember their mindset.
- Capture notes and data in the moment. Do not rely on your memory. Put notes in your CRM. The most important part of your next conversation is going to be remembering the previous one.
Step 5: Connect first, then sell.
Buyers are in control and we all know it. And unfortunately, buyers don’t typically think very highly of salespeople. Check out this HBR post covering the 7 reasons salespeople don’t close deals. Not shockingly, a lot have to do with listening (or lack thereof).
- Lack of trust or respect
- Need to better communicate with executives
- They can’t clearly explain how the solution will help
- Too-self centered
- They aren’t closing the way buyers prefer
- Failure to alleviate risk of purchase
- Failure to establish a connection
If you try to persuade before you listen, you’ll come off as out of touch, pushy and unhelpful. High performing enterprise reps come prepared to every listening opportunity with knowledge of industry challenges, how their solution helps and the ability to tackle concerns. But more importantly, top salespeople are listening deeply in order to make a meaningful connections, solve problems for their buyers and make a difference for the business their prospects are buying for.
- Evaluate yourself
- Be purposeful
- Tip the bucket
- Take excellent notes
- Connect before you sell
It’s amazing what we learn when we practice listening.
“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” – Bryant McGill