While most salespeople have come to agree that asking questions is a key skill, many still underestimate the contribution of good listening to achieving top performance. It is the forgotten twin in the proposition – ask, listen and then talk. For them, the first step is awareness. The second step is actually becoming more skilled.
So, let’s explore some best practices for that second step.
- Listen actively. It’s important not only to listen, but also to make sure the other person knows you’ve listened. Think back. Like most salespeople, you can probably imagine one of your customers thinking after the call, “I’m not sure that salesperson really understands the importance of what we were talking about,” or “I think she’s really smart, but I don’t think she quite understands our priorities.”
So, how does active listening work? Two key interactive techniques are testing understanding and summarizing. Testing understanding and summarizing involve paraphrasing what the customer has said to be sure you fully understand its meaning and significance. It is important to note that paraphrasing and parroting are not the same things. In practice the difference is enormous! Paraphrasing is helpful; parroting drives people crazy. Paraphrasing is concise and reflects only the essentials of what the customer said – it cuts through the noise. “So, from the perspective of your colleagues, the most important….” “Let’s see if I understand where you want to go with that….” “So, to summarize your priorities….”
By paraphrasing, salespeople ensure they have heard and understood, and it provides their customers an opportunity to hear back what they’ve said to make sure it’s really what they mean. Alternatively it provides customers a chance to change their mind if the narrative doesn’t sound like as good an idea upon hearing it a second time.
- Stay focused. Research studies in communication suggest that most of us can listen four to six times faster than we can talk. So what do we do with the extra time? There are at least two options.
First, we can let our mind wander and sort of tune in and out of the conversation. Everyone’s been in a conversation in which the other person has chosen this option. When you are the other half of that conversation this behavior is at best rude and annoying.
The second option takes more work, but it has a higher payoff. We can use the time to take notes and really evaluate what’s being said by asking yourselves questions such as: Is this consistent with other information I’ve gathered in the account? Do we have a track record in the area under discussion? What can I do in this case to deliver a little bit of value?
- Tune in to high-fidelity situations. Sometimes it’s necessary to turn up the listening volume. For example, if a current customer all of sudden starts saying or doing things that deviate from previous behavior, it pays to find out why. Often in such situations, there are issues lurking under the surface that are causing the behavior, and what you hear is merely a smokescreen. You need to get past the smokescreen.
Examples of other high- fidelity situations that require turning up the volume might include ones in which the customer contact is facing a new challenge, or the consequences of a mistake for the customer are particularly high, or perhaps you’re dealing with a situation or type of individual that is a substantial departure from your experience base.
Social scientists report that after listening to someone talk – immediately after you only remember 1⁄2 of what was said and after eight hours you only remember about 1⁄2 of that. So in a business conversation, a good idea is to follow the “100 Percent Rule” – take 100 percent of the responsibility for making sure the other person understands you and take 100 percent responsibility for understanding what the other person says.