How important is listening as a skill for sales and support people? I would rate it as the #1 skill and an essential development area for salespeople to achieve their potential.
In our Selling in the Internet Age sales training courses, I ask individuals to rate their listening skills at the outset of the program. Typically salespeople rate their listening skill as above average. We then videotape a listening exercise to calibrate actual skill level. Having trained thousands of salespeople we have observed that most salespeople’s listening skills are average at the start of the program. Naturally the top performers stand out with highly developed skills, but for the core group, this is a priority area for development.
I rate my own listening skills as an area for development and I am aware of this problem as my wife reminds of it often, which is why I tuned into a recent McKinsey video excerpt of AMGEN’s CEO Kevin Sharer talking about his own epiphany when it came to listening and how he became a good listener.
Sharer’s epiphany came when IBM’s Chairman Sam Palmisano addressed his companies’ executive team. Someone asked him why his experience working in Japan was so important to his leadership development, and he said, “Because I learned to listen.” And I thought, “That’s pretty amazing.” He also said, “I learned to listen by having only one objective: comprehension. I was only trying to understand what the person was trying to convey to me. I wasn’t listening to critique or object or convince.”
Listening Filters and barriers to understanding.
Salespeople are desperate for clues, both verbal and non-verbal as to a prospective customers likely interest in order to qualify them in or out at each stage of the buying process.
Most salespeople do not listen for comprehension however, salespeople typically apply selective listening filters that limit our perception;
- We listen for objections,
- We listen for competitive bias,
- We listen to disqualify
- We listen for problems or pain
- We give the appearance of listening while we formulate what we are going to say next
- We listen for insight that will help us to differentiate….that is when we are not talking ourselves.
- We interrupt our listening because we want to share an insight so important that it can’t wait a few seconds to let the prospect finish what they are saying.
Changing Behavior and Learning to Listen
Kevin Sharer states “Most people under-appreciate the complexity of listening, the skills needed, and the value of doing it well. Everybody says you need to be a good listener, but in my experience it’s often more lip service than conviction.
Listening can be learned, but to change your behavior on any important dimension you’ve got to have deep self-awareness. You have to change, and you have to want to change — and you can’t fake it. That’s what my epiphany was about.
I started thinking: I’d better change my style. I was maybe 90 percent tell, 10 percent listen, and I knew I’d better try to move closer to 50–50 and force myself to be more patient.”
A call to action
I know what I am going to do to change the way I communicate….starting tomorrow. What are you going to do? Whatever you decide, it will take practice, honesty, patience and feedback from your peers and loved ones to make real progress.
Listening is a skill worth practicing and developing and I wish you all the best with it.
You can read the transcript of the interview on the McKinsey site here https://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/Why_Im_a_listener_Amgen_CEO_Kevin_Sharer_2956 You will have to register, but it’s free and the McKinsey quarterly is a treasure-trove of relevant insight for sales professionals and leaders.