Listen.

Communication is one of life’s most crucial and fundamental skills, it goes beyond simply exchanging information. Communication is a two-way street; it’s not only making sure you are understood, it’s also in how you listen and understand the intent and emotions behind what’s being said to you. Focusing only on being understood and not understanding can create misunderstandings or confusion and even damage your relationships. Effective communication is the backbone of any personal or professional relationship, it helps you connect with others and improve teamwork, decision making, and problem solving.

We all know that communication is a fundamental skill, yet most of our formal communication training improves how we speak. Most trainings ignore the importance of listening skills.  We don’t teach all of the necessary communication skills in the sales trainings we deliver. We spend the majority of our communication training time covering product features and benefits, we review the competitive landscape, industry trends, and strategic partners. The focus in that time is on developing and honing our speaking skills and we ignore the listening aspect of communication. How we speak is very important, and this lack of listening training often leaves us unable to communicate with others as effectively as we’d like. However, developing more effective listening skills is necessary in order to succeed in business. Since selling is the most complex form of communication, listening is essential.

“Good listening is a crucial piece of the communication puzzle, but what determines what is actually considered good listening?”

In sales, communication is the essence of the role. And, I’ll make the case that listening is everything. Sales calls are the foundation of the industry and as a sales professional you will speak with hundreds of potential buyers each month. As you speak with customer and prospects, you become aware of the language they use to communicate their motivation to make a decision.

We are all attuned to language that signals reluctance, willingness, and commitment, and if you’re in sales you need to excel at listening to language. However, most sales people aren’t actually listening to what the customer or prospect is saying in order to identify reluctance, willingness or commitment. Why? They’re too busy using that time (the time when the customer is speaking) to think about what they are going to say next. This isn’t listening, this is planning.

When I was younger my dad used to tell me, “Son, you have two ears and one mouth.” He was trying to teach me what Jim Collins refers to in his book Good to Great: in any conversation our question to statement ratio should be 2:1. Good listening is a crucial piece of the communication puzzle, but what determines what is actually considered good listening?

Let’s start with what it’s not.

Good listening isn’t just creating space and time for the customer to speak.This is an essential part of communication, but just simply being quiet at the right times isn’t the same as actually listening to what your customers are saying. What typically happens while the customer is speaking is we are thinking and planning out what we want to say next. That’s not listening.

“When we actively listen to a customer, completely and attentively, then we are listening not only to the words, but also the feelings being conveyed.”

In the best-selling book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen Covey discusses how we must “seek first to understand, than to be understood”. Which builds on the statement that your question to answer ration should always be 2:1, if you are spending too much time talking you aren’t spending enough time understanding. To illustrate this point he lays out his five levels of listening:

  1. Ignoring
  2. Pretending
  3. Selective listening
  4. Attentive listening
  5. Empathetic listening

When I teach listening, I focus on Covey’s final two steps: Attentive listening and Empathetic listening. Once you learn how to deploy these listening skills, you develop an invaluable gift to your business.

This helps your customers to feel appreciated, which in turn will drive more sales. When we actively listen to a customer, completely and attentively, then we are listening not only to the words, but also the feelings being conveyed. It enables us to listen to the whole conversation, not just a part.

Good communication that’s focused on listening helps your customer interactions to stay on track, to continue considering and exploring what may be an uncomfortable reality of their business.

When we have conversations with our customers, we inevitably reach a point where we feel compelled to contribute, to share our insight. We may feel the need to affirm their feelings, or other times we want to challenge their opinions and push the conversation beyond it’s current limits. And while this is part of good communication, if we find ourselves doing this too much in the conversation, then we aren’t listening.

8 Common Responses that Signal You Aren’t Listening

Now that we know that active listening is a learned skill that requires more than just keeping quiet to hear what someone has to say, let’s look at eight common mistakes we make in sales calls that demonstrates we aren’t listening. In each of the scenarios below demonstrate one of Covey’s first three levels: ignoring, pretending, and selective listening.

Telling

Telling occurs when we give orders, direct the customer’s next response or issue a command. When we do this, we are ignoring what the customer is saying and pushing forward with our own agenda. This can result in a customer feelings misunderstood at best and steamrolled at worst.

CLIENT: I just don’t know if we need new chairs.

SALES PRO: You’ve got to sit in our new line of chairs. They are so much more comfortable.

Scaring

This tactic is employed to warn, caution, or threaten a prospective customer away from their current direction or choice. Choosing to scare a customer away from a competitor so that they will sign with you shows you are ignoring the reasons why they made the choice that they did.

CLIENT: We are really pleased with our current provider.

SALES PRO: Did you see the recent article about your provider’s lawsuit? I think they are in big trouble.

Consulting

Consulting is an important part of being a sales professional, but giving advice, making suggestions or providing solutions before the customer or prospects has asked for your opinion demonstrates selective listening. Save the consulting for when the customer seeks out your opinion in order to be better received.

CLIENT: One of our newest robots broke down yesterday during surgery.

SALES PRO: Have you called the manufacturer and asked for it to be replaced?

Tricking

We trick our customers or prospects when we persuade with unfounded logic, provide figures out of context, or simply make up success stories. Stating facts and figures that haven’t been scientifically validated that at best we are pretending to know more than we do and at worst we are outright lying to close the sale.

CLIENT: I’d love to see some white papers on the product.

SALES PRO: We are working on some material, but I can tell you 97% (bogus number) of customers see a 15% improvement.

Combating

Disagreeing, judging or outright criticizing a customer’s decision demonstrates combative behavior. This type of behavior ignores what the customer wants and shows that you don’t have their best interest in mind. Never argue with the decision maker.

CLIENT: I don’t know if the service is actually saving us money.

SALES PRO: Of course it is, look at last month’s production report.

Stroking

When we agree, approve or praise a customer we stroke their ego. There’s nothing wrong with doing this when it’s honest and genuine. However, if you say you agree and you don’t, you are misleading the customer and not truly listening to their point of view.

CLIENT: We decided to pass on the opportunity to upgrade our software this year, even though it might cost us processing speed.

SALES PRO: I agree. Waiting on the next upgrade is a better move.

Counseling

Counseling happens when you spend the bulk of your time reassuring, consoling and sympathizing with your customer. This showcases selective listening, as you don’t actually address the issue they raise.

CLIENT: It hasn’t been a good year for our division. Sales are down 30% compared to last year.

SALES PRO: Don’t worry. Most of my customers are experiencing decreased sales too. You’ll be fine.

Distracting

Distraction as a sales tactic is used to humour the customer, change the subject, or make leading statement to throw the customer off track. You ignore what they are saying or what they want, because you know best.

CLIENT: I noticed our spend on suture went up 58% this month. What’s that about?

SALES PRO: Yes, but your overall spend was down 3%, that’s the important part.

When we do this, what we are really saying is, “You don’t know what you’re doing. Just trust me, I’m the expert. ”

When we offer one of these eight types of responses, we derail or prevent our customer from reaching the correct resolution. We spend so much time thinking about how to make the sale that we don’t actually listening to what they are telling us. Additionally, our responses can have a way of distracting the customer from their train of thought and set the stage for an unbalanced dynamic. When we do this, what we are really saying is, “You don’t know what you’re doing. Just trust me, I’m the expert. ”

You may be wondering why not just ask the customer to clarify what they are trying to say or ask them what they mean. To a customer this can often feel like you’re pressuring them or challenging them on some level. This creates an uncomfortable situation and can cause the customer to shut down, effectively ending the conversation and potentially the entire relationship. Questioning customers in this manner can actually distance them from what they are feeling. We want to understand how the business situation is making them feel. People buy in part because of how what we’re offering makes them feel, not just because of what it does.

All of the previous responses show a self-centered, rather than a client-centered, approach to sales. Instead of exploring the situation and finding the best solution possible, now the customer must respond to what we’ve just offered. The client hasn’t truly been helped, instead they’re being directed to the resolution that best supports the sales professional’s interests. This isn’t to say that these eight types of responses should never be used in a sales conversation. It’s how you use them that makes all the difference.

Responses that Signal Empathetic Listening

When we listen to our customers, we are able to respond and restate what we just heard, in our own words, to ensure we understood what they were saying. These technique is referred to as a reflective statement, which demonstrates active listening. A well formed reflective statement is less likely to evoke defensiveness and more likely to encourage continued exploration. This technique not only creates better dialogue between the customer and the sales rep, it creates a stronger overall relationship.

Now let’s take a look at what the previous conversations would look like if you employed Covey’s last two steps, attentive and empathetic listening, instead of the first three steps. How would this change your customer interactions for the better and as a result drive more sales?

Telling

CLIENT: I just don’t know if we need new chairs.

SALES PRO: Your current chairs are meeting all of your needs.

The sales professional is now listening to the statement and affirming what the customer has stated instead of telling them they are wrong. While this may not lead to an immediate sale, it can create a relationship where when the customer is ready for new chairs, they knew where to go.

Scaring

CLIENT: We are really pleased with our current provider.

SALES PRO: It sounds like you are receiving excellent service from your current provider.

Instead of scaring or intimidating the customer, the sales professional shows that they respect the customer’s decision, even if it doesn’t lead to a sale.

Consulting

CLIENT: One of our newest robots broke down yesterday during surgery.

SALES PRO: A broken robot can create serious problem for a surgical procedure.

In this scenario the sales professional provides information for the customer without giving advice, making suggestions or providing solutions prematurely. Providing the necessary information can lead to the customer asking how to handle the situation, which means they are ready to listen to your advice.

Tricking

CLIENT: I’d love to see some white papers on the product.

SALES PRO: I expected research to be an important aspect of the selection process.

This time around the sales professional doesn’t make up facts or figures to trick the customer into making a decision before they’re ready. They confirms that they listened to what the customer was asking and assured them they’d get the information they were seeking.

Combating

CLIENT: I don’t know if the service is actually saving us money.

SALES PRO: You aren’t sure the service is living up to your expectations.

Using empathetic listening allows the sales professional to respond to the customers concerns in a productive manner, without getting combative with the customer and potentially losing the sale.

Stroking

CLIENT: We decided to pass on the opportunity to upgrade our software this year, even though it might cost us processing speed.

SALES PRO: Processing speed isn’t really an issue for your team.

This time the sales professional doesn’t simply blindly agree with the customer, potentially misleading them. Instead they listen to what the customer says and gives their honest opinion. This type of attentive listening builds trust in the relationship

Counseling

CLIENT: It hasn’t been a good year for our division. Sales are down 30% compared to last year.

SALES PRO: The division’s sales aren’t meeting expectations.

Instead of spending time reassuring, consoling and sympathizing with your customer, this interaction shows that you understand their concern. By not simply trying to placate them, you demonstrate empathetic listening.

Distracting

CLIENT: I noticed our spending on suture went up 58% this month.

SALES PRO: Correct. Suture spend was more this month.

By displaying attentive listening, the sales professional keeps the conversation focused on what the customer wants to discuss.

Putting it to Practice

Now that you’ve seen both sets of responses, you can see the difference in quality of response that occurs when attentive and empathetic listening is put into practice. Are you able to see the different ways a customer might respond to the different types of listening?

The above responses show just how important attentive and empathetic listening are towards building good sales communication. If you truly listen to your customers you will be able to address their needs, spoken and unspoken, create stronger relationships, and build your business faster than you would be able to otherwise.

You can put this to practice in your own business or with your own team by using the training worksheet that supports this article. The worksheet, when used alongside the above content, is great for an individual salesperson seeking to close more sales. Managers, consider using this article and worksheet as part of your next team call or meeting. Even better, add it to your sales training curriculum.