This series of articles contains fundamental selling skill "How To's:" How to listen better, create better rapport and trust, ask questions better, manage customer resistance and uncertainty better, give better presentations, be a better creative problem-solver for your customers. Each article includes simple action steps you can take right now to develop into a more successful salesperson - and sell "easier."
Turn sales training into improved sales performance.
Becoming a great listener starts with the recognition that all of us are flawed listeners. We're born that way. We get worse as we get older and accumulate more experience that we turn into assumptions and filters through which we distort what we see and hear.
So start with a basic assumption: "I don't understand you - especially the first time you say something." That's especially true when we get angry or frustrated. The second key is to be resolute in asking for clarification, to find out what people mean by what they say. The third key is recognizing that most of what people communicate comes across in tone of voice and non-verbal communication.
Spend the next week concentrating on slowing communication down and taking time to really listen.
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BECOMING A SUPERSTAR SALES LISTENER
When I run sales seminars, I'll typically ask participants to identify what they, as customers, want from people who sell to them. On average, the No. 1 quality they seek in a salesperson is: "I want the salesperson to listen to me - really listen, not just fake it." Then I'll have participants discuss and report back on why it's hard to be a good sales listener - even though that's exactly what customers and clients most want from them. The answers tend to be the same here, too.
Selling is stressful; salespeople have an agenda which usually doesn't agree with the customer's agenda. It's hard to listen when what you really want is to make the sale or get the order.
But there's an even more fundamental reason than that. I'll ask participants to share how many years of training they've had in the skills of reading and writing. Typical immediate answer: twelve years (except for the guy who answered "fourteen" - "I had to repeat 5th grade three times.") Then I'll ask about public speaking. It's a much smaller number, but many people have taken public speaking courses or are attending groups like Toastmasters. Then I ask how many have received formal training in the art and skills of listening. Few hands ever go up. Listening is a skill (and listening well is an art). In all human communication, with family, friends, colleagues and customers, it's the foundation on which all other communication depends. And most of us are utterly untrained in how to listen effectively (and keep ourselves from being bad listeners).
Understand the process - what happens inside the mind when we "listen." Most people I talk with don't realize that the mind acts as a filter, subconsciously separating out, evaluating, changing ("interpreting") and then filing or discarding the "messages" that come in through all our senses - not just our hearing. The subconscious filters evaluate: "Does this idea interest me?" "Do I need to care about this?" "Is this a priority?" Lots of messages, therefore, never make it through the filters into the working, remembering part of the mind (like "Honey, don't forget to…"). We say, "sure," but the subconscious mind (which is really running things) says "delete."
An even more powerful set of filters is deciding "Do I believe and trust this message " - based on my subconscious goals, values and assumptions about what is "right" or "wrong," "safe" or "dangerous," "good" or "bad." Again, we may not consciously say, "I disagree." Customers, in fact, may verbalize things like "I agree." "OK, I'll do it." "We'll award you the bid."
Most of what we do every minute of every day is unconscious. Most of our decisions, actions, emotions and behavior depends on the 95% of brain activity that goes beyond our conscious awareness.
Paul Whelan, University of Wisconsin, in "Mysteries of the Mind," U.S. News and World Report, February 28, 2005
Notice what happens, then, when in the sales process, we try to sell the customer on our ideas, change the customer's mind about problems or solutions, or "overcome" the customer's objections. Unless, at some level, our ideas merge with the customer's, the harder we push on the surface, the harder the customer may push back below the surface. The more irrefutable evidence we present proving our position is "right," the more the customer's subconscious mind may dig in and say "No. This is wrong!"Superstar Sales Listening starts with the willingness, skill and patience to understand how the customer thinks - not just what the customer says. That willingness depends on our intention in the sales call. Are we there to discover if there's a powerful fit between what the customer really needs and what we can offer? Or are we there only to get what we want - or just as bad, give customers what they think they want but may not need? Superstar Sales Listening turns selling into not a war of words or battle of wits, but a meeting of minds.
HOW TO DO IT
Clear your own mind, first. Selling is like competitive athletics. You can't return the serve your opponent is hitting at you if you're still upset about the last point or worrying about the next. As a part of your daily discipline, employ the tactics of Emotional Intelligent self-awareness and self-management. Practice relaxation, meditation, or whatever calming, settling activity works for you (take a course if you don't know how).
Clean your own emotional filters. If you're feeling tense, threatened or have a driving sense of urgency, chances are that emotion is being triggered by fears in your subconscious mind. Practice the discipline of identifying, and then getting control over your fears.
Assume you aren't the one hearing it right. When you sense misunderstanding or miscommunication, assume responsibility and ask the customer to help. "I think I'm missing your point, could you help me out?" "I think I'm off base here. What am I missing?" "I'm feeling something's not going right here, what do you think is going on?"
Continuously let the customer know you're listening and actually hearing what the customer is saying. Every 1-2 minutes, acknowledge, affirm, agree with or summarize what the customer is saying. "I agree." "Good point." "Great idea" "That must make you very proud." "So you're saying that…." "Let me check to make sure I'm getting this…."
Listen for what the customer isn't saying - but may be feeling. Instead of jumping to conclusions, share them with the customer and ask for clarification. "I'm wondering if…?" "I'm getting the feeling that…?" Remember that it's the customer's beliefs you're exploring. Do so respectfully. "I may be way off base here, but…."
Help customers listen to themselves - by exploring their own thinking with them. Since at the end of the day, the customer decides whether or not to buy, their decision-making process is the one that matters. Practice and develop skill in using questions that help customers make better decisions. "What are you doing about this now?" "How's that working for you?" "What choices do you see available to you?" "What options do you have?" "What's keeping you from acting on that?" "If you did that, what do you suppose would be the result?" "What would happen if you…?" "Under what conditions might it be OK to…?"
Want to become a Superstar Sales Listener? Help your customers become Superstar Listeners themselves!Resources:
Sharon Drew Morgen wrote the book (actually several of them) on effective sales questioning strategies. You can find her work at www.buyingfacilitation.com. Her books are essential sales reading.
Some readers think Robert Cialdini's ideas are better than his writing, but he's a solid source on understanding how influence and listening work together (Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion). Kevin Hogan and James Speakman explore the dark side of listening and influence. Read and use with care - you may become brilliant at the techniques of covert persuasion - but most customer's subconscious threat detectors still work hard to protect them against salespeople who are trying to use them. (Covert Persuasion: Psychological Tactics and Tricks to Win the Game.)
Men and women do, in fact, listen differently. To take your listening to the next level, read Deborah Tannen's Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work. To understand how the subconscious mind works, Daniel Goleman's writing on emotional intelligence is as good a place as any to go. He makes good sense on how the mind works and how to train the mind to listen more effectively.