Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Skill of Listening

Sales people know stuff, lots of stuff. They want their clients to know that they know this stuff, so they tend to talk about the stuff they know. They are experts in their field and believe that if the client knows how much stuff they know, the client will have no choice but to trust their advice and buy from them.

Here’s the issue I have with this overly simple idea. The stuff that is important to the customer is usually unknown to the sales person because they are spending all of their time talking about the stuff that they know. Ironic isn’t it.

I am a firm advocate that the most powerful sales technique a sales person can employ is listening, and the best tools for this is their ears. I have also witnessed many sales calls where the sales person has talked themselves out of a deal.

Multitasking is all the rage these days. We all do it from time to time. I admit that I have sat through conference call or two while clearing out emails. Inside sales people are excellent at adding notes in to a CRM tool while actually on a call with a client. I hope most of us can walk and chew gum at the same time. Regardless of the above it is impossible to talk and listen simultaneously.

I remember attending a sales training event many years ago that opened with a questionnaire containing 20 questions. At the top of the page were instructions to read the ENTIRE questionnaire before answering any of the questions. The last question asked us all to answer only questions 2 and 10 – most of us had already answered questions 1 through 19! The purpose of the exercise was to highlight a (possible?) misconception that sales people don’t read.

This is nowhere near as frightening as the possibility that sales people don’t listen. Not wanting to paint all sales people with the same brush, I know there are some very successful people that do a great job listening to their clients. I also know there are a large percentage of sales people that would be just as successful if they listened more. Here are some tips to help you be a better listener:

If you are explaining something and your client starts to ask a question, stop talking IMMEDIATELY and listen.

Chances are that what is about to come out of your customer’s mouth is pretty important, and could help you close the deal. They may even be about to say “I’ll take it!” but as the expert that knows stuff you keep talking about this stuff and say something that causes them to question something else.

Do not finish any sentence or question on behalf of your client.

This is never a good idea in any relationship, especially a business relationship. What you are actually saying to the customer is that you don’t care enough about them to hear them out. What you know about stuff is more important than anything they may know about stuff.  You may finish their sentence correctly but you also may not. Then you miss the opportunity to really learn about their interest in or concern with your offering. Do not assume you know what your customer is thinking.

If your customer asks you something that you do not know the answer to, admit it. Commit to finding the answer by a specific deadline and keep the commitment.

Many times I have seen a sales person answer a question with a bold assumptive answer to a question that they do not know the answer to. Their first assumption is that if the customer wants to know this I should probably know the answer. The second assumption is that if I do not know the answer then I will lose some credibility with the customer.

Sales people, while very knowledgeable, are not expected to know the answers to every question. That is why there are sales managers, product specialists and program managers in many industries. It will add to your credibility when you admit that you do not know the answer and that you have a resource that you will contact and get the answer on their behalf.

Do not, under any circumstance, answer your own question.

If you are going to answer it, why did you even ask it? One of the most uncomfortable situations on any sales call is silence; it is also an incredibly strong tool in its own right. If you ask a question, let the client answer. No hints for them either. If they didn’t understand the question they will eventually admit it, if they have other questions they will ask.

When you let them off the hook by breaking the silence you don’t get to listen to the silence. You don’t get to eventually hear what is on the client’s mind; you lose the advantage of knowing even more stuff, Stuff about the client, their interest and concerns. Not knowing stuff like this is much worse than not knowing stuff about your product.

As we start a new week, month and quarter remember that we all have two ears and only one mouth. We should all listen more and talk less. We will learn more, sell more and earn more.

Happy selling!