By far, the majority of the sales people I’ve worked with are top of the line, masters of their craft and knowledgeable about the customers and their businesses. Skill comes from study and practice of proven sales approaches and techniques, and knowledge comes from learning about and focusing on the customer and her customers, her products, operations, workforce, mission, and goals. The wise sales person listens to the client with one-pointed concentration.
There have been a few, though, who didn’t rise to that level. Studying them in contrast to their talented peers, I saw two things. First, they knew everything there was to know already. Second, they didn’t really listen. These folks invariably didn’t stay long on the job, moving elsewhere eventually or being shown the door.
“Let me tell you something about sales,” they say. “The customer wants only one thing – to make money. I tell him how to do that, and he pays me. It’s that simple.” I’ve actually heard variations of that from more than one person. “I don’t have to know how his printing press works. I just have to convince him that if he does business with me he will definitely profit, because we’re the leader.”
That behavior says the salesperson stopped learning some time ago. He’s satisfied and comfortable with what he has decided, and isn’t open to growth. It also brings to mind this quotation of uncertain attribution: “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.”
The chattering salesman is not necessarily a blockhead. It’s likely that he’s been on the job so long that he’s heard the same story countless times from customers, so he thinks he knows what they want to hear. Why not just cut to the chase and go right to the solution? Here’s why: No customer compares himself with others. He’s different, his story is different, his company is different from the others. So sit back and listen.
Listening requires both action and non-action. The first thing is to take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth. We can’t listen if we are jabbering. The person across the desk realizes, sooner or later, that she’s not being heard, that she’s getting a one-sided pitch. It’s the sales person’s job to find out the customer’s wants and needs, and that’s accomplished by listening intently. When that’s over we can tell our side of the story, tailoring it to what we’ve heard.
(Listening is different from hearing. Hearing is a sense that allows us to receive sound waves and translate them into sounds. Listening is paying attention to the sounds and interpreting them. Simply put, hearing is through the ears, and listening is through the mind.)
Second-guessing a customer is impossible. Let them talk. Ask questions when appropriate (no opinions) to go deeper into those needs and wants. To get and keep the company’s business, the listening continues at every visit. After all, things change. Always.
The inimitable Fred Rogers, of the eponymous children’s television show, had a simple, admirable way to get children to convey their thoughts and feelings to him. He would ask a question, and when the kid answered he would smile and say nothing. Invariably the child would open up and continue to talk without a vocal prompt. There’s a lesson there.
Alienation is the result of not listening. In sales, that means no thanks. If a sales person doesn’t listen well, the prospect probably wonders how the rest of the company performs. Customers are the ones who pay the bills. They’ll tell you if they value your service or product with their money. And they can always take it somewhere else.
Customer feedback is vital. It’s about both parties, client and vendor. Solicit the feedback and really listen. The customer will reveal positives and negatives about the vendor’s work, and the vendor will learn more about the customer and also how to address issues on his side of the contract.
Feedback is also critical because a customer might not express needs and wants distinctly. Analysis of data and follow-up can help sharpen the picture by approaching the client with clear answers to vague questions.
When a customer feels willing to talk to an attentive audience, he just might feel inclined to give his thoughts about the sales person’s competitors. This is a bonus to take back to the shop and work on with the team. Asking directly about the competition is fine. A comfortable client is probably willing to share.
On the subject of competitors, it’s important to note that if you don’t listen, customers will go somewhere else. A company that is genuinely focused on the customer and reacts immediately to a problem or a request is the company that will keep the business. Customers can be unpredictable, of course, but total customer focus is the high ground.
Everybody has an ego. When he knows he’s being listened to and understood, the customer feels good. When he sees the sales person take the extra steps to offer solutions to his problems, the positive experience grows. Commerce grows on both sides.
Listening anchors a business relationship. It builds trust. It lowers resistance, reduces tension in the room when the client knows she’s not going to be pushed and rushed into a purchase.
It’s not hard to understand the importance of listening. The real challenge is in knowing how to listen. “Given all the listening that we do, you would think we’d be good at it. In fact most of us are not, and research suggests that we only remember between 25 percent and 50 percent of what we hear. That means that when you talk to your boss, colleagues, customers, or spouse for 10 minutes, they pay attention to less than half of the conversation.
“Turn it around and it reveals that when you are receiving directions or being presented with information, you aren’t hearing the whole message either. You hope the important parts are captured in your 25-50 percent, but what if they’re not?”
Those pithy observations are published at Mindtools.com, which offers good tips on what it calls Active Listening. It distills the art of listening down to five recommended actions: pay attention, show that you’re listening, provide feedback, defer judgment, and respond appropriately.
Here’s what Mindtools has to say about paying attention: Give the speaker your undivided attention, and acknowledge the message. Recognize that non-verbal communication also “speaks” loudly.
- Look at the speaker directly.
- Put aside distracting thoughts.
- Don’t mentally prepare a rebuttal.
- Avoid being distracted by environmental factors. For example, side conversations.
- “Listen” to the speaker’s body language.
The author is president of Jack Kenny Media, a communications firm specializing in the packaging industry, and is the former editor of L&NW magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.