Effective Listening in Sales

Much of what has been written about effective listening in sales revolves around the practice of Active Listening. Although active listening is a valuable skill I don’t agree with some of the process when applied to selling. So, a lot of what follows centres around the process of active listening with some modifications.

Why Use Effective Listening in Sales?

What purpose does effective listening serve?

Salespeople who don’t listen effectively miss the opportunity to build rapport, uncover buyer needs, and let the prospect know they understand their world. By listening well you show respect which builds rapport. By paying attention you demonstrate that you value them and have empathy for their problems or desires.

Effective listening avoids miscommunication this saves time and frustration by being able to understand if there is a true “fit” between the solution offered and what the prospect really needs and the salesperson makes more sales in less time due to being able to quickly channel sales efforts to more qualified targets.

It’s also been uncovered that prospects offer fewer and softer objections if the emphasis has been on their need to solve a problem rather than the salesperson’s need to make a sale.

Too often, salespeople are waiting for their turn to talk or thinking about what to say next or they listen long enough to interrupt and correct the speakers ‘wrong’ perception. Or worse still launch into a standard sales pitch first and listen later – when it’s already too late. This sends the message that you think your prospect is just like everybody else.

If you are not listening effectively you’ll likely miss buying signals. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to kick a colleague under the desk to stop them talking themselves out of a sale. Presumably my colleagues were not noticing the buying signals because they were focusing on what they were going to say next.

Pitching first tries to pigeon-hole a prospect into a specific problem-solution or worse still “throws mud on the walls” with lots of features and benefits “to see what sticks”. It seems to them you want to make the sale as quickly as possible and move on to the next “conquest”

When you really listen you also hear what’s not being said and that leads to understand the other person much better. And that is precisely why great listening is the single most important skill for a top notch sales person.

Because in the end, successful sales numbers are the result of effective information gathering. Those who know more about their potential client win the deal.
Daniel Weiss

Selling is the most advanced form of communication. It requires the utilization of all our senses. Although you may feel that the greatest barriers to your selling performance may be attributed to having the wrong product, closing techniques, presentation tools, or even prospects, consider that the foundation of successful selling is based on how well you listen.” -

Keith Rosen - Sales Coach

What is Active Listening?

Rather than passively listening to the person talking (or not listening at all), an active listener:

  • Truly listens to the prospect paying close attention to the other person's choice of words, their voice qualities (speed, tone, loudness, inflexions) and their body language
  • Feeds back the content and feeling of the prospect’s words. - (I differ a little here to active listening and I’ll get into that further down the page)
  • Confirms they heard the prospect correctly and asks the prospect to correct anything that they did not clearly understand
  • Asks a relevant follow up question to further clarify their understanding of the prospect’s situation.

A prerequisite of effective listening is Comprehension. (especially in sales).
Making assumptions about what a prospect mean when they say someethin g can be a recipe for disaster.
So, Never Assume.

Going into any sales conversation, you must have a proficient knowledge of the prospect’s industry and the terminology used in that industry, the person’s position, and a little on their personal background. 
This pre-call work is even stressed in the SPIN Selling model. 
To quote "SPIN Selling" "…effective planning takes you more than half way to effective execution"

Knowing their industry well and some facts about them helps you to put yourself in their position and really empathise with their reality.
That's why when I was introducing a new product to the market I would always start with small customers first. That way, by the time I got to the big players in the market I knew the terminology and the problems the maufacturers were facing.

Which also helped me understand.
What stress are they under? 
What that might feel like?

How to Do Effective Listening

As I mentioned before many of these techniques are part of the active listening skillset. (but there are some exceptions)

Truly Listening Means:

Listening with the intent to understand

NOT with the intent of finding an opportunity to offer your product.
When you operate from that intent prospects can sense it, and they come to the conclusion that the rep simply wants to sell them something regardless of whether they need it or not.
BUT with the intent of understanding their situation and understanding them

Attending to the speaker without thinking about your own response
Listen with an open mind (without filters or judgment). Focus on what the client is saying (or trying to say) instead of being concerned with closing a sale. Otherwise, you run the risk of missing subtle nuances or inferences that could make or stall the sale.

NOT multitasking

Listening for what is not said. 
What is implied is often more important than what is spoken. If you sense incongruence between your clients words and tone or between their words and actions ask a question to explore the meaning behind the words and the message that you think the client is trying to communicate.

Listen with your eyes. Watch their body language.
Listen for what is missing.
Listen for concerns the client may have or what is important to them.
Listen for what they value.

Listening for the clients verbal modalities
Do they use mainly visual words or mainly feeling words or sounds.

Acknowledging that you are listening, understanding, and engaged with what they are saying.
Using words like: I understand, I see, I get it, Sounds fair
Using sounds of interest like: Oh, Hmmm, Ahh, uh-huh
Nodding and maintaining eye contact
Leaning in as you listen.
Raising your eyebrows is a non-verbal signal for someone to tell you more
Avoiding crossing your arms or legs in a defensive, “closed up” manner.

Never interrupting while the client is speaking. 
Not interjecting features and benefits of your product or service while the prospect is explaining their need. That might come later if you perceive a fit.
Not entering into a debate about a point they have made. 

Delaying your responses
Get in the habit of waiting a minimum of three to four seconds before responding. Even count to yourself to ensure that enough time has elapsed. This conscious pause will make the person feel heard and comfortable enough to talk more.
It also gives you enough time to respond thoughtfully and intelligently to your client’s specific needs. 

Taking notes. 
This tells the prospect that you want to get the details right.
It also helps with your Retention of what is discussed.

An interesting story ...
I was in a sales meeting with the Technical Director of my biggest customer.
I was taking some notes on our conversation and he asked ...
"I don't know why you bother to take notes. If I ask a question about something we discussed  3 years ago, you remember it?"
I thought for a while and replied,
"Maybe I remember because I write it down?"
Truth be told I was probably also reading through their files before I went to see them.

Asking questions to understand
When you hear something that could be interpreted multiple ways, or when I hear something that isn’t clear , you inquire to be sure that you’re really understanding their intent.
Alternatively, you can take a note to ask when they have stopped talking because FREQUENT interruptions should be avoided, .

You have two ears and one mouth, use them in that ratio

My first sales manager - Bob Willis

Feeding back what you just heard back to the prospect means:

Active Listening would suggest you paraphrase what your prospect says, feeding it back to them in your words. I think this is NOT the best way to feed back to your customer.

Personally I think at first you should feed back EXACTLY what your prospect has said. this is known as “Parrotphrasing”.
When you repeat exactly what they say, they can’t disagree with you.
So, you are starting out with agreement. A good first step.

Of, course you can’t just feed back their exact words throughout the conversation but in the first instance you want to create a connection. And here’s the thing, often words have a very distinct meaning to the person that speaks. Especially, general words and values words. 

I write about what so say in this article explaining how it relates to Needs v Wants 

Then you have to clarify the meaning of what they said especially if they have used words that are a Nominalisation …  
basically“a nominalisation is a word you can’t place in a wheelbarrow”
For example, your prospect may want, “excellent customer service” …
what exactly is “excellent customer service”? …
it can mean different things to different people

It can also be a good idea at this time to note the feelings they are experiencing.

Reflect back what it means back to the speaker is when the speaker will feel heard and understood at a deeper level. 

“Wow, it sounds like solving this production problem would take a huge load off and free you up for some of the other projects you’re hoping to get to.” 

If you can hear “tension” in their voice (or movements) you could say something like “you sound really tense when you talk about that?”

This shows that you can empathise with their feelings.

If you can’t be sure what they are feeling you can always ask,
“How does that make you feel?” or
“How do you feel about that?”

Confirm that you heard the prospect correctly and ask the prospect to correct anything that they did not clearly understand

“Have I got it?” or
“Does that sound right?” or
“Have I got the right perspective?”

or maybe

“Did I communicate that effectively?” or
“Do you believe I understand what you have shared with me?” 

If the prospect says “no” (unlikely if you parrot phrased them) you now have an opportunity to clarify your understanding by asking …

 “Could you clarify for me what I might have missed or got wrong?”

Don’t ask,
“Could you explain that better?”
or any other question that puts the blame on the prospect for not communicating effectively.

Ask a relevant follow up questions to deepen your understanding of the prospect’s situation.

You will likely need to gather more information to get a clear picture of where they are at and what the problem is and how it affects them. 

You can ask a clarifier like:
"For my own understanding what you are truly saying is …”
"To further clarify this …”
”What I am hearing is …”
”Help me understand …”
”Tell me more …”

There are also questions recommended by Spin Selling which SPIN refers to as Implication Questions which delve into the wider effects this has or will have on their business

You can also ask Contributing Questions like:
“Do you know what you’re going to do to solve this issue?” or
“Can you explain your thought process behind this strategy?”

Resist the temptation to ask closed-ended questions that might make the prospect think that you’re only interested in making the sale.

Problems doing Effective Listening in Sales 

A common problem for salespeople with listening well occurs when they hear something interesting and immediately start framing a reply or planning what they’ll do about what they’ve just heard.
Of course, while thinking about what the other person has said, they’re now tuning out the rest of what the prospect is saying. 
One trick to keep your mind on the speaker is to mentally echo what they’re saying as they say it.

Multitasking is a major problem … JUST STOP IT !

Selective Listening Can be  Problem 

You need to hear everything not just what you want to hear.

Background noise or your environment can hinder your ability to listen
Preparation can combat factors such as noise, hunger, and work-notifications.

Be careful of biases.
They can lead you to pass judgement and draw conclusion based on history rather than what’s in front of you now.

The urge to close the deal as quickly as possible can be a real problem
Your impatience is visible to your prospect.
It takes as long as it takes.

Hopefully, with the information above you’ll be able to improve your listening skills because effective listening is one of the foundations of making sales.