Sell More By Strengthening Your Listening Skills

How good a listener are you?

When I ask this question of experienced sales pro’s the overwhelming majority immediately identify they’re great listeners and identify their listening skills as one of the reasons for their long-term selling success. But the reality is significantly different for most salespeople, even the most experienced and successful ones.

The reality of selling is that most salespeople sell by talking. They do ask questions of their customers but usually only with the goals of first qualifying them to make sure they’re a viable prospect and then second, by asking them enough questions to learn and identify issues or customer “hot buttons” they can then sell to.

How interactive are your sales calls?

With over 30 years as a sales and sales management consultant I’ve had the opportunity to ride with a wide variety of salespeople to watch them sell. I’ve ridden with salespeople selling in distribution, manufacturing, capital equipment, agricultural, services and financial industries and the vast majority spent considerably more time talking than they did asking questions and listening.

There are two tests you can take to identify how much you actually talk with a prospect or client compared to listening to what they say.

The first test you can do alone. Next time you’re spending the day on the telephone talking with either new prospects or existing clients consider recording some of your phone calls. The goal of this recording is for you to go back later and listen to your call with a stop watch so you can time out exactly how many total minutes you talked during your call. You don’t need any fancy equipment to do this, any type of tape player or dictation recording device will work. You don’t even need to record both sides of your conversation, if you just record your side you can still time it out by assuming any silence was when the customer was talking.

Another way to discover how much you talk vs. listen during a sales call is to ask your manager or another sales rep to ride with you for the day. You can introduce them as an observer or down play their role so they’re not actively participating in the call. Ask them to bring along a stop watch and, while keeping the watch in their pocket and without the customer’s knowledge, they can now turn the watch on and off whenever your customer starts talking so you can get an accurate total of the minutes your customer actually talked. By the way, if you do this exercise make sure your stop watch makes no noise when you turn it on or off!

I’ve taken a stop watch on hundreds of sales calls I’ve ridden on. I never tell the rep until the end of the day I was even timing their calls. After the day of selling I’ll ask the rep how much of their calls they think they talked, most reps answer somewhere between 40 to 60%. But the stop watch identifies numbers that usually range in the 80 to 90 percentages. The majority of salespeople do all the talking on a sales call!

The sales calls are always interactive, but sales rep is still doing the majority of the talking. How long does it take a customer to ask you the question “Why are you so expensive?” maybe two or three seconds? But how long does it take you as the rep to answer that type of question, maybe ten minutes?

The average sales call I’ve experienced usually involves the sales rep getting the customer to open up and “chit chat” as a way to lower their resistance and to work to establish their friendship. But once the call actually starts to focus on the customer’s business needs and opportunities then the rep tends to shift to asking their customer questions that only generate a few seconds response followed up by several minutes of the rep selling or explaining their unique value and solutions that can benefit their customer.

What percentage of your sales calls do you talk vs. listen? The concepts are old and established but not followed by the majority of salespeople. How many salespeople do you know with the old attitude of “if your not tell’en your not sell’en?”

Five Suggestions To Help Improve Your Customer Listening Skills

Want to become a better and more persuasive listener to your customers? The following five suggestions are established concepts of listening, but still completely valid and viable today.

The first suggestion is to realize how much talking you’re now doing on your calls. The first step to fixing anything is awareness. Identifying the high percentage of time you actually talk on a sales call is the first step to improving your ability to listen. Consider timing some of your calls to identify your real percentage of listening vs. talking.

The second suggestion is to concentrate on actually changing or fixing this problem. Decide to invest next week to improve your listening skills and effectiveness. Write yourself notes in your calendar, pasted to your car dashboard and prominently hung in front of your desk. Ken Blanchard who co-wrote the “One Minute Manager” identified that “the things that get worked on first tend to get fixed first.”

What can you do to make improving your listening skills a stronger emphasis in the coming weeks?

The third suggestion is to get help. You’ll have a greater probability of actually sticking to this improvement effort if you share that effort with your sales manager and co-workers.

The fourth suggestion is to take more notes on your sales calls. Most salespeople don’t take enough notes on a call. This is also a common problem with more experienced salespeople. Experienced reps feel they know so much about their business and products they don’t feel the need to write as much down during a call. But note taking is not just meant to capture valuable customer information, it’s also a way to affirm to your customer the importance of what they’re saying and sharing. Note taking is a highly effective way to subtly communicate your interest and respect for what your customer is sharing. Customers will keep talking and provide you with more detail if you’re affirming what they’re saying by writing down their significant points or comments.

The fifth suggestion to improve your listening skills is to use some of the proven techniques of customer engagement and communication.

Paying attention, maintaining eye contact and not interrupting your customer while they’re talking are great ways to affirm the importance of their statements.

Sales trainer Tom Hopkins suggests when talking with a customer that you end every statement with a question. So instead of saying “This unit comes in four different models” you instead might say “This unit comes in four different models, which one do you like best?” By ending every statement with a question mark you’ll constantly be pulling your prospect or customer into your conversation and into talking.

Sales trainer Jeff Slutsky talks about an idea he uses of repeating the last few words a customer has said to encourage them to continue talking. If your customer says “We had a fire in our warehouse last night.” You would immediately respond by saying “A fire in your warehouse?” If your customer says, “So far there are four people assigned to this project” you would answer with “Four people are assigned?” By responding with an encouraging questioning statement you’ll help your customer to keep talking and hopefully sharing new insights or awareness you can now effectively use to present a more valuable and unique solution.

Are you taking your sales listening and questioning skills for granted?

Listening and questioning skills are fundamental components of any effective sales call. But the lack of effective listening skills is an ongoing challenge faced by the majority of otherwise experienced and successful sales professionals. Can you improve any of your listening skills and techniques? Do you think you could spend more time listening and less time talking on your next sales calls?

We know you’re good, now the question is, are you ready to get even better and more persuasive to strengthen your competitive selling advantage by becoming a better listener to your customers?

Jim Pancero

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