The art of listening

The art of listening

Sometimes just shutting up and listening can be an effective weapon in the armour of a successful salesperson.

For many salespeople the process of selling requires significant focus and emphasis on convincing a client or prospect that you have the best option - the classic "talking them into a sale". There is, however, another way - quite literally "listening them into a sale". Let me explain.

Listening is a skill that's still highly underrated in today's business dealings, but it's often the key to making yourself and your organisation stand out from your competition. Most people think they know how to listen, but the fact is that listening properly, to gain information that will truly differentiate your business from the rest, is still a rare skill. It's the excellent listeners who show that they can truly add value to a client's business.

One of the best sales meetings I've ever had taught me a valuable lesson about the importance of listening.

The meeting was with a well-known IT company's managing director. The appointment lasted 30 minutes, 28 of which were spent with the director telling me everything about his business and personnel.

I told him nothing more about my company and its services than I had in our initial phone conversation. As the meeting concluded, he enthusiastically shook my hand and proclaimed how much he was looking forward to working with me as someone who understood his business.

Other than a few initial questions, I said nothing that would have indicated I had a good knowledge about his company. But his perception was different. Why? Because once people are given a forum for talking about their situation, they believe the forum provider - or listener - has a level of expertise that the speaker finds valuable.

What were those initial questions? The first was the classic, "How are you?" His response was the equally banal, "Not bad."

What started this meeting down the path of success was not accepting, "Not bad" as a throwaway answer. "Not bad" is a subjective term, so I asked him why he was merely, "not bad", as opposed to "great".

He proceeded to talk more about some key issues related to competitors and his people. By not accepting "not bad" as a meaningless comment and finding out what he meant (as opposed to what I thought he meant), he provided me with key information.

So, how do you become a better listener, and how can it improve your sales? First, start listening for subjectivity. Most businesspeople respond to their prospects or clients in a knee-jerk fashion. For example, you may start a meeting with a casual, "How are you?"

The client may respond with a hearty "Great!" Now that the superficial rapport has been dispensed with, the two sides can get down to business.

However, if you're listening for subjectivity, the word "great" should spark another question, such as, "What's going on that makes you feel so great?" which could yield fruitful results.

Listening for subjectivity is not a mechanical selling technique. It's an active mindset that allows you to get some insight into a client's or prospect's values. Most people ask questions as a springboard to start telling the client all about their company's services. In doing that, it's difficult to present your service in a way that is guaranteed to be relevant to the client's specific needs.

When you listen for subjectivity, it ensures that you:

Develop better relationships with clients, suppliers and peersDevelop meaningful insight into key business issuesDevelop messages that are truly relevantDon't respond to comments from your perspective buyer. (Remember, what you think is great may be interpreted differently by your client.)Ideally, when you listen better, you ask better questions. A good objective in a sales meeting is to hear your client say things such as, "That's a good question." If you hear comments like this, it means you've provided some insight to the client that he or she didn't previously possess.

Being a catalyst for this creative exploration and uncovering new solutions is a way of adding real incremental value and forms the basis for a lasting business partnership. Once your client feels that way, you've already differentiated yourself from the rest of the pack.

Jeff Sheard is sales director for Asia-Pacific of Rogen International. Reach Rogen at:

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