Salespeople are taught to listen to customer problems, diagnose their needs, and then provide a meaningful solution. That sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Yet, not commonly practiced. There is a difference between hearing someone and listening to them, and we’ll discuss the difference in a moment.
A salesperson lacking the ability to listen is one of the biggest reasons customers dislike salespeople. But it goes beyond just dislike. Did you know that according to CrowdRiff content manager Julia Manoukian, “only 18 percent of customers trust salespeople.” Essentially what that says is that if you have 100 customers, only 18 of them actually believe what you are saying! How scary is that?
The optimist in me knows that this is a great opportunity. Listening is a skill, which means it can only be improved through consistent practice. The best listeners I’ve ever known took a genuine interest in other people. They also maintained excellent eye contact during a conversation and wouldn’t allow for outside forces to distract them, such as a cell phone or smart watch notification. When a customer sees your authentic self, they will begin to realize that you care about them, and you will see trust start to form. Remember what Mike Robbins taught us before in the chapter 1? “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”
Real listening shows that you care. As Mark Roberge, SVP of sales at Hubspot, says:
“You know you are running a modern sales team when selling feels more like the relationship between a doctor and a patient and less like a relationship between a salesperson and a prospect. It’s no longer about interrupting, pitching and closing. It is about listening, diagnosing and prescribing.”
Towards the end of my sales career, I was selected to join a small team tasked with training over 800 salespeople on a new, value-based methodology. This project required us to truly listen to what our customers were telling us. We interviewed them to understand what they believed we did well and then used that data to craft and refine our message. Just building the training content for our sales teams took more than a year and required many days and nights away from my family.
One of the critical elements of this transformation focused on asking our salespeople a fundamental question: “What problems do you solve for your customers?” That seems easy, until you get different personalities and levels of experience trying to answer this question. What I found through this journey, is that different interpretations of a company’s value-add are common inside of large organizations who’ve been in business for years.
People hear information through the filter of their perceptions, which drives their reality. In this situation, perception drove what our salespeople believed we were providing for our customers.
As the sales transformation went on, it became more apparent that our message needed to be polished and consistent across all markets. When customers lose confidence in salespeople and the companies they do business with, nothing good will come from that experience unless you make changes for the better. When customer confusion occurs, companies lack clarity about understanding and solving customer problems and show they aren’t truly listening to their customers.
Influential facilitator, John Kaplan, calls this “Seller Deficit Disorder.” The disorder has two key symptoms found in why customers don’t trust salespeople:
Ask yourself this question—and be honest: How often have you committed the cardinal sin of selling by not listening to your customer? How many examples can you think of where you could have handled that situation differently?
Every salesperson is guilty of this sometimes in their career; even the most elite don’t listen well from time to time. We all have excuses on why we don’t always listen. For example, we get so excited to make our point that we think the customer must hear from us right away. Or, there’s too much pressure to make outbound phone calls, or there’s not enough time to research the prospective customer. I get it. I’ve been there. But you have to stop making excuses. Once I stopped making those excuses, I became a much more of an effective listener. If you become self-aware and take action to drive positive behaviors, your customer will notice it immediately. This is one additional key element for you to stay on the path to winning more relationships.
Hearing and listening are not the same. When we make a conscious choice between them, we alter our pursuit to build long-term relationships.
Over my 20 years of business experience, I’ve seen relationships ruined by a lack of listening as key information was missed by someone during a conversation or meeting. When people aren’t listening, they are only hearing sounds and subconsciously letting other information go in one ear and out the other. The brutal truth of only hearing someone is that your customer, friend, or spouse can feel that ingenuine behavior. Listening requires your full attention. Turn off notifications on your device, put down your phone, close your computer and look someone directly in the eye. This is how you make the other person feel like they have your undivided attention.
As I thought more about the differences between hearing and listening, it resonated that a visual aid would help tell the story. Here is a chart outlining these differences.
Review this table, analyze the differences and write down what resonates most with you. What memories or interactions with customers or internal associates come to mind? How did these thoughts make you feel? What did you regret? What would you have done differently?
Whether you’re a salesperson or a sales leader, take time to review this chart with your sales team. Talk about the key differences together and seek areas where you might be falling short in your daily opportunities to build relationships. You will be surprised by what you learn from your teammates through this exercise.
What resonated most for me was the fact that hearing is an innate ability, while listening is a skill. Listening is the skill of retaining information, whereas hearing is just obtaining noise without processing the message or acting on it. A skill is learned, which means that when we practice listening, we can increase our ability to have more positive, outcome-based conversations.
If we find ourselves thinking we are listening when we are only hearing, we put our companies and ourselves at risk of losing relationships. Hubspot asked customers what they want from sales professionals, and 69 percent said, “Listen to my needs.” Notice that they didn’t say “Hear my needs.” They didn’t say, “Let information go in one ear and out the other.” They didn’t say, “Nod your head and pretend to listen.” And they definitely didn’t say, “Look at your smart watch or smartphone during the conversation.” These distractions happen to all of us, but we need to be mindful and curtail our behavior. Customers are begging salespeople to listen.
One way to listen rather than hear is to cultivate a genuine interest in your customer and their business problem. Many of my customers tell me that they’ve always loved my curiosity. They knew I cared. My body language proved my genuine interest in them; I made solid eye contact and was never distracted. While you might have innate curiosity, it can also be a learned skill. Think about great listeners in your life. I’d be willing to bet they asked great, thought-provoking questions. These questions are the ones that propel conversations to new levels of communication.
“Asking questions about your buyer’s goals and pain points leads to better sales success.” —Gong
Great questions are an easy way for you to leave your mark on a customer. To prepare for a meeting, research your customer and their company. Doing so will prompt questions you can ask to show your customer your interest in them. In today’s impatient world, too many sellers choose to wing it. They ask a wide variety of questions that sometimes won’t have a flow and usually end up confusing your customer. Be someone who shows thought-provoking curiosity in a related way, as it will surely impress a customer and show them that you cared enough to do your homework before the meeting.
Another way to ensure that you are listening rather than just hearing is to be confident. Inexperienced sales reps tend to lack confidence and worry more about what they should say rather than listening first in order to diagnose the customer’s problem.
As we learned in Chapter 1, vulnerability is a crucial skill in treating others the way you want to be treated. Vulnerability is also a critical skill in listening because listening means you might not have a response right away. You have to be willing to say, “I don’t know.” Be honest with the customer and acknowledge when you’re not familiar with a word, phrase, or subject or don’t have a ready answer. Let them know you will do some research and get back to them with a response. This approach demonstrates that you will work to understand your customer and see things from their standpoint.
You’ll have more sincere discussions by going into a conversation without any expectations—and that builds real, longstanding relationships. By showing vulnerability, everyone can improve.
Next time your customer shares their problem with you, really listen and don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know or I’m not sure, could you describe that in more detail?” when you might not understand something they are explaining to you.
A third way to listen rather than hear is to “seek to understand before you seek to be understood,” another of Covey’s 7 Habits. I encountered this example during my life while calling a technical support line. I kept explaining my issue, but the tech support professional on the other side of the phone kept answering questions I hadn’t asked. He was more focused on his training materials and what he was supposed to say than on trying to understand my problem. His lack of self-awareness quickly turned me off. Not only was he sharing information that wasn’t relevant or useful, but he also wasn’t answering my questions or helping solve my problem. Due to this poor experience, I chose to take my business elsewhere.
Unfortunately, these uncomfortable and avoidable conversations still happen in every industry, not just tech support. Hopefully, one of these days, companies will make it a priority to measure success and hold their sellers accountable for consistent training needed to handle these customer interactions.
It can be hard for some salespeople to seek to understand a customer challenge, but by refocusing on your customer’s problem through asking open-ended questions, one can honestly assess whether you can help them or not. Once you can sincerely understand what your customer is sharing with you, your responses will also change and improve the quality of relationships you’re building. Asking the right questions will benefit the customer and help you transform the relationship.
According to Chorus, “The top reps [are] up to 10 times more likely to use collaborative language [words like us, we, and our] than low-performing reps.” Low performers, by contrast, use “factional language”: words that distance the salesperson from the customer and de-emphasize empathy. For example, if a seller only uses words that describe what he or she wants to do or say, then they quickly will erode the chance of winning a relationship and turning them into a customer.
A consultative seller will show more curiosity, listen more, and talk less. Your actions show whether you are listening, and customers pick up on body language. When we are only hearing, we don’t make eye contact, we stare at our phones, or we fiddle with objects near us. When you’re on the receiving end, it can feel as though the person is staring right through you, which is awkward for both of you. Make a habit of looking people in the eye. Put away distractions so you can truly listen.
It’s fine to take notes, of course, as long as you do it thoughtfully. I have to admit, I’m still old school and prefer to take handwritten notes when meeting with a customer. But whether you type or handwrite, always ask your customer if you can take notes in the meeting. Simple as that might sound, little gestures of respect like that can open up a more positive conversation. By getting approval to take notes, you set expectations that you might break eye contact in order to document the information accurately. As I gained more experience, I learned to write notes while looking the customer in the eye. Those notes can open new, unexpected doors for you. For example, let’s imagine you’re meeting with Bob, and he shares with you that his peer, Susan, is having a similar problem, and he believes your product could help her as well. After your meeting, you ask for permission to use his name when following up with Susan. He gives you the green light, and you share with Susan that Bob mentioned her and thought your product could be of value regarding some of her current business problems. Susan agrees to meet with you, and you take the time to listen to her and make a sale. Congratulations! By really listening and taking good notes, you met another potential client.
A couple of additional points to keep in mind:
Early in my career, I violated both of these points. I assumed I could help a customer without genuinely seeking to understand their problem. I didn’t ask great questions, and I didn’t actively listen. As a result, not only did I embarrass myself, but I also ended up losing a business contact I was pursuing to build a relationship with. It frustrates me to this day, even though my mistake happened nearly 18 years ago. I vowed that my communication would never be so unclear again. My unfortunate story has become a great lesson to share with many of the sales reps I coached, trained, and mentored.
You might be asking yourself if all of this really matters? Well, it does. You must not take this lesson lightly if you have goals of becoming elite and winning more relationships. The effect of not listening to the real issue can be catastrophic to a relationship if mishandled.
Too often throughout my career, I saw a leader’s or salesperson’s ego getting in the way of decision-making. They might have started to listen, but then they fell into the habit of only hearing, which would frustrate the customer, ultimately damaging the relationship. The individual would focus solely on being right rather than solving the customer’s problem. One of my former executives earlier in my career, would always counsel me, “You can be right, or you can get what you want.” What you want is for the customer to be happy so that you can win the relationship. When we only hear someone, we run the risk of missing information and only focusing on being right – which will only increase our chances of losing the relationship.
This problem can happen within a company when employees deal with each other. Think about the last time you and one of your colleagues argued. Were you arguing because you were hearing each other rather than listening to each other?
I’ve seen this scenario play out frequently between the marketing and finance departments. They don’t take time to ask questions and seek to understand the other department’s viewpoint. Instead, they dig their heels in and refuse to budge. They know they are right—at least from their perspective. But this ego-centric communication only erodes any hope of teamwork, resulting in unplanned employee turnover. Even worse, this behavior can impact the customer, because when this dynamic occurs internally, people think it’s acceptable. Not so. I take you back to Chapter 1 as we seek to win relationships and not just deals.
By intently focusing on listening, you will find it much easier to communicate and add value to the conversation. If you want to drive this point home with your sales team, ask your sellers to watch the hilarious scene with the slimy car salesman from National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983). Chevy Chase’s character plays the role of Clark W. Griswold and goes to the car dealership looking to bring home the brand new family station wagon. There, Clark has an encounter with the salesperson named Ed, played by the funny and talented Eugene Levy. Throughout this scene, Ed only hears but does not listen. Not only does he lack self-awareness and listening skills, but he calls Clark Griswold’s son by the wrong name. “How you doing? Reuben, right?” “No, it’s Rusty,” Clark’s son corrects him. As you watch, you will see how he tries to close a deal rather than win a relationship. Griswold clearly stated that he was looking for an Antarctic blue sports wagon for the family to take across country to Wally World, but what’s ready for him is a metallic pea “family truckster.” Ed tries to hardcore-sell Clark the truckster, while the old family car is being crushed in the background of the movie scene. Not only did Ed not listen to his customer, but he also didn’t set proper expectations because the car Clark wanted wasn’t even on the lot! Behavior like Ed’s gives salespeople a bad name. As funny as it may seem, this happens too often with sellers and customers.
Remember that we were all created with two ears and one mouth for a reason: do more listening than talking. No matter what the situation might be, focus on truly listening. Let the other person finish their point and provide them the opportunity to ask their question before you respond.
For the next two weeks, I challenge you and your team to focus specifically on active listening. Whoever your audience is, do not interrupt. Let them finish. When they ask you a question, ensure that you respond with the answer to that question. After two weeks, talk as a team and share your best practices. What worked particularly well for you? This will help create a culture of listening and learning—one that your customers will thank you for.
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