Sales and The Art of Listening

I originally wrote about this on my personal blog, but I think it fits well here.

Being a great salesperson really is an art form. You can be just another interruption in peoples’ already busy days, or you can become a trusted advisor, confidant and valued business contact.

In my opinion, the difference comes from the art of listening.

In an MBA, most of the course material that encompasses selling focuses only on the transactional aspects – the importance of a CRM, business processes and a business’s ability to fulfill on sales orders – without really addressing the human interaction aspect.

I have sat in on sales meetings and watched as salespeople talked themselves in circles. I have also been privileged to sit alongside some of (in my opinion) the best salespeople in the world. The latter barely spoke. I would hazard a guess, from my observations, that they closed the sale with three questions – at most – and their new client loved them for it.

The difference was that they truly listened. They weren’t waiting to answer. They were waiting to ask another relevant question – because they were spending their time trying to understand their clients’ needs and how they could help, as opposed to waiting to interrupt and tell them about what they do and what product they are selling. Great salespeople listen not in order for it to then be their turn to speak; they listen to understand.

I’ve often fallen into the trap of talking too much (I’m a friendly guy) and I am always consciously telling myself to shut up and let other people speak. This fostered ability to listen has always been the difference for me and the people I’ve observed.

I also want to share a couple of observations, of behaviours I have noticed myself and other people do at times, that fly in the face of actively listening.

  1. Putting your cell phone face up on the table
  2. Looking at your watch
  3. Not making eye contact
  4. Having a laptop open

I’ll start with point one. Actually no, I won’t. I’ll make a statement first. Your other meetings, your busy life, the other things you have got going on – they don’t matter right now. All that matters is that the person you are with has your undivided attention. If your wife is going to give birth, or your husband’s flight is arriving, then sure, have your phone face up. But what this habit does is distract you from the conversation every time the phone lights up. Every text, beep and blinking light that you look at tells the person you are with that you are distracted. That you aren’t listening.

Put your phone on the table face down. Or better yet, make sure it’s on silent and then don’t get it out of your bag at all. Send the message that for the time you are with them, you are with them.

Next let’s address the watch issue. I have a small watch collection. By this I mean only a couple of watches – they are normal sized. I always choose the watch for the day depending on how I feel. Some have sentimental connection, one is expensive and looks good and one was the first one I ever bought. But whoever I am meeting with doesn’t care about any of the reasons I chose which watch to wear. All they know is I keep looking at my watch, making them feel like I have somewhere more important to be. I have one important place to be. There, with them. I owe them my undivided attention. My next meeting will get the same treatment. I have started booking less meetings in a day, allowing more time, and making sure I make them count. I’ve stopped rushing to get out the door.

For some reason, people get funny about eye contact. Eye contact is an important part of creating a human connection. Eye contact shows you are telling the truth. People can see through you; this vulnerability builds trust and respect. When someone can’t look you in the eye, you don’t have a sale. And you probably don’t have their attention.

Lastly, the laptop issue. I get it. We are in a modern age of information. Note-taking happens digitally, save the trees and all that. I completely disagree. Unless you are giving a demonstration on a laptop, close the lid! Make mental notes and write them down in the car. Exercise your brain. You can’t make a human connection with someone with a screen between you and their face. You are putting up a very visible barrier. If you have to have it open put it to one side and ask them if it’s ok if you write a quick note, then go back to giving them your undivided attention.

If you manage to avoid these bad behaviours in meetings, you will create much deeper connections and better long-term relationships with your clients.