The art of active listening is not a new idea, but is an invaluable skill which is too often overlooked by many sales professionals. You may think you naturally know how to listen, but few do, as it takes concerted effort to master this skill. It is all too easy to talk at someone, with a lengthy, pre-planned sales pitch, but this is not exactly the most effective strategy for success. However, with a few simple techniques, you can hone your listening skills and maximise your sales.
Active listening, as the name suggests, is a system of actively listening to a speaker, rather than just passively hearing, and takes practice to perfect. Perhaps rooted in the 1940s, with Carl Roger’s theory of ‘reflective listening’, it is also sometimes referred to as ‘effective listening’.
But, you might ask, why should I bother learning to do this? Well, when you consider that research suggests most of us only remember up to 25 per cent of what we hear, we are missing out on a whole lot of information – information which is indispensable if you want to succeed at selling. So, it pays to learn to listen better. In fact, really listening also builds rapport and respect with your customers and enables you to learn more about how you can actually help them. Indeed, to really compete in the 21st-century sales arena you need to learn to listen for all you’re worth! In fact, so important is listening in all areas of our lives today – business and personal relationships – that there is even an International Day of Listening.
So, to get a head start with this most vital of skills, here’s a few tips to set you on your way to success.
1. Silence is golden
Getting the balance of how much you listen and how much you talk is all important, if you want to succeed in sales. Aiming for a ratio of 2:1 – that is twice as much listening as speaking – enables your customers to feel heard and valued, and you to learn more and personalise your sales pitch to the individual.
As the Greek philosopher Epictetus said, ‘We have two ears and one mouth, so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’ It really is no coincidence that the words ‘silent’ and ‘listen’ have the same letters in them, as you need to learn when to be quiet and listen – silence is certainly golden, as it will help you succeed at sales, provided you use your silence to really listen to the person that is speaking and learn what your customers are looking for. You can then better meet their needs.
2. Never interrupt
To truly listen well, it is important that you never interrupt the other person while they are speaking – be careful not to turn the conversation into a contest! This shows respect and builds a strong bond with your customers. If you forget this vital rule, it can be frustrating for the speaker, disrupting their flow of thought. So, let them finish then ask open questions to clarify any points you are unsure of – this will encourage them to open up and you will learn more.
When you do speak, although the temptation can be to talk 10 to the dozen, especially out of nervousness, talking quickly can only harm your relationship with your customers, stressing them out, making them feel like they’re not being heard and switching off their interest. It is far better to slow down your speech, articulating at a speed they can easily digest and pausing to allow them to ask questions when they want.
3. Stay focused and learn
To perfect the art of active listening, you must pay attention to the person who is speaking very carefully. You cannot let yourself become distracted by things around you – so, put away that phone! You also need to avoid forming counter-arguments in your head while the other person is speaking, as many make the mistake of listening just to respond, rather than listening to fully understand before speaking.
To stay focused, you may find it helpful to try repeating what the speaker is saying, in your head, as they say it, as this will reinforce the meaning and help you to concentrate. Indeed, if you want to maximise sales success, you need to be serious about learning to listen well, and it is a good idea to get professional training, such as that offered by Supply Gem, to help you really crack this essential skill.
4. Show you are listening
Now you’re getting the hang of listening well, be sure to let the person speaking know they have your full attention. Look straight at them, lean in and show your interest. This will not only convey a favourable impression, but make it easier for you to take in what they are saying.
It is also a good idea to smile, nod and say ‘yes’ at appropriate moments, to show you are listening. Likewise, when they have finished, summarise what they’ve said in your own words, to confirm you understand. You will also build a great relationship with your customers if you remember any anecdotes they mention, for example, about their family. You can then refer to these in future conversations, which will personalise communications and establish even greater rapport. It really is the little things that make a difference and your consideration will help you stand out from the crowd!
5. Listen between the lines
Listening well is also about understanding the complete message someone is conveying, which is not just about the words they use, but ‘listening’ between the lines to how they speak and non-verbal signs. For example, listening to the speed, volume and tone someone speaks at can indicate how they’re truly feeling and their stress levels, which can help you pick up on any concerns they have. If having a conversation with a customer in person, watching their body language, such as whether their gestures are open or defensive, can also give vital clues as to how the conversation is going, and indicate whether they are receptive or resistant to the products you are offering. You can then adjust your approach to accommodate this response and ensure a positive sales outcome. Indeed, the most successful salespeople harness this skill to achieve great success.
6. Ask the right follow-up questions
Your follow-up questions should reflect the listening skills that we touched on earlier. Use key phrases to show you’re paying attention, such as:
- ‘It sounds like…’
- ‘Based on what you’ve said so far…’
- ‘Tell me more about…’
‘Why…’ and ‘How…’ are better than ‘Do you…?’ questions as they’re open-ended and invite answers that provide more qualitative feedback.
Questions should be open-ended not only to discourage dead end ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers; they also encourage your prospect to elaborate on what they’ve already said and any further pain points that they may wish to discuss:
- ‘What is the biggest [marketing, for example] problem for your business?’
- ‘What would convince you to consider our product?’
- ‘What are your feelings about…?’
So, to seriously succeed in the demanding field of sales, learning to actively listen to your customers is a skill that should never be overlooked, as it can just take your business to a whole new level.