SALES CLINIC: Are you listening?

Just because you hear everything the client said without interrupting doesn't make you a great listener. Listening without interrupting is often simply waiting for your turn to talk. Listening is more than just hearing the words.

When you last flew on a domestic flight, particularly if you travel regularly, and the flight attendants began detailing the emergency procedures, how much attention were you giving them? How many seats were you away from your nearest emergency exit, the one in front of you, the one behind you? Replay the same scenario, however this time the plane is filling with smoke and about to be ditched into the water . . . now are you listening to the flight attendant's instructions?

In a business context, particularly in the sales process, there are four levels of listening.

At the bottom of the hierarchy is: Listening without Interest. We've all seen it, if not practised it. You visit the client, ask a few perfunctory questions, nod a lot, make a few notes. But your attention is at its lowest because, let's face it, you know what the client wants anyway, you already have the solution and it's what you are going to sell him or her.

While you may be physically hearing the words, because you have no interest in the person or topic you simply appear to be listening. You may nod or mumble agreement, but nothing has really been taken in.

The buyer usually sees you have limited interest and quickly understands you don't care about his or her business at all, but only want to sell something.

Moving up the hierarchy, you reach: Listening to Confirm. You know what you want to sell to the client; you wait for it and jump in. You take out of the conversation only the parts that prove your position on a subject is correct.

If you are pitching for new business, very selective listening results in you hearing only that which matches what you intend to offer. So you leave the meeting with a series of notes on the points that coincide with the features or benefits of your product or service.

During the conversation you may have your own verbal silver bullets loaded and ready to fire, the second a suitable opportunity arises. "That's right," you say, "and that's exactly why our product is best for you!"

The next level of listening is one most used by successful sales people: Listening Selectively. Tuning into valuable information. You approach the meeting with a pre-planned list of issues or areas you intend to probe, normally including the rational/technical and emotional needs of the buyer. You listen selectively, according to your probing plan, as the meeting proceeds make decisions about relevance every second. Information you think important is noted, and the rest is discarded. The buyer is steered back to the issues again and again until each is thoroughly understood. And, most importantly, your client recognises you understand the issues.

This level of listening leads to many successful sales. But by probing and listening only for the needs or requirements, you may miss a host of valuable information. You miss it because you don't know it exists - it wasn't on your probing plan!

And that brings us to the highest level of listening: Listening to Learn. You cast the net further to gain information for the client. There is nothing judgmental about listening to learn. You don't focus simply on the need to gain information about areas you have decided in advance are relevant. Use all your skills to listen for anything that can add dimension, depth, perspective and context.

So you're not only listening for the information you've decided you need, but for information you don't even know you need!

Listening to learn requires a willingness to invest time in probing beyond specific issues to wider areas. Driven by a genuine curiosity to see what might be learned. You seek and gain information your competitors will also probably get regarding requirements, then you throw the net wider to catch whatever else might be applicable.

By doing so, you often snare the clue which lands to a brand new issue, not previously understood by you and often not even understood by the client. Instead of talking someone into a sale you have listened them into it.

Next time you are on that "red eye" special flight, ask yourself am I listening without interest or listening to learn?!

Anna Raine is a senior consultant at Rogen International (Sydney). Reach her at anna.raine@rogen.com.au

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