How Active Listening Can Clinch A Sale

December 30, 2015 Geoffrey Walters

“Listen more than you talk,” said Richard Branson. “Nobody learned anything by hearing themselves speak.”

In business as in life, listening is hugely important. Everyone knows the old adage about God giving us two ears and one mouth for a reason, yet too often we are guilty of waiting for our turn to speak, our ego preventing us from listening, learning, and building a better conversation by addressing the points raised by our counterpart.

One of the biggest business turn-offs, and a real barrier to sales, is the motormouth salesperson who simply will not allow his or her client time to speak for fear of receiving negative commentary. Yet constructive criticism is a superb way for a salesperson to learn: as Bill Gates said, “Your unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

“Active” listening is really a tautology: all listening is active. When business people talk about active listening, they are really addressing the difference between listening and hearing. We hear lots of things every day without actually taking them on board.

Ironically enough, active listening is often easier to talk about than it is to practice. The motormouth salesperson is a stereotype for a reason: there are still plenty of them about. That’s why we’ve decided to offer some handy tips to help you master this most difficult of skills—and improve both your personal and your professional life because of it.

Active Listening Starts With Active Reading

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Active listening begins before you even speak to the client. You should know enough about the client prior to your conversation to be able to research their business and potential needs so that you can anticipate their problems and memorize potential solutions. This allows you to focus on listening to the client during the meeting rather than having to rack your brains for solutions while missing 90% of what the client is saying to you. 

Calling up information on a computer or smartphone during a client meeting looks unprofessional and can alienate a client who doesn’t take such a digital approach to their own life—as we’ll look at next.

Create The Right Environment

In the digital age, the human attention span has decreased dramatically. A recent study by Microsoft found that the average attention span of a human being has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to just eight seconds today—an astonishing 33% dip in just 15 years. By comparison, goldfish—so often the butt of attention-related jokes—have an average attention span of nine seconds.

Interestingly, the study showed that people with more “digital” lifestyles—people who use multiple screens, embrace social media and, crucially, are early adopters of technology—struggle to focus their attention for sustained periods of time. We recently contended that early adopters are a relatively easy sale because they know what they want and often make their purchase even in spite of a poor rapport with the salesperson. As a salesperson, you’re likely to be at the cutting edge of whatever field you’re in, making the likelihood of you being an early adopter high.

The problem comes, however, when you are dealing with a client who is not an early adopter—let’s call them a regular client. The regular client will be less up to speed with digital technology and consequently, according to the study, more likely to be able to focus for a prolonged period of time on the issue at hand. They are also likely to have more questions than an early adopter as they are inherently more cautious about a new purchase.

If you as the salesperson are unable to match your client’s focus and address their questions, you will be seen as disrespectful and disinterested, and you could ultimately lose the sale as a result.

So if you’re looking to impress a regular client with your attentiveness, the first thing to do is to create the correct environment. If you are meeting them face to face, don’t sit at your desk where you will be tempted to throw a sideways glance at your screen to catch the latest updates on Twitter or see if that email from that really important client has arrived yet. Put your smartphone away—better yet, turn it off completely.

Clear your desk of documentation that might draw your eye. If you are in a glass-fronted office, make sure you’re not looking over the client’s shoulder to see if your best buddy is in the office today.

If you’re conducting business on the phone, follow the same rules. The client might not be able to see you, but they will be able to hear that they don’t have your undivided attention by the tone of your voice and the quality of your answers.

Active listening in sales involves giving your undivided attention to the prospect for the duration of your conversation. Although the Microsoft study concluded that early adopters and the more digitally inclined glean some benefits from their lifestyle, requiring less time to process and commit things to memory, multitasking while in the presence of a client looks rude.

A 2013 Harvard Business Review study on rudeness in the workplace found that people are less likely to buy from a company employing someone they perceive as rude, so it’s worth taking the time to make sure that your client does not feel slighted by your behavior.

Keep Calm And Enjoy The Silence

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As we’ve seen, a lot of groundwork has to be laid in preparation for listening actively before a conversation with a client has even begun. Armed with your research and a relaxing, distraction-free environment, your next step is to create a natural dialogue between yourself and the client.

There are a number of methods by which you can not only make the client feel that they are being listened to, but remind yourself to focus when your mind inevitably starts to wander during the conversation. Human beings are inclined to talk more when they’re nervous—it’s why many salespeople come across as motormouths professionally when they are often quiet and considerate in their personal life.

But nervousness begets nervousness and your chattering will unsettle the client and become a barrier to active listening.

One way of avoiding over-talking is by simply slowing down. Talking slowly, clearly and with purpose will not only put your client at ease, it will calm you down. In addition, clear, precise speech makes the client feel that you are not looking to pin them to their chair with a gale of words. Talking slowly and clearly also has the advantage of buying you more time to think.

Do not launch into your sales pitch straightaway. Instead, allow the client to speak. Ask them questions: What are they looking for specifically? What problems are they experiencing? Maintain eye contact throughout so that they know you are rapt (but don’t overdo it). Let them paint the picture of the problem that requires solving, and then use your research to be the one to solve it.

Talking slowly and maintaining eye contact engender a feeling of calmness in the client, as does a relaxed body language. Don’t fold your arms or your legs. Showing the palms of your hands indicates honesty. Good eye contact, measured speech and open body language make the client feel that they are not being rushed, that they are not about to be hustled out of the office as soon as your important 3 o’clock arrives.

A further way of reinforcing this feeling of calm is by not interrupting. Ask open, “tell-me” questions that elicit long, detailed responses from clients rather than closed, “yes-no” questions. Then allow your client to finish what they’re saying before evaluating it properly in a moment of silence. Many sales reps fear silence in the same way radio DJ's do, yet both could benefit from losing that fear.

In the same way that a DJ’s fear of silence will cause him to babble over the end of a song to the annoyance of the listener, a sales rep who can’t countenance a moment’s quiet reflection might jump the gun and talk over the client.

Often, a client will have something extra to add after that silence, an observation that will be missed by a rep who is too insensitive to allow it. Once you’re satisfied that the client has indeed finished, use the gap in the conversation to clarify, paraphrase and confirm. An instant, accurate recap of the salient points the client has made will convince them that you are an attentive listener and encourage them to trust you and divulge more important information—which could be hugely beneficial to your chances of making a sale.

Less Talk, More Body Language

The Austrian-born American management consultant, educator and author Peter Drucker said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”

We’ve already talked about maintaining eye contact and using body language as a way of putting the client at ease and letting them know that you’re listening, but active listening also involves interpreting the body language of the client. If the client is interested in what you’ve got to say and enjoying the track you’ve chosen, he or she will likely show you that approbation by their body language long before they verbalize anything.

Equally, disinterest will be registered non-verbally first. Be sensitive to their actions and use them as signals to indicate where you should take the conversation.

If you deal with a lot of clients via telephone, this advice might seem obsolete. It is not. Although we cannot see the client in these circumstances, we can still attempt to “hear” emotions. Is the client talking quickly? Loudly? Quietly? Are they interrupting you or are they saying very little and offering non-committal “mm-hms”? If they are exhibiting signs of disinterest, is it because of you? Are you actively listening?

Mutual Respect Leads To Mutual Benefits

The purpose of active listening is to achieve an atmosphere of mutual respect between salesperson and client. A sales conversation in which the salesperson has employed active listening should result in the client’s problems and needs being established and a relevant solution being found and proposed by the salesperson. All this will have been done in an unhurried, pleasant environment.

In doing this, the salesperson has won the client’s trust. The client appreciates the courtesy afforded them by the salesperson and respects the salesperson as an expert in his or her field thanks to the in-depth knowledge they have displayed. The client feels comfortable that they are in the hands of professionals.

This atmosphere of trust and confidence allows the salesperson to gradually take control of the sale using the challenger method of teaching, tailoring and tinkering that Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson showed was the most successful sales method in their book The Challenger Sale.

Having listened intently to their client’s observations, the salesperson can create an atmosphere of constructive tension by challenging the client’s received wisdom and offering solutions that the client has perhaps not considered. Because the salesperson has employed active listening, the client is far more likely to return the respect accorded them by the salesperson and take on the advice being given.

Write Down & Remember

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Once a sales meeting with a client is over, take five minutes to write down a quick summary of what you’ve spoken about. Try to remember quirky or unusual moments in the conversation, from shared hobbies to anecdotes about family. Making reference to these in future meetings will make you stand out a mile from the competition, as it will prove that you don’t have the attention span of a goldfish—or even of the average human being in 2015.

As the American psychologist and TV personality Joyce Brothers said, “Listening, not imitation, may be the sincerest form of flattery.” It pays to practice it well, in sales as in life.

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About the Author

Geoffrey Walters

A serial entrepreneur and digital nomad, Geoffrey has been running his own marketing consultancy for the past year.

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