Listening: The Forgotten Sales Skill

Last Saturday, our showroom was particularly busy, and I found myself sorting through the "I'm just looking" prospects to find those we could turn into customers. I know the right qualifying questions or, as, I have frequently written in this column, the right disqualifying questions.'

But something that's equally important is how I as a salesperson listen to the answers given to my questions. In those answers would be the information I would need to correctly form the next probing question, which might, in turn, help me turn "lookers" into buyers.'

By listening to the "just looking" customers, I found two couples who were really looking for complete bath remodeling solutions. I became sensitive to the fact that, at that point, my success was based more on my listening skills than on what I knew. Once my listening skills kicked in, these "lookers" freely gave me all the information I needed to turn them into prospects. That meant what I now knew could turn them into customers.'

As salespeople, it can be hard for us to understand that what we know has little importance until we know what the prospect knows. But hearing the prospect is actually critical to gathering the kind of information necessary to close a sale, and for that reason, listening skills are among the most important skills that you bring to the table as a salesperson
Being sensitive to listening, you'll eventually find that you're having increased production with less effort and more fun!

Listening skills
Sometimes we get so consumed with product knowledge, existing jobs and other distractions that we literally forget to listen to the prospect. The bad news is that this is an easy trap to fall into, particularly as we become more knowledgeable about what we're selling. After all, what good salesperson wouldn't be eager to share the features, advantages and benefits of what he or she is selling?

The good news, however, is that we can overcome our lack of listening skills.

To do this, we must consider two issues. First, we tend to talk on while the selling opportunity slips away. I know that I, personally, always have to check myself to make sure my customer is talking enough so I can gain the information I need to do my job.

Second, we need to realize that being quiet is not the same thing as listening. When you're involved in a conversation, it's very easy to allow your mind to wander so that you shut out important input, even though you're not talking and might even appear to be listening. We must not fall into the trap of believing that listening is the passive side of communication. Neither is being the speaker the same thing as being in control, as many believe. Listening is actually a very powerful skill.

Listening has several elements. First, you must hear, then you must interpret what is heard, and finally, you must evaluate what you interpret. Only then should you prepare to respond. To me, it seems all these actions take place simultaneously and, when done well, build an excellent base for the kind of consultative selling which seems to work well in our industry.'

To help you hear clients, avoid conversing where noises can be a distraction.

We must also be careful in the interpreting process because we tend to hear what we listen for. We must be alert to subtleties, while guarding against preconceptions, biases and wishes. And, we must listen while simultaneously evaluating and interpreting information, even while our mind worries about budgets, expectations and the like.'

To be a good listener and give a proper response, you must have the ability to uncover needs, have product knowledge, and be able to supply viable solutions.

Areas to improve
Here are five areas one can concentrate on for improvement:

1. Prepare. This means having the highest level of product knowledge and having an inventory'
of questions to probe for the information needed to further the process toward a successful sale. Lack of preparation is often the source of failure in any endeavor. I have found no shortcut to being prepared for a potential sale.

2. Listen with your body language. Relax, take a comfortable posture, make eye contact, nod your head to indicate you're understanding what the customer is saying. By taking a listening posture, you will appear non-threatening, which brings a greater comfort level to prospects, and increases the probability of effective communication.

3. Clarify the information you get. For example, you may ask, "Is this what you mean?" or "Do I understand you correctly?," and then repeat what you've been told. I believe it's more comfortable if you rephrase what you've been told so your search for clarity doesn't resemble an interrogation. If the information you gather isn't clarified and, for whatever reasons, you misread it or don't understand it, you'll almost certainly have trouble later in the sales process.

4. Hear out the speaker. The problem here is we can listen three or four times faster than we speak. Therefore, we sometimes get done listening before the speaker is done talking. The next few times you're in front of customers, watch their body language as they look away, look down or fidget with something. They have probably quit listening to you or at best are only hearing words and not getting a real sense of your feelings.

5. Listen to the emotions beyond the words. Your customer's voice and body language are real giveaways, reinforcing what he or she is saying. If "hearing emotion" is difficult for you, close your eyes, relax and imagine your phone rings, you answer and it is someone significant to you. You say hello, and all they say is your name. Just from hearing your name, you'll know if they are calm, excited, hurt, etc. When you're working with prospects, I believe you can learn something about their true feelings when you master hearing the emotions behind their words.

Of course, one of the best hearing aids you can use is a pencil and paper. By taking notes, it's more likely that you'll accurately capture the information you are hearing. Making notes also shows you care and have concern about what is being said.

Take time to examine your listening skills and see if you're missing sales opportunities because you are not hearing'
what your customer is saying.