To Sell Better, Listen Better

By Jon Kraushar Communications Consultant

We're in a severe economic downturn; you're under pressure to sell your products, your services, and yourself. You can, if you listen well.

It pays to listen, with your whole body. On average, 20% of salespeople sell 80% of a company's products and services because they use their eyes and ears to pick up buyers' cues. In a survey of 432 corporate buyers, 87% said that salespeople don't ask enough questions about their needs, while 49% complained that salespeople talk too much. Here's how to listen well:

Focus and relax.Give people your undivided attention. Look directly at them and listen to them as if they're the most important people in the world to you. Don't interrupt.

Use lots of open-ended questions and phrases. People will literally tell you how to sell to them if you prompt them with "door openers" such as, "What's important to you about...?" "Describe for me..." "Why would you like to...?" "Tell me more..." "What do you think of...?" "How did you happen to...?" "For example" and "What did you find most...?"

Talk sparingly but feed back messages generously. Give necessary information, but spend most of the time getting it. Make sure that you've understood people by rephrasing what they've said. Say, "Sounds like..." and play back what you've heard, as in "Sounds like you'd like to get faster delivery on that." Or say, "So you feel..." as in "So you feel dissatisfied?" Let the other person course correct your understandings to insure that you're interpreting accurately. If you do this, it makes the other person feel that they're more in control and that you're more responsive to what they want and need. People hate to be sold, but they like to buy, if you let them lead.

Show both verbal and non-verbal signs of interest. Nod, smile, and use your eyes to register surprise, delight or other appropriate emotions. Say, "Mm-hmm." "I understand." "Right." "Interesting." "Really?" "No fooling!" "I hear you." "I see." "Yes." Notice that these words don't box you into agreeing. Rather, they keep the dialogue going and demonstrate your involvement. It's important to suspend your judgments until you have all the information that you can get.

Watch other people for their verbal and non-verbal signals. People often reveal their true feelings through their tone of voice and body language. Watch and listen for signs suggesting a conflict between what's said and what's meant. Although people express themselves in different ways, they often send out distress signals such as knit brows, darting eyes, excessive blinking, fidgeting in their chairs, throat clearing, and terse or rapid speech. Conversely, people who lean forward, smile at you, nod "yes" and look directly at you are probably receptive and willing to cooperate with you.

Use silence to advantage. Don't feel compelled to fill in every moment with your talk, or the other person's. Sometimes it's best to let their words or yours sink in. In fact, sometimes if you just nod and look interested, the other person will jump in with additional, very important information. You almost never get into trouble by saying too little; only by saying too much.

Employ some rules of thumb.Most of us tell people more than they need to know. We ramble. Many of us listen poorly. We concentrate more on ourselves than on what other people are telling us. In sales, you can't go wrong if you listen too carefully; but you can really blow it if you talk too much. As the Greek philosopher Epictetus said, "Nature has given us one tongue, but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak."

This is a time of daunting challenges for individuals and society. If you have any other ideas for improving listening skills--in a sales situation or in any other circumstance--please submit a comment.

Communications consultant Jon Kraushar is at