There is more to listening than not talking

You can’t go through sales training without having the importance of listening drummed into you. “God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason,” etc. etc. Yet I don’t remember ever being taught how to listen in those courses – developing an understanding of listening skills came much later, through management development and an interest in psychology. I wish I had learned before.

My favourite sales quote comes from Cicero (Roman politician, 106-43BC)

“If you wish to persuade me, you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings, and speak my words.”

For persuade read influence, and as Keenan reminds us, the Number One job of a salesperson is to influence.

If we are to influence Cicero, how are we to know what he is thinking and feeling? By listening first. This is where the need for a better understanding of the listening process comes in. It is not enough simply to stop talking and hear what Cicero is saying, as our Selling 101 course would suggest. We need to understand what true listening actually involves.

There are many models for listening, and I like simple models best. Think of listening as being three levels of gaming.

Level 1 is the base level. You stop talking and the other person starts talking. You hear what they say, but your mind is already planning your next question or heading for the sales pitch that is just busting to be heard. In truth it is not really listening at all. You are just going through the motions.

Level 2 is more engaged. You actually are listening to what the other person is saying. You are making little encouraging noises, maybe asking confirmatory questions and taking it all in. But are you really taking it all in? You are listening to Cicero’s thoughts and words, but you haven’t yet reached his feelings.

Level 3 is the whole thing. You are taking in what is not being said, watching the body language, picking up the emotion in the tone of voice. You are also stepping back and observing their interaction with you, and interaction with others. You are starting to have an insight into their feelings. That is so important to a salesperson, because people are influenced through emotion (often justified by logic afterwards).

Here’s an example. You are selling industrial paint to a manufacturer. You are constantly battling with the buyer over price, and getting nowhere. So you manage to get an appointment with the factory manager. He is looking stressed and his first words are “I’m busy, I can only spare you a few minutes”. You get straight down to it, and after some introductions you ask what is going on today to make him so busy.

“We are constantly having to reschedule our batch production. Components have to go through the paint shop and if they go through in the afternoon that’s fine, they can dry overnight. But if they go through in the morning, we have to hold them back in the afternoon because the paint is still too soft to go to the next production stage.” Facts, useful but not the whole story.

You ask: “Could you install a drying oven to speed up the process?”

“I would have to raise a capital project and I would never get it through the Board. Our CEO is very tight on capital spend and I wouldn’t even want to raise the topic with her.”

He seems agitated, probably a little in awe of the board of directors.

“But you have discretion on material spend?”

“Oh yes, I have P&L responsibility for the factory. As long as we achieve the output and costs are in line with planned margins that’s fine.”

“So if we supplied you with quick drying paint which is only about 10% more expensive, you could move your components within an hour of spraying. That would help you achieve your output targets without having to go to the board with a capital project. How does that sound?”

Result – a very satisfied customer, and you know that he feels happier regularly spending more on paint than keeping long-term costs down by battling with his CEO over a drying oven. Your Level 3 listening skills observed his reaction to discussing capital spend with the CEO, and you also noticed a warming of his relationship with you, as he realised you were interested in helping.

That is what an understanding of listening skills brings to Sales: stop talking and don’t just listen – engage your Level 3 listening skills.

Neville Merritt