Ask a client what they want, and they’ll tell you “expertise; credentials; someone who’ll meet my needs.” Ask them what their needs are, and they’ll tell you.
But ask really successful salespeople (or honest clients with experience in buying), and they’ll tell you how it really works. Clients only ask for credentials and expertise because they’re not really sure what else to do. In truth, they’d rather get in range with expertise, and then decide based on their trust in the seller.
Clients will tell you their needs because they think they’re supposed to, and because they’re afraid if they don’t, you’ll take advantage of them. But if you can engage them in honest discussion, they’ll admit their uncertainties and discuss, engage in, and evolve their views of what their needs are.
It all depends on why you’re listening.
If you’re listening to hear an answer to a predetermined question, then you will hear the “canned” definitions of needs that clients have prepared for you. You’ll hear their request for credentials and expertise at face value, and not hear the undertone in the question, or in the bored way they listen to your answer.
Because what clients really want to talk about is what everyone wants to talk about: Themselves. When someone says, “Tell me about yourself,” they’re just being polite – whether it’s on a date, at a social event, or in a sales call. The right answer is not to tell them about your vast experience with other clients – it is to get them talking about themselves. And to listen as they do so.
The Quality Of Listening
The usual form of listening is conditioned by sales models looking for answers and by flawed views of buyer psychology focused on surface dialogue. What is required is a different quality of listening.
The main reason for listening to prospects is to allow the prospect to be heard. Really heard. As in, actually being paid attention to by another human being.
This kind of listening is listening for the sake of listening. Listening to understand, period. No strings attached. No links back to your product. No refined problem statements. Because that’s what people in relationships, at their best, really do. They listen because they want to know what the other person thinks about whatever the other person is interested in talking about.
This kind of listening validates other people. It connects us to them. It provides meaning. And, among other things, it sets the stage for sellers and buyers to interact – if that is the right thing to happen next.
Authors Bill Brooks and Tom Travesano, in You’re Working Too Hard To Make The Sale, note that people greatly prefer to buy what they need from those who understand what it is that they want.
Read that over again, carefully. People prefer to buy what they need (stuff they’re going to buy anyway), from those who understand them on the basis of what they want (things in life they’d love to have – wishes, hopes, desires).
You don’t even have to give them what they want; it’s enough to understand them.
To bring it full circle back to listening: Relationships are the context for successful selling. Relationships are based on trust; they predispose us to engage in qualitatively different kinds of sales conversations. And listening – unrestricted, unbounded, listening for its own sake – is the way we develop such relationships.
And therein lies the paradox. The most powerful way to sell depends on unlinking listening from selling – and instead, just listening. Listening not as a step in a sales process, and not as a search for answers to questions. Listening not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself.
The point of listening is not what you hear, but the act of listening itself.
Making It Work
Here are 5 tips to listening this way. Number five is the most powerful.
- Ditch the distractions. You cannot multitask undiscovered. Being multitasked feels insulting. Close the door. Face away from the window. Blank the computer screen. Turn the iPhone over. Now, pay attention.
- Use your whole body. Lean toward the speaker – even on the phone. Use facial expressions. Use hands and arms, shake your head, and use “non-verbal” verbalisms. This improves your listening – and indicates you are listening.
- Keep it about them – not you. Use open-ended, not closed, questions. Let them tell their own story – don’t use them as foils for your hypotheses.
- Acknowledge frequently. Paraphrase their data, empathize with their emotions. Make sure you are hearing both correctly; make sure they know you are.
- Think out loud. The biggest obstacle to listening is your own thinking. Be courageous – postpone your thinking until they’re done talking. Be willing to think out loud – with the client. Doing so role-models collaboration and transparency, and that reinforces trust. I hear you. I value you. I respond to you, with no hidden agenda. I trust you. You can trust me.
That’s the message of listening.