Don’t Believe What They Say About Listening and Sales

Try Googling “sales” and “listen.” Here’s a sampling—look for the common theme:

Rhonda Abrams, from Gannett News Service, says:

When calling on a customer, it’s tempting to want to immediately launch into a sales pitch, especially if you’re nervous. But by listening, you can better understand how your product or service meets the customer’s needs and desires.

In Business Week’s Savvy Selling section, Michelle Nichols says:

Although speaking clearly, succinctly, and persuasively are crucial selling skills, sharp listening skills are equally important today. In fact, it’s the professionals who ask good questions and then listen hard for the answers who are closing more sales than peers who are stuck in the "smooth talker" era.

At, we get:

We have two ears and one mouth for a reason – we’re meant to listen twice as much as we talk. This maxim is never truer than it is in negotiation. It’s amazing what you will learn about the "true" negotiation position, just by listening better. Don’t do all the talking – keep asking questions and listen to the answers.

The admonition to listen is usually justified—as in these three cases—on the basis of the answers’ content. If you listen more—particularly in response to good questions—then you will hear answers that help you sell. That’s the received wisdom.

If that sounds self-evident, think of what is not being said:

that the larger value of listening lies not in the content of the response, but in the act of listening itself.

Q&A listening for content is the hallmark of consultative selling and needs-based selling. You got a need? I probe and find out the specs of that need; I tune my offering to meet it. And so forth.

Nothing wrong with that; but it doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the power of a different kind of listening.

Needs are just mechanical specifications for stuff we gotta have anyway—toothpaste, audits, bicycles.

Wants, by contrast, are where the action is—wants are hopes, fears, ambitions, wishes, desires.

>Listening for answers identifies needs; but listening for listening’s sake gets to wants;

>Listening for answers generates a list of specs; listening for listening’s sake generates a connection;

>Listening for answers generates transactions; listening for listening’s sake builds relationships.

If your listening always has an agenda—to sell—then you’re not doing much to build trust. If your listening has no agenda beyond being in service to that customer in that moment, then you are potentially creating a trust bond with that customer.

We often hear that listening is a skill that we should practice. But that’s Q&A listening they’re talking about, listening with an agenda—your agenda. And it’s got limited benefits.

By contrast, listening for listening’s sake is not a skill; it’s a gift—the rare gift of your fine attention. It’s also one of those gifts that gives back.

And—the icing on the cake—listening for listening’s sake ends up more powerfully driving sales than does listening to execute the sale.

It’s a trust thing.

6 replies
  1. Ralph Jean-Paul
    Ralph Jean-Paul says:

    Brilliant!  Whether making a sale or sitting with a friend over a green tea, listening for listening sake should be the goal.  I’m amazed at the lack of listening skills by some leaders and managers that I come across.  Success with a person, any person, starts with an understanding of that person and the ability to build a relationship and build trust.  That is why I’m building a large section on listening on my communication page. You hit the nail on the head!

  2. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    What a great article!  Listening is also a great way to connect with people you love.  We sometimes get into a mode of thinking we know what’s going to be said, rather than truly listening to the other person.  This is a skill that crosses over into everyday life, not just the business world. 

  3. Sims Wyeth
    Sims Wyeth says:

    I recently worked with a large group of money managers who have occasion to meet with potential new customers or current customers who have questions and concerns.  The management of the company was concerned that they were not listening well.

    I framed the session around three questions and a scenario.

    1. Is listening important?

    2. If so, what is it?

    3. And finally, what gets in the way and how can we overcome the obstacles?

    The scenario was Mrs. Thurston Howl III coming in to say that she was extremely upset and ready to take her billions elsewhere because  her statement arrived unsealed.

    We had a lively discussion on the three questions, and after mapping how we were going to listen in the future,  jumped into the scenario.

    Disaster.  Nobody listened.  They only remained silent so Mrs. Howl could speak, then launched into a solution or a self-defense.

    The idea of listening for the sake of listening is foreign to most of us.  We listen to make something happen–we listen for results!

    Thich Nhat Hahn, a Buddhist monk and wonderful writer, describes dinner with a friend who volunteered to wash the dishes.  TNH accepted his generous offer, but only if his friend truly washed the dishes and did not rush through the task in order to join the tea party in the living room.  Those moments would have been forever lost.

    My money managers were rushing through the listening so they could take charge of the meeting, solve the problem, and look good in the exercise.

    Mrs. Howl, if she had been real, did not have the experience of being heard.

    She might very well have taken her billions elsewhere.



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