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.

Top Ten Things Not to Say in a Sales Call

Props to Brad Trnavsky, who posts Ten Things a Good Salesperson Should Never Say, and Why.  They are short, sweet, and on the money.  Click through to check it out.

Have you ever found yourself saying, "I was in the neighborhood, thought I’d drop by?"  My chimney sweep company does that.  It’s rarely true, and probably doesn’t fit your business. 

Of course, the grand-daddy of them all—trust me.  I won’t do that rant again just now—Trust Matters readers know that one.

The one that caught my eye and prompted this quickie blog, however, made me wince. "What would it take to have you get started today?" 

Ouch.  Only about a year ago, I got a call from a woulda-been perfect client—a business I know well, a speaking engagement right up my alley.  We had a great conversation.  I quoted my full regular rate.  The client said gee, I dunno, limited budget for this event, etc.  And I—with all good intent, really wanting to help him out, and willing in fact to take a hit on this one if I had to, said, "Look, what would it take…"

He, quite rightly, said, "Wait a minute.  Your book talks about the need to maintain transparent and consistent pricing, and never to offer discounts except in clear specific cases.  And here you are discounting.  You have just destroyed my trust in all you’ve said."

Damn.  That’s one between the eyes.  And I had to admit that my good intentions couldn’t save me here, he was exactly right.  I told him so, we parted, never heard from him again.  100% my fault.

That’s my read on one of  Brad’s points anyway. Good comments on his posting too.  Go check them all out, see if any make you wince.

FUD – Why Sell Is Still a Four Letter Word

Greg Milliken tells us about the origin of FUD—Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.  Think “Nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM.”

In other words, it’s selling by spreading FUD  about your competitor, rather than by focusing on helping the customer.

FUD-based selling, as Milliken eloquently points out, rots the soul.  And while I ultimately think that trust-based selling is more powerful, let’s give the devil his due—appealing to fear is a pretty powerful drug.

FUD is one manifestation of why “sell” is still considered a four-letter word in many parts.  Why don’t people trust a whole lot of salesmen?  Because a whole lot of salesmen aren’t trustworthy!  And many of them use FUD.  But FUD is just a subset of a larger category.

The biggest reason for not trusting a salesperson boils down to this: if they’re in it for themselves, they are not in it for you. And if they’re not in it for you, then you are perfectly right not to trust them.

Great salespeople live with a great paradox:  IF you are able to focus on other people and get them what they want, then—paradoxically—you get what you wanted all along too.  But—here’s the key part—as a side effect, not as a goal.

The modern corporate ethos is almost diabolically designed to thwart this kind of good sales thinking.  It tells us, over and over, in a million ways, to figure out what we want, then figure out how to get it.  Break it down.  Design a process.  Do a needs analysis.  Do competency modeling.  Define metrics.  Measure.  Reward.  Tweak, fine-tune, and repeat. 

Problem is, this way of thinking destroys other-focus from the outset. You will never be hugely successful at selling if you believe the modern corporate litany, because it can only, and always, be about you and your objectives.  That logic leaves no room for the paradox of caring about others.

FUD, of course, fits very well with a goal-oriented, self-aggrandizing methodology.  If the purpose is to gain sustainable competitive advantage over a competitor, then the customer becomes simply a metric, a vehicle, a means to an end.  FUD is a straight line that bypasses any genuine concern for a customer.

FUD fits the unexamined approach to corporate selling.  Which is why sell is still such a four-letter word.

Except, that is, for the exceptional salespeople, who recognize an eternal verity—the best way to get what you want is to focus first on helping others.

How Marketing Can Destroy Sales Trust

I like to believe there can be professionalism in sales.

So I was struck the other day when I ran across an article that talked about “selling on message.” (Pharma Voice, May 2007).

It has always seemed a curious phrase to me—sort of the opposite of customer focus.

Who talks that way? The three Ps, it turns out—that’s who.

The first P is politicians. Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, gave this advice for dealing with the press: “Never answer the question they ask; only answer the question you want to talk about.”

McNamara’s view has since been echoed by Clinton (“it’s the economy, stupid”) and by Bush ("it’s 9/11, stupid!"). Good politics? I’ll defer to others. But it sure isn’t trust-enhancing—look at pols’ polls.

The second P is public relations and marketing. Google “selling” with “on message” and you get “A major concern for marketing and sales executives is that they are always ‘on-message’ with all of the communications that reach their prospects and customers—helping to create, establish and build a customer relationship that will ‘competition-proof’ their customers.”

This seller-centric view of sales comes from a self-described “provider of sales-oriented public relations and marketing services—” which, ironically, lists a “customer-centric selling program” as a key client.

Another source from the same search says, “Less than 27% of CMOs report confidence in having adequately prepared sales to be on-message,” and "How do we enable salespeople to be “on-message” and empower marketers to do what they do best? "

(Those darn salespeople, always wandering off to what customers want to talk about, when they should be doing marketing’s bidding.)

This helps explain the third P, which is the pharmaceutical industry. The article quoted at top, “Sales Training: Moving Beyond the Message,” says “it’s become vitally important for sales representatives to provide value beyond the marketing message.” It quotes Peter Sandford, “in the regulated healthcare environment in which we work, selling on message is vital, but it is the additional knowledge that the representative has that can also be useful to the physician. This allows them to essentially sell beyond the message, but still within the guidelines.”

A May, 2006 article in the same publication called “Rebuilding the Trust—Sales Managers Lead the Charge,” says, “… representatives need to differentiate themselves by delivering more distinct messages, tuned to the needs of the healthcare providers they’re dealing with. They also need to better understand what creates value and align the messages with that goal.”

All this is the language of a sales culture and community that has been mugged and drugged by marketing. Only in such a business can it actually sound radical to suggest that salespeople give customer-specific attention, as opposed to staying “on message,” or “within guidelines.” You don’t hear this kind of talk at IBM, or Nordstrom’s, or Starbucks, or Goldman Sachs.

Marketing is, by its nature, a monologue—it tells things people want to hear to the people who want to hear them.

Sales is, by its nature, an infinitely customized dialogue.

Nothing wrong with either one. Each has its place. But they are different.

When sales is overly-subordinated to marketing, you emd up with “selling on message.” Kind of like the stereotype of telemarketing, or scripted sales businesses like ballroom dancing, or pump-and-dump brokerage houses. It can create puppets reading canned speeches, or at least feel that way, because—the "message" is, above all, about the seller.

The folks at PharmaVoice are right; they are doing their bit to drag pharma sales (forward) into the late 20th century. It must be the most sophisticated business in which marketing chokes off oxygen to sales.

I suppose this is because in recent years pharma—for a variety of structural reasons—has come to be dominated by the marketing function. It has tended, then, to frame other issues—customers, trust, selling—in terms familiar to marketing and PR.

More’s the pity. Marketers do not help the trustworthiness of sales reps by urging “selling on message,” and trust isn’t something the pharmaceutical industry is long on right now.

Now, about McNamara…

Hostage Negotiation – Lessons for Selling, Customer Service and Business Relationships

Pierre Cerulus steered me to Hostage at the Table by George Kohlrieser, now a professor at IMD, and a former hostage negotiator. The metaphor of hostage taking is one of the best I’ve seen for thinking about leadership and personal development.

Are you a hostage? Or a hostage taker? Or—both at once?

Here’s a remarkable statistic—professional hostage-negotiators have a 95% success rate. 95% of the time they persuade potential killers drenched in adrenaline to change their minds.

Compare that with your success rate in closing sales or persuading clients. (And they’re not even homicidal. Yeah yeah I know).

Kohlrieser’s most compelling vignettes, however, are about amateurs. The lady in Atlanta who talked down her abductor. The grandmother who, with her 9-year-old granddaughter at her side, talked down the blood-drenched escaped convict who had killed a neighboring family minutes before entering her bedroom at 3AM.

The “trick” is to make a human connection with the hostage-taker. Simple to say, hard to do. This is one of the better books I’ve seen on just how to do it. For more—read the book.

Of course, we’re not likely to be in a hostage situation. But metaphorically—we are all the time.

Hostage-taking is an alienated act of desperation—a cry for help. The failing of most hostages, and most amateur hostage-negotiators, is that they cannot see past the threat to themselves, to see the desperation in the other.

Apply that to work. The angry customer. The resentful co-worker. The “gotcha” performance review. All are driven by states of mind others—which we choose to experience as personal attacks on ourselves.

We let them hold us hostage. But there are no guns here. Our response is within our control. It is not that they are attacking us—it is that we are feeling attacked. We own our own oppression.

In Mel Brooks’ hilarious Blazing Saddles, the sheriff faces a hostile mob. He realizes he can escape by taking a hostage—himself. Pointing the gun at his own temple, he shouts, “No one moves—or I’ll blow his head off,” then slowly backs out of the room.

That’s what we do, when we allow ourselves to be hijacked by the emotions of others; when we react to those emotions, rather than acting from our own true selves. We become hostage-taker, with ourselves as hostage; a double-bind, with no win-win possible.

But the angrier or more distressed someone is, the more they want to find someone to relieve them of that anger of distress – someone to care. Passion gives you something to work with.

The answer is the same in the metaphor as in life. See the person beneath the fear—first the customer/co-worker, then ourselves. Connect with that real person. Engage in a true dialogue.

It is the same principle that governs the creation of trust, and it disproves an old myth about trust—that trust takes time.

It doesn’t. It takes connection.