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Active Listening Skills: A Salesperson’s Guide

In a long and varied career, I have spent a couple of decades in sales, sales training, sales management, and running my own businesses.

Man listening

Man listening

Listen Up

Most salespeople know that the ability to ask good questions is at the absolute core of any good sales call, but this has to be coupled with the ability to listen. For most people, listening well does not come naturally; it has to be practiced. You can ask the greatest questions in the world, but if you are not really listening to the answers they produce, then you are wasting your time (and your customer’s). Listening is a skill, it can be learnt, but it requires practice.

Listening should not be passive when you are talking to your customer (it is not like listening to the radio, were the sound can simply wash over you almost unnoticed). You need to summon all your concentration to listen well to your customer, and they need to know that you are listening well. Letting your customer know that you are listening to them is easy to do, but again may take some practice until it becomes a positive habit. Here are the key things that will let your customer know you are listening.

Maintain Eye Contact

This does not mean staring your customer out, as prolonged, unbroken eye contact will eventually make them very nervous (not good and not funny). Good eye contact simply means looking your customer in the eye, especially when they or you are speaking. Natural breaks in eye contact are absolutely fine. Involuntary eye movements will happen, for example, when you are recalling something or considering a problem (but that’s a subject for another article). The main thing is that if you are looking them in the eye, they will think, and correctly so, that all your attention is focused on them. Letting yourself be distracted, even for a moment, by glancing out of the window or at your watch, is likely to break the rapport you have been establishing with customer, which in turn will have a negative effect on your meeting.

Focus on the Customer

Keep focused on the customer. When listening to your customer, ensure that they are the centre of your focus, you should not only be listening to the words that they say, but also to the tone and speed of their voice, along with watching their posture and body language. It is important not to let yourself get mentally side-tracked and start thinking about the next meeting you have to attend or the call you have to make to your manager. If you are not fully engaged in the conversation, your customer will know, and again any rapport you have been building with them will be lost.

Empathise

When listening to your customer, you need to try to put yourself in their shoes or empathise with their situation and requirements. It is no good seeing their situation from your perspective, make sure you can see it from theirs.

One person talking and the other listening

One person talking and the other listening

Paraphrase the Customer

This can seem a little awkward at first, but this is a very powerful way of letting the customer know you are listening. When the customer makes a particularly valid point, repeat it back to them in your own words. This will let the customer know that you have been listening and that you understand what they are saying. It will also help embed this piece of information into your memory.

Could You Repeat That

Ask the customer to repeat something they have said. This shows the customer that you’re listening and are seeking to understand their viewpoint fully. Only do this occasionally and as appropriate during a sales call, doing it more than once or twice will have the opposite effect and the customer will think you are not being attentive at all.

Never Interrupt

Interrupting a customer mid-flow is a definite no-no. Think about conversations you have had friends, colleagues or bosses when they cut you off mid-sentence. Didn’t feel good did it? Your customer will feel the same way, and although he might not tell you, the sales call will be over and you won’t have gained any more business. If the customer has been speaking for a while and you are having difficulty keeping track, wait for a natural pause in the conversation and then ask them to clarify any points you are not sure of.

Encouraging the Speaker to Continue

Occasionally during the call, nod your head, say ‘Yes, I see’ or ‘Uhm, that is interesting” or similar. Be careful, when you make these positive responses, make sure you have been listening and you mean it, otherwise you could sound patronising even when that is far from your intention. The purpose of these positive interjections are to encourage the customer to continue speaking.

Active listening

Active listening

Mirror, Mirror

Mirror the customer’s voice tone and speech patterns: This does not mean to say you mimic the customer’s voice, it simply means that if the customer speaks slowly and you speak fast then you need to bring your speed closer to theirs.

Also mirror the customer’s body language. When done well this can help build rapport very quickly, but again do not try to copy every movement or they will think you are trying to be ‘funny’. But if the customer is leaning forward (usually a sign they are interested in the subject being discussed or product demonstrated) then you don’t want to be slumping back in your chair!

Keep an Open Mind

Although it goes without saying, you should always have a specific goal in mind for any sales call, it is also important to keep an open mind and explore any avenues of information that might crop up during your discussion with the customer. The more you are able to help your customer with their problems the more business you are likely to gain down the line.

Don’t Jump the Gun

Don’t be tempted to impose your solutions on the customer while they are speaking, this just tells them that you aren’t really listening to what they have been saying. When they have explained everything fully and you fully understand their problem, you might wait for a natural pause and then say something like, 'I’ve been listening carefully, I may have a couple of ideas that might help you, would you like to hear them?'

Mastering the art of active listening is not easy, but it is worth it, and with a little practice will become second nature.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Jerry Cornelius

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