Listening well improves business results, including sales. Consider these findings:
- A study of 267 leading U.S. businesses found that upgrading team members’ communication effectiveness is associated with a 30% improvement in the organization’s market value.
- Fortune 500s lose an estimated $15,000 per employee per year due to miscommunication. This adds up to over $50 million in annual losses.
- In the average SMB, about 17.5 hours per week are spent on clarifying miscommunications.
- In the average SMB, $420,000 is lost each year due to productivity losses resulting from miscommunication.
- Only 13% of U.S. workers strongly agree that senior managers in their organizations communicate effectively.
- IN 2010, approximately 11 million business meetings took place every day in the U.S. That’s over 3 billion per year! Significant portions of meetings are spent on repetition due to poor listening.
- Poor listening skills are at the core of most workplace conflicts.
These findings are reported by various sources. There are no contradictory findings. Improved listening improves productivity, employee and customer satisfaction, and business results.
In the CONNECT2Sell series on Soft Skills in Selling, we recently focused on the soft skills related to verbal communication. Future posts will shift to non-verbal communication and written communication before returning to other types of soft skills sellers need to succeed. But no discussion of verbal communication would be complete without a look at the companion skill of listening.
What's the Missing Ingredient in these 3 Sales Scenarios?
These examples come directly from coaching observations with sellers in three different industries. They have been selected because they represent common situations, not because they are exceptions.
Bryce sells diagnostic medical equipment. Decisions to purchase his products are often made by Value Analysis Committees inside healthcare institutions. Doctors have influence in these committees, but input also comes from administrators, department heads, clinicians, and others like marketing and finance team members. Most of Bryce’s discovery calls and demos involve 6-8 committee members, and sometimes up to a dozen people. The meetings are time-consuming, expensive (due to travel), and hard to control with so many people representing so many varied needs and interests. Quite often, not all committee members would make it to these meetings. That necessitated repeat visits or video conferences to catch them up. Bryce was extremely frustrated.
Last year, with his sales manager’s support, Bryce decided to manage his workload differently. He now requires VACs to submit written responses to his (lengthy) qualifying questionnaire. Then he sends a video demo that’s specific to their stated needs. He sets up appointments only after this initial screening, and he takes questions and answers objections during these “Third Touchpoint” meetings. Bryce expected to close over 75% of the buyers who advanced to this stage. He found, however, that less than 10% of prospects complete the first two stages and only 10% of those who take “Third Touchpoint” meetings are actively advancing with him. His sales dipped dramatically, and he’s not sure how to recover without going back to his old, laborious process of meeting in person with large committees.
Victoria sells print and digital advertising. In addition to the newspaper and its website, she has an extensive array of digital advertising options plus event sponsorships, specialty magazine, direct mail, and other products to offer. It’s difficult to understand and sell the full array of products, mainly because they change frequently and each has different specifications, ordering processes, and audiences. Most sellers in her organization do “triage selling,” focusing on whatever product has the next deadline or what sales managers are incentivizing the most.
Like many of her time-pressed and deadline-stressed colleagues, Victoria pounces when she hears even a remote signal that suggests a buyer might be interested in the product du jour. Even if the link is weak, she shifts to pitch mode as soon as there’s an opening. In our first sales call together, this is what I observed. After the usual small talk, Victoria asked a small retail store owner “What’s your goal for business this year?” The owner said “We need to hire and keep more people. I’m working 80 hours a week, and that’s not good for my family.” Victoria followed up with “Oh, so business is pretty good then?” and even before the owner could answer that question, Victoria said “Then you’ll want to be a part of our special section called “Progress” where we feature local businesses who are thriving. This will be perfect for you!”
Dan sells fresh produce to grocers. His prices change (sometimes multiple times in the same day) based on available supply and quality. Dan’s customers enter their orders into a portal, and he calls to confirm details related to sourcing, shipping, and price. It’s not unusual for buyers to complain about the rates, shipping delays, quality, or other concerns when Dan reaches them. After all, they’re charged with getting the best produce at the best price. Their job is to negotiate, and many of them are measured on profit margins for the product lines they manage.
Because he’s heard it all before, Dan braces himself for calls with certain buyers. When possible, he emails instead of calling or hopes he can leave a message rather than talking person-to-person. Before calling the buyers he knows will push hard for reduced prices or other concessions, Dan girds himself up with a shadow-boxing moves at his desk. He prepares for battle, and he responds defensively or dodges to deflect every perceived jab.
For three very different reasons, the buyers who work with these sellers aren’t feeling heard.
Bryce’s buyers aren’t engaged. His new process puts efficiency over effectiveness. He forgot that there are people and emotional needs and a desire for connections embedded in the lengthy buyers’ process.
Victoria’s buyers aren’t being seen as unique buyers with unique needs. They’re being seen as faceless prospects who can, somehow, be corralled into products that meet Victoria’s needs.
Dan’s buyers aren’t being taken seriously or treated with empathy. They’re required to engage in these conversations, and they’re measured by their effectiveness. They need win/win collaboration vs. winner/loser competition in their negotiations.
What’s missing in all three examples is listening. Bryce isn’t even hearing what needs to be said. Victoria isn’t actively listening and processing the information she hears before responding. Bryce isn’t listening with empathy to understand the emotional context in addition to the content of what’s said.
Why Listening Tops the List of Must-Have Communication Skills for Success in Selling
There are three levels of listening. Buyers need sellers to listen fully. Seller comprehension and empathy only comes from truly listening.
The average person only retains 25% of what they hear in business conversations. Average means that some retain even less. That’s a big barrier for sellers who want to be responsive to buyer needs. It’s a lot of lost opportunities in examples like the one above and in less dramatic examples, too, like these:
- Two people attend the same meeting and leave with two completely different recollections and interpretations of what was said.
- A seller leaves the discovery meeting with a buyer and prepares a proposal to meet buyer needs. But the primary needs are completely missed and the solution falls short of swaying the buyer.
- A manager clearly explains expectations, but team members need to hear them multiple times before they fully understand and are able to meet them.
- Sellers work with team members to prepare a custom demo for a prospect. Despite the prep work, the demo doesn’t go as planned. Some team members didn’t deliver and didn’t seem to understand the role they were supposed to play.
- And SDR hands a hot lead over to an account rep, recapping the prospect’s needs and potential objections. The rep calls the prospect at the appointed time but irritates the buyer by asking many of the same questions that the SDR already asked.
These problems are all linked to listening.
Techniques You Haven't Heard Before that Will Improve the Quality of Your Listening
Improving your listening skills will make you a stronger seller. Your professional sellership depends, in fact, on the quality of your listening.
You can find many good books, articles, online resources, and classes that will teach you to be a better listener. Rather than recapping what’s available elsewhere, we’d like to offer you three simple, sure-fire techniques that you probably haven’t heard of before.
Listen for what’s different, not what’s familiar.
We’ve been taught to mentally multi-task when we listen. We take shortcuts while listening. One of the most common shortcuts is to listen for something familiar or expected. We pop into conversations when we hear something we can attach to.
If someone mentions a place we’ve visited, we feel compelled to interject with our own thoughts about that place with something like “Oh, yeah! I’ve been to Verona, too, and absolutely loved it there!”
Similarly, we interrupt and steer conversations when we hear something expected or anticipated. We affirm or shut down lines of conversation by reacting before the full thought has been shared. Because it’s familiar we also tend to fill in the blanks with our own assumptions and extensions. Our minds easily wander beyond what the speaker is actually trying to convey.
What we don’t listen as closely for is what’s unexpected, new, or different. That’s why people so often have to backtrack with a “wait, what?” thought and request.
When you deliberately enter into a conversation with a fixed purpose of listening for what’s different, you’ll hear more. You’ll be more actively engaged. Your mind will be less likely to wander and fill in the blanks.
Listen for the feelings behind the words.
This is the essence of empathy. In business, we’re somewhat conditioned to keep things clinical and to avoid getting emotionally entangled. As a result, we may notice others’ emotions but choose to ignore them. Over time, having ignored emotions for so long, we may not even notice them. And, when we do, we view the person displaying emotions in a negative light.
But the truth is that we’re all human, including buyers. Emotions happen. They leak out. When someone notices and responds to our emotions, we feel more connected to that person than we do to others who keep things clinical.
Buyers convey feelings with all sorts of subtle signals – a sigh, a quickened pace, a facial expression, a swallow, etc. Sellers often miss these cues because they are focused on their own emotions in the moment or because they don’t want to pry.
When you notice feelings that are used to enhance the meaning of the words, it’s okay to appropriately inquire about them. Questions like “It sounds like there’s a little more going on there… what’s the rest of the story?” are usually welcomed and let buyers know you care.
Know your own listening habits so you can become more flexible.
We’ve all developed certain habits when it comes to listening. We prioritize and filter for certain types of information. We respond differently to different types of delivery. We tune out, without realizing it, when style or substance doesn’t resonate with us.
Understanding your own listening habits can help you heighten your awareness and become more versatile in your listening. You can be more receptive even when what’s being said (or how it’s being said) is less appealing to you.
The ECHO Listening Assessment is a powerful tool for identifying your own listening habits and understanding others’ habits, too. Sellers who use this tool can form stronger and faster bonds with buyers.
Taking proactive steps to improve your listening will set you apart from other sellers. In our research with buyers, the behavior that buyers wanted most from sellers was that “the seller engages in two-way dialogue with me.” Two-way includes listening. It’s the master skill for communication, and a critical soft skill for successful selling.