Too often, we think of “communication” as telling our own story. Salespeople are particularly vulnerable to this because you’re excited to tell prospects all about whatever it is you’re selling. Or to tell existing clients what else you can do for them. Negotiators in any setting are vulnerable, too, because your goal is to make your point.
But the other side may not be receptive when you focus on telling your story or making your point. To truly communicate, you must first become a good listener – an active listener — and then tell your story. Do that, and you’ll discover more receptive prospects and clients. You’ll be able to tell a better story and reap better outcomes.
So, how can you listen your way to better communication with your prospects and clients?
As It Turns Out, It’s Not All About You
The old way looks like this: You’re armed to the teeth with selling points (or your negotiation demands). You have The Solution and you’re prepared to deliver it. Surely the other person will see the light. This can come across as patronizing (you have all the answers), which won’t endear anyone to you. Worse, how do you know your solution is even the right one? Maybe the product or service you want the prospect to buy isn’t what they actually need, or want. Maybe the other side cannot agree to your demands, as is, for some reason.
You can blame it on your sales or negotiation training if you want, but the old way doesn’t work anymore. The old way taught you to take the bull by the horns, take control of the situation, etc., and be the first to state your case. That puts you in the power position, right? As a salesperson, you had the information a prospect needed to learn about your products or services, and they were dependent on you to get the facts.
These days, anyone can get as much information as they want simply by looking online. Prospects don’t need you to gather facts about your products and services or about your competitors. However, you still need to gather information from them. And that’s equally true if you’re in a negotiation. The more you know about your counterpart, the more effective you can be.
And that takes active listening skills because you can’t learn about them if you’re doing all the talking. Or poised on the edge of your seat just waiting to make your next point.
What is active listening?
It depends on who you ask, but the underlying theme is the same – putting the other person first.
Brandon Voss of Black Swan Group says, “Active communication is a technique that enables you to verbally and nonverbally communicate in a way that makes you agreeable and easy to understand. Active listening is a technique that uses verbal and nonverbal cues (e.g., eye contact and nodding along) to indicate that you’re making a real effort to understand your counterpart and makes it easier for you to be trusted.”
When you adjust your behavior so that you’re using those cues, says Voss, you’ll get a more positive response. It will be easier for you to be more engaged in the conversation, and it will be obvious to the other person that you are engaged.
When he was with HubSpot, Databox CEO Peter Caputa wrote a guide to active listening for his sales team. He takes a more holistic approach to the subject and says there are four steps to active listening:
- Truly listen to the prospect – their tone of voice, facial expressions and body language as well as the words they choose — to understand the feelings behind what they are saying. That helps put yourself in their shoes.
- Reflect back your understanding of what they just said – In person, your own facial expressions and body language may be enough; otherwise, repeat their key point in your own words.
- Verify that you heard correctly – do you need clarification or amplification of what they just said?
- Ask a relevant follow up question – this keeps the prospect thinking about their needs or wants.
Why Is Active Listening Better?
Listening actively builds trust. It shows you aren’t focused solely on yourself but are trying to find common ground or solutions that will benefit everyone. In a world where we are surrounded by too much noise, the simple act of showing you care can inspire your counterpart to pay closer attention to you, too. They trust you to hear them and help them, not just talk at them.
As Pet Caputa noted, when you take the time to actually listen to your counterpart and then verify what you heard, you learn what really motivates them. Their pain points or challenges. The reasons they are negotiating with you or potentially interested in purchasing from you. In effect, they are telling you how to sell to them, or negotiate with them, most effectively.
So now, when it’s your turn to tell your story, you can speak directly to those issues that matter most to your listener. You can be sure you’ll have their full attention.
Active listening turns what most people see as potentially adversarial conversations into collaborative conversations. Instead of a winner and a loser, everyone benefits from the experience and gets the best possible result.
Becoming an Active Listener
You can put this skill in play with your very first contact. Just remember that active listening body language doesn’t do any good if the other person can’t see you. You have to use words instead of postures, gestures and facial expressions. And speaking of words . . .
Brandon Voss advocates for the “no question,” especially when cold-calling. He says sales teams have long been taught to get their prospect saying “yes” to questions so they’re primed to agree to an appointment, etc. Voss believes that’s counter-productive, because as soon as your prospect says “yes,” you stop paying attention. So if they actually say, “yes, but . . . ,” or “yes, and . . .,” you won’t hear the most important part of their response. They agreed with you – sort of — and they tried to tell you they still need more information, or reassurance. But you missed that, so now you and your prospect are no longer on the same wavelength.
Instead, Voss says “no” questions remind people what they’re missing (gaps your products or services can fill). “Is what you’re doing now working well for you? No? ” Now you can ask “why not” and uncover what matters. That’s active listening the “no” way.
The Bottom Line
Active listening helps the person you’re talking to feel more comfortable. Comfort builds trust, and when they can tell you are truly “listening between the lines” when they speak, that strengthens trust. You’re helping, not selling. You can work together to solve their problems, and you’ll still get to tell your story.