The single biggest complaint of professional purchasers is that salespeople talk too much and don’t listen enough.
That’s according to the Purchasing Manager’s Association of America’s annual survey.
Poor-performing salespeople dominate the talking, while top salespeople dominate the listening. It’s possible for a salesperson to talk too much, but it’s rarely possible to listen too much. When salespeople are excellent listeners, prospects and customers feel comfortable and secure with them. They then buy more readily and more often.
The second biggest mistake made by salespeople is their failure to ask enough good questions or phrase them properly. The key to understanding customers has more to do with questions salespeople ask rather than the answers they provide.
Mistake #1: Talking too much and not listening enough
Two things stop salespeople from listening: They have a lot to say because they want to show off the expertise they’ve developed. And they don’t understand that the fastest way to irritate a prospect is by talking too much and listening too little.
They’ve listened to the customer’s side so often, they feel they can predict what the customer will say. So they learn less about the customer’s needs than what effective listeners would uncover.
Benefits of good listening
There are several benefits to listening that can never be gained by talking:
- Listening builds trust. When a salesperson intently listens to a customer, it instills trust in the customer that the salesperson is looking out for the buyer’s best interests.
- Listening lowers resistance. It reduces tension and defensiveness on the part of customers who realize they aren’t going to be pushed into making a purchase through force of words.
- Listening builds self-esteem for customers. It’s flattering for a customer to know that a salesperson is listening intently to what’s being said.
Listening is not hearing
Listening is different from hearing. Hearing is passive. It’s what people do when a bore starts talking. Listening is an active state in which the salesperson pays genuine attention to what customers or prospects say.
It’s a skill that needs constant development. When salespeople listen more, what they hear sounds less repetitious and more meaningful.
Eight approaches that promote active listening:
- Interact. Active listening is not a silent activity. Show that you’re tracking with customers by giving them short verbal feedback like, “I see” or “Go on.” Nod your head. Use body language to show the customer you’re interested in what’s being said.
- Don’t interrupt. Ideally, the only time you should break up the customer’s conversation stream is if you need clarification on what’s being said.
- Avoid distractions. Focus your attention on the prospect or customer. Communication is best in a calm, relaxed atmosphere.
- Paraphrase. Repeat in your own words one or more points the customer makes. Paraphrasing lets the customer know that you’re listening. It also shows that you have a clear understanding of what’s being said.
- Restate. Repeat verbatim all or part of what a customer has said while placing emphasis on one part of it. The main purpose of restating is to get prospects to give more information. Additional information can be the difference between making a sale or not.
- Summarize. Active listening involves mentally summarizing points that have been made. Try to state brief summaries at key moments in your presentations. Summarizing also lets you take charge of the direction of the conversation.
- Avoid arguing. A good listener is there to find out what the customer thinks and where he or she is coming from. If the customer wants to hear your opinion, he or she will ask. Otherwise, it’s a good idea to remain silent, especially if a customer seems upset.
- Don’t be afraid of silence. Silence gives you time to think about what the other person is saying. Silence is a natural part of listening and not a space to be filled as quickly as possible with meaningless conversations. It’s a good idea to use this test: Will what you have to say improve on the silence?
Talking vs. communicating
The traditional view of selling holds that great salespeople are great talkers who can address any subject confidently and completely. They talk fast and are naturally gifted at persuasion.
But the reality is a willingness to talk about anything doesn’t equal good communication. Salespeople who use this strategy are focused only on what they’re saying. Successful salespeople focus not on themselves but on prospects and customers. They’re constantly receiving, observing and absorbing. They talk to unearth fresh insights and find new points of alignment. They listen to find ways to interweave their product or service with the customer’s goals or targets.
The most effective salespeople understand that communication is a process characterized by a constant flow of give and take, back and forth, questions and answers between a salesperson and a prospect.
Mistake #2: Failing to ask good questions or phrase them properly
Given the advantages of good questioning, you’d think sales professionals would spend the bulk of their time developing good questions and learning how to phrase them properly.
It doesn’t happen enough. Studies show that salespeople do 80% of the talking during a sales call. They’re not asking the right questions and aren’t listening. Instead, they’re telling the customer something about their product or service that may not correspond to the customer’s needs.
The problem for many salespeople is clear: There’s lack of preparation when it comes to developing effective questions. Take the time to walk through all your questions you might ask and the possible responses you could receive.
The key is being prepared for each response and being prepared for the next question. The best time to think about what you’re going to say to an objection or a prospect concern is not the instant before you say it.
The best salespeople continually think ahead about questions that move the sales process forward.
Some suggestions for doing so:
- Find out exactly what they want. Make it easy for prospects to think beyond any objections that are gnawing away at them. Get them thinking emotionally and creatively by asking:
Given the ideal situation, what would you want?
If you could get exactly what you want, what would that be?
If you would be able to design a perfect program, what would it have?
- Help them feel the results in advance. People buy because they picture themselves already enjoying the results of your product or service. Your questions help them do this. Some examples:
What comments do you think you’d hear from your customers?
What are some of the ways you’d use them?
Can you think of any past problems this would have helped you avoid?
- Use result-oriented questions. Some prospects are only concerned about the result they’d get by using your product or service. So that should be the focus of your questions. For example:
What kind of turnaround time do you want?
How do you measure a good quality job?
What could our product or service do for you?
- Use alternative-choice questions to get sensitive information. If prospects are a little reluctant to give you certain info, here’s how you may be able to pull it out of them:
Would you say that your monthly production is about 2,000 units or would 6,000 be closer?
You’re purchasing your supplies now from TMT, right? Or is it ABC?
Here are 7 top reasons why effective questioning and listening drives business:
- Leads you to understand the current prospect situation and decide whether the account is worth pursuing.
- Allows you to identify and engage the right people that need to be involved in a buying deacon. It helps you avoid wasting your own time and the prospect’s time by making the right presentation to the wrong person.
- Helps establish a rapport that drives communication between you and the prospect.
- Helps establish a “comfort level” between you and the prospect to facilitate the exchange of essential information.
- Enables you to identify significant differences between your own capabilities and those of your competition. Good questions can help you uncover your competitors’ weaknesses and highlight your own strengths.
- Reinforces your credibility with a customer. It demonstrates that you’re interested in his or her needs and opinions, and not just in pushing product.
- Motivates and sustains your customer’s interest, stimulates thinking and modifies attitudes regarding you and your product or service.