I recently received an email from an industry associate who said she had been cleaning out her office, when she came across one of my old blogs. She had printed it out and hung onto it. The topic of that blog dealt with the gathering of information from customers and the excerpt she saved read as follows:

The best information is not necessarily gained by mailing out multiple-page questionnaires. I recently called a major prospect with which I had been unsuccessful in gaining new business. I talked to the chief engineer who I have known for years. There was a long list of survey questions, but I simply asked: Where have we fallen short in terms of getting your business? What could we change in order to stand a better chance? It was amazing how he opened up and told me in an honest and straightforward manner what direction his company was heading and how we could adjust in the future to better compete for their business. I did very little talking. Instead, I just listened, and I learned a great deal.

Sounds easy right?

It would seem so, but some salespeople find listening to be an extremely difficult skill to master. I was one of them. (“Was” being the keyword.) But, over the years, I have learned to work on the art of listening. The first part of mastering this art includes mastering the practice of disengaging one’s vocal cords, while also refraining from contemplating responses. One cannot listen if the mind is busy gathering thoughts on what it is one wants to say next. So, the part of the mind that is used to prepare for speech must be temporarily shut off. Believe it or not, this requires practice for many of us, especially those of us who love to debate. So, try practicing this skill from time to time in non-critical situations, and you will become a much better listener in more critical moments as well. You will then be able to use your listening skills to better understand your customers. If you’re usually a talker and you’re practicing with those who know you well, you may actually have to explain that you haven’t lost your voice!

Focus on the Body

During the listening process, take notes, but not to the extent that eye contact suffers. There must be a balance. Also, don’t even think about looking at your phone. Practice open body posture. Arms must not be folded; they should be at your side. I have oftentimes found that customers respond positively when my arms are folded behind my head. It almost looks like I have put on a large listening device, not unlike an antenna.

Once you become practiced in the skill of not speaking and you have displayed your receptors with open body language, the next thing you need to do to hone your listening skills includes adsorbing what is being said. You’ll also need to learn how to summarize and repeat major thoughts that are being presented to you back to the person you are engaging with—at the right moment. So, after you feel that the person talking has finished his or her message and reached a conclusion, it is imperative to summarize, in your own words, the major points of their message. This is a very important part of the listening process. By repeating back to the customer or prospect the critical elements of what he or she has said, you are letting them know that you care enough about their point of view to fully understand what they are saying. Regardless of whether you agree with their point or not, they now feel validated with the satisfaction that you have taken the time to listen to what they were saying and now fully understand their message. Also, don’t hesitate to ask good questions in order to draw out more information from the customer or prospect, as this will better help you to understand their needs.

What Goes Around

One of the rewards in learning to listen better includes the fact that those who are listened to are more apt to listen. Once a customer realizes that you have taken the time to really listen and appreciate their points of view, they will typically be in a more open frame of mind to appreciate any opposing point of view—simply on the merits that you have listened to begin with. So, if your response falls short of fulfilling all of their needs, then they will be much more apt to hold a favorable view of you and your company, even if you can’t offer a complete solution. Better yet, if your response includes an admission of the areas in which you fall short, but there’s an honest indication that you fully understand where the shortcomings exist, then you may find a very understanding and appreciative customer on the other end.

Don’t look at shortcomings as failures, but instead as opportunities. By effectively listening, half the battle is won. You know exactly what must done in order to earn or keep their business!


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