Meet Pete and Allison — they both work as salespeople at the same company selling office supplies and paper to businesses. They’re both eager to hit their monthly sales goal, but only one of them has been consistently successful. Can you guess who?
At this point, it’s impossible to tell. Let’s shed some light on the situation a bit more.
One afternoon, Pete and Allison have meetings scheduled with potential customers. While Pete has prepared each minute of his presentation, Allison has taken a different approach, only prepping with customer research and a small list of questions.
Can you guess now? Let’s keep going.
During the sales meeting, Pete dives right in — he thinks he’s killing it already. Within minutes, the customer asks a few questions which forces him to pause. He gives short answers without making eye contact, then continues onward with his presentation. Five minutes pass and his phone lights up with a message — without even blinking an eye, he decides to check it. As he concludes his pitch, the customer crosses their arms and says no more. Pete leaves the meeting wondering why he didn’t close the deal.
Allison, on the other hand, knows exactly why she closed the deal. During her sales meeting, Allison lead with empathy. She put herself in the mind of the customer and asked thoughtful questions to better understand what they’re possibly feeling, thinking, and experiencing. Instead of fixating on her end goal of closing the sale, she simply focused on being present and listening intently to understand. Even as she heard the vibrating buzz of her phone in the distance, she did not let that break her attention from what was most important at that moment: her new customer.
Now can you guess who’s been more successful in sales?
The better the listener, the better the salesperson
If you guessed Allison, congratulations — you guessed right! It’s pretty clear she’s the more successful salesperson if she’s using this approach in every sales meeting. She not only demonstrates the ability to empathize but the ability to listen.
Pete, on the other hand, fails to do both of these things. This results in an undesirable outcome for himself and his potential customer. He not only misses hitting his monthly sales goal, but loses the opportunity to help someone find the right solution to their problem. It’s a loss-loss for everyone.
Unfortunately, Pete’s behavior isn’t uncommon, especially in the world of sales. Salespeople are often trained to move fast, close the next deal, and move the needle in their direction against all odds. This only perpetuates the stereotype of salespeople being too chatty, pushy, and self-serving.
However, when salespeople lead with empathy, they develop important soft skills — such as listening — that have the power to end this stereotype and transform their selling.
Activate your listening
Studies have shown that we only remember 25 to 50% of what we hear. And the more time that passes, the less information we retain. Just think — almost half of what you say in your lifetime will not be remembered by the receiving person! Whether that’s your fault or theirs, the message should be clear: listening is an active process, not a passive one.
Active listening is the ability to listen with the intent to understand. It’s more than just hearing what the other person is saying — it’s responding thoughtfully to create mutual understanding. It means putting those empathy muscles to work to get out of your head and into your customer’s.
Just like empathy, active listening is a skill that requires effort, commitment, and persistence. It’s not something that can be developed overnight. However, you’ll be on your way to becoming a better listener—and salesperson—by adopting the following habits.
Think back to a conversation that left you feeling ignored, misunderstood, or unvalued. It probably didn’t feel too great — and you probably didn’t want to talk to that person again for a very long time. But reflect on why that conversation was so uncomfortable. Did you learn everything about them but they learned nothing about you? If they directed a question your way, were you able to say more than “yes” or “no”?
It’s more than likely that the conversation was completely one-sided. In sales, this is not what you want to happen as it can leave the customer feeling exactly how you felt: ignored, misunderstood, and unvalued. To avoid this, seek to create a dialogue by asking open-ended and clarifying questions.
Open-ended questions are questions designed to invite detailed responses, which yield deeper insights into the customer’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences. For example, “Why did you choose your current software provider?”
Clarifying questions are questions that summarize your understanding of what the customer said to ensure it’s correct. If it’s not correct, then it creates an opportunity to resolve any confusion or misunderstanding. For example, “Did I understand you correctly when you said your current software provider is built on legacy code that causes weekly system crashes?”
Instead of waiting for the customer to finish their sentence so you can get to your next question on the list, follow up with questions that allow them to elaborate or clarify what they said. By crafting thoughtful responses, you show understanding and a desire to keep understanding.
Reflect and paraphrase
Asking open-ended and clarifying questions is an excellent way to ensure everyone’s on the same page. However, you can show additional understanding by using reflecting and paraphrasing techniques.
Reflecting (also known as mirroring) is the process of repeating what the customer has said back to them, usually in a sentence or a few words. Regardless, the intention of reflecting should be to show your understanding and to encourage them to continue speaking. Use this technique sparingly, because it can come across as condescending or annoying if used too frequently.
Paraphrasing is the process of repeating what the customer has said back to them — but in your own words. This is often a difficult skill to master for most people because they’re tempted to insert their own ideas and opinions. However, paraphrasing is most successful when you remove your own bias and assumptions. Ultimately, the goal is to make the other person feel heard and understood.
While using these techniques, it’s important to pay attention to the customer’s body language. If you sense frustration as they discuss the aftermath of their latest server outage, then listen more carefully to gauge the intensity of that emotion. You’ll be able to demonstrate your empathy by acknowledging their frustration with affirmations and interjections.
Use affirmations and interjections
To actively listen does not mean to be totally silent. In fact, if you give no verbal feedback, it’s signaling to the receiver that you’re not following what they’re saying — or worse, you’re not interested in what they’re saying at all!
To show your understanding and interest, use brief and unobtrusive words to signal that you’re actively listening. These can be in the form of affirmations or injections.
Affirmations are phrases that provide emotional support or encouragement. These can show empathy (“I understand how that must make you feel…”), express gratitude (“Thank you for your transparency…”), or offer support (“I believe in you…”). Affirmations should be brief and used appropriately.
Interjections are words that express emotion. You may not notice how often you use them, but they add color to any conversation. It’s best to use interjections that reflect the tone and mood of the speaker. For example, if your customer is excited about their recent product launch, respond with “Wow!” or “Oh!” — words that express surprise and delight. Don’t react with “Duh!” or “Yikes!” unless you’re 100% certain the customer will appreciate your lack of enthusiasm.
Although an interjection makes it sound like you have permission to, well, interject, that’s not the case at all. As an active listener, your job is to not only seek understanding, but to know when and how to respond.
Wait your turn
Interrupting someone while they are speaking is not a polite thing to do. Unfortunately, we’re all guilty of doing this from time to time, especially when something is said that sparks an idea or thought that’s just too good to not share. Right. At. This. Moment.
The truth is, interrupting someone while they are speaking can quickly sour a conversation. If you interject before the customer finishes their sentence, it makes you appear as if you don’t care about what they’re saying, even if you do. Likewise, if you’re quick to add your two cents to everything they say, they’re likely going to stop sharing anything at all — they’ll decide that you’re just another chatty, pushy, and self-serving salesperson.
However, if you wait your turn to speak, then you’ll make customers feel treated with the respect, empathy, and patience they deserve. They’ll feel not only comfortable in sharing more of their ideas with you, but confident that you’re truly hearing and understanding each and every one of them.
Pause before responding
Imagine this: you’re in a sales call and the customer says they’re considering ending their contract. This catches you off guard — you feel shock, sadness, and maybe even some anger. What do you do?
If you’re leading with empathy, you don’t react with these emotions on the tip of your tongue. Instead, you take a moment to pause and catch your thoughts. You ask yourself, “what is the customer feeling or thinking right now?” This gives you insight into their decision-making, helping you steer the conversation to a mutual solution.
Tense and emotionally-charged conversations are unavoidable in sales. However, active listening allows you to navigate them with greater ease, especially when you’re able to hear what isn’t said.
Pay attention to nonverbal cues
Remember Pete, the salesman of office supplies and paper? He neglected to make eye contact with his customer, checked his phone in the middle of a meeting, and failed to notice when the customer crossed his arms at the end of his presentation. From the outside, all of these actions point to a disinterested salesperson.
If Pete was well-versed in body language, he would have known that what he was saying with his body was conflicting with what he was saying with his mouth. When our actions don’t match our words, it creates confusion and frustration. In the case of Pete’s customer, he couldn’t help but pick up on the cues and respond appropriately with his own nonverbal cues. Unfortunately for Pete, he wasn’t paying attention to these.
What someone says is only 50% of what they’re actually thinking or saying. Active listening requires you to tap into that other 50% by paying attention to not only the other person’s body language but your own. This includes facial expressions, posture, positioning, movement, and more.
For example, if a customer is saying everything’s great but they’re crossing their arms, dig deeper to understand what’s really going on. Likewise, if they refuse to make eye contact while saying they can’t wait to sign the new contract, it’s probably a good idea to hit pause and investigate why they’re feeling uneasy or uncomfortable. When you acknowledge what isn’t said, it shows you’ve been listening and truly care about their needs.
Like a conversation, body language is a two-way street. You give and you take. It’s important to consider how you’re projecting your body language to ensure you’re not giving off weak, aggressive, or negative vibes.
To communicate a more confident, approachable, and positive body language, consider using the following nonverbal cues:
Relax your posture, but don’t slouch
Maintain eye contact, but don’t stare
Lean in or nod your head while listening
Position your legs and feet in the direction of the speaker
Uncross your arms — keep them at your sides
Talk with your hands, but don’t let them dance
Don’t forget to smile
Likewise, don’t get distracted by the daily distractions of life like your phone, laptop, or even a rumbling stomach come lunchtime. If you’re meeting one-on-one with a customer, show that you value their time by turning the electronics off and giving them your undivided attention. If you’re constantly darting your eyes to watch for email notifications, it won’t be long before your customer notices that you’re not looking at them! Having the ability to ignore all distractions might take some willpower at first, but with time and practice, it’ll become second nature.
When you pay attention to nonverbal cues, you become more in tune with the nuances and sensitivities of others. It’ll be easier to notice when something is off or if someone isn’t being entirely truthful. This will help you establish deeper connections and relationships, especially if you can address these sensed issues from a place of compassion and understanding. If you’re getting mixed signals, don’t be afraid to follow up and clarify — you never know if the other person was just having a bad day.
Talk less, listen more
Allison knows her sales success depends on her ability to listen with the intent to understand. If she didn’t take the time to fully understand her customers’ problems, then how could she expect them to trust that she could provide the right solution?
Active listening requires conscious effort, but it’s an invaluable skill that allows you to build customer rapport more quickly, communicate more effectively, and empathize with others more easily. By learning to talk less and listen more, you’ll set yourself apart in sales — more effortlessly, at that.