In B2B sales, conversations with buyers are the key to cash. A Rep’s productivity is often determined by the buyer value being created in sales conversations. Creating buyer value requires a deep understanding of a buyer’s situation. Effective listening improves the odds of gaining such an understanding.
Mark Goulston is a psychiatrist and business coach. His book Just Listen is a useful reminder of listening techniques, many of which are relevant to B2B sales. For sales veterans, likely nothing new here. For sales perfectionists, however, his perspectives offer some rules which, when practiced, can further perfect listening practices. Ergo, the following are 11 rules for listening, with impact, in Business Development, as gleaned from his book. The insights are his. The interpretive errors, if any, are mine:
Rule 1: re-wire yourself to *really* listen. Our brains rely on past experience and instincts to make quick decisions. It’s a problem when a quick decision is flawed. It’s easier to leap to conclusions than to step back and analyze them.
Rule 2: with empathy, discover the *real* person you’ve chatted with. When you’re focused on getting something from someone else, you lose sight of who they really are and how they’re feeling. Understand the latter and you’ll transform yourself from a stranger to an ally. Buyer antagonism will give way to friendly insights and sustained engagement.
Rule 3: be interested, not interesting. Stop thinking of conversations as a tennis match in which you’re trying to score points. Instead, think of it as a detective game. Your goal is to learn as much about the other person as you can. Know that there’s something interesting about the person, and the situation[s] their business faces. Be determined to discover it. Be deeply and sincerely interested in others and you’ll be surprised at what you’re able to learn with their help.
Rule 4: park your dissonance. When people react to you in ways that suggest their perception of you differs from the image you’d like to project, don’t’ get defensive – get diffusive. Acknowledge it: “right now I feel like you feel I’m boxing you in and trying to force you to make a hard decision. I want you to know that I don’t want you to face any hard decisions.” When you really ‘get’ where someone’s coming from, and they get that you get them, they’re more likely to stick with you, rather than stick it to you.
Rule 5: baring necks, not teeth. When you’re feeling cornered and you feel like baring your teeth, dig deeper and bare your neck instead. Let your buyer see that you’re human. When you sense a buyer feels afraid or is in distress, encourage them to tell you about it and let them know your respect them for having the guts to bare their neck.
Rule 6: kick but. With buyers who are somewhere between resisting and listening, but not ready to move to considering, invite people to tell you what they think is impossible and they’ll lower their guard to consider what is possible. It’s ‘the impossibility question’. Such as: “what is something that would be impossible but if you could do it would accelerate your success?” Then ask, “what would make it possible?”
Rule 7: use ‘the empathy jolt’ on yourself. You can’t be curious and selling at the same moment. When someone tells you something that you first think is odd, stop yourself. Based on what you’ve learned about them so far, ask yourself: ‘how would I feel if I were them right now?’
Rule 8: hmmm your way to deeper discussions. Use “Hmmm …” as a tool when facing a person who’s angry, defensive, or sure that you’re the bad guy. It turns a potential brawl into a cooperative dialogue. It says to the person who’s surprised you that what they say is important, worth listening to and worth of some sort of action. It does all this without committing you to anything. It’s a technique for avoiding getting defensive and, instead, going deeper.
Rule 9: stipulate your weaknesses. Show poise by openly expressing the misgivings people have about you, or your solutions, and buyers will be more likely to give you’re their positive and undivided attention.
Rule 10: replace transactional with transformational. Ask questions in conversation that invite your buyer to reflect and think. To turn their ‘eyes to the sky’. To say, ‘that’s a really good question’. Goulston contends that when you cause buyers to look up and consider their answer, when they then look down to answer you the conversation won’t ever be the same again.
Rule 11: fill in the blanks. Direct questions can make buyers feel like they’re being interrogated. There’s a risk that their answers will be rote rather than revealing. Use the ‘fill in the blanks’ questioning technique to ensure you’ve understood what a buyer’s thinking of doing, and why. “You’re thinking of doing xxxx, because ________________. By doing this, you’re hoping to accomplish _____________.” This approach lets them feel like you’re talking with them, not to them.
As a post-script, some further points:
Goulston’s latest book REAL INFLUENCE applies many of these listening techniques to the broader question of gaining influence in a post-selling world. The key? Producing usable insights, from what you’ve learned from how you’ve listened, as summarized here.
John Holland, co-Founder, CustomerCentric Selling, notes the power of ‘the pause’ in getting sellers to listen and buyers to share their views. A major barrier to listening is not pausing. “After asking a question, as the buyers are responding, sellers can be more concerned about their next question rather than the buyer’s answer. Too few sellers use pauses. It isn’t a race. Unlike Jeopardy, there is no reward for how soon sellers respond. Quick answers often sound like canned. A reflective pause before delivering the same response will likely be considered a thoughtful answer the buyer will hear.”
Greg Wagner, Principal, ValuEngager advocates summarizing what the buyer has just said before making a point or answering a question.”This does three things:
• It forces you to listen to the buyer so you can confirm what they have said
• It ensures and confirms your understanding
• It gives you more time to process, filter and deliver the best possible response.”
A colleague who’s been a top performer at his firm for years has a simple technique that he uses. Armed with rules like the above, when he’s having a conversation with a buyer over the phone, he buries his head in his hands to physically force himself to listen hard.
For my part, I find by *not* taking notes during a conversation, I force myself to listen harder to what the buyer’s saying and more naturally ask questions in the flow of the conversation.
What are your own rules and perfected practicesfor effective listening? What other listening techniques have you found work well in discovering your buyers’ goals and challenges?