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These days, sales representatives must possess a wide range of proficiencies in order to excel in the field.
In addition to being product experts, market researchers, and charismatic spokespeople, they also have to be curious students and empathetic counselors.
Learning and listening are, therefore, two of the most important soft skills any sales professional can possess.
Luckily, these seemingly innate listening skills can be acquired and perfected through study, repetition, and reinforcement.
What is Active Listening?
Active listening is the practice of listening to a speaker while providing feedback indicating that you both listen and hear and understand what the speaker is saying.
But active listening serves a greater purpose than just letting the speaker know you hear them. A good active listener is playing multiple roles and achieving many goals within each conversation, including:
Acknowledging the speaker’s value
Encouraging the speaker to elaborate on their thoughts
Creating an empathetic bond with the speaker
Establishing an honest and trusting relationship
From the perspective of the modern professional sales active listening is an indispensable skill to possess when seeking to build mutually beneficial relationships with prospects.
Because in the end, successful sales numbers are the result of effective information gathering. Those who know more about their potential client win the deal.
If a salesperson can guide the conversation toward that prospect’s goals, roadblocks, and ambitions, it becomes much easier to design and deliver a pitch.
This is particularly true when using consultative selling methods that require prospects to view their conversation partners as trusted, experienced advisors.
Why Active Listening Works (in Sales and in Life)
Active listening isn’t a new conversational technique, designed specifically to better engage listeners in the internet age. But it does resonate particularly well with our brains nowadays.
Perhaps that’s because of the indirect nature of mass communication. Email, texting, and social media have made actual real-time conversations more scarce. As a result of this void, conversational speakers have become more prone to what psychologists call the “shift response.”
In a nutshell, shift response is when a listener redirects the conversation back to themselves. Shift response is a natural tendency most people have but can learn to avoid. In its worst forms, it can be described as a conversational narcissism, where anyone else’s statements are treated as irrelevant, and every topic is redirected to oneself.
Sales professionals managing discovery calls, demos, or pitches can use this natural impulse to keep their prospect in the conversational “driver’s seat.”
The more a prospect speaks, the more sales reps will learn about their needs and desires. Additionally, the speaker will begin to feel more comfortable with the sales professional, knowing that their circumstances and wishes are understood.
Of course, conversations “IRL” are a balance between listening, sharing, and reinforcing so both parties can feel respected and heard. In the sales scenario, however, it’s more important — at least in the beginning — that the salesperson follows active listening best practices to push the conversational balance toward the prospect.
There will come a point where sales reps need to talk, but by that point, the prospect will have developed a sense of trust and understanding, having explained their position and circumstances thoroughly.
3 Ingredients of Active Listening for Sales Professionals
Active listening is a process which can be practiced to perfection. It involves three steps (with a focus on the third).
Let’s break these down.
As a good active listener, it’s important to fully understand what it is your prospect is telling you.
Going into any sales conversation, you must have a proficient knowledge of the prospect’s industry and position, as well as a little on their personal background. You should already have a basic idea of what type of buyer persona you’ll be speaking to and how to pitch your product as a good fit for their needs.
This is not to say, however, that you get a pass on step one. Comprehension is about more than just hearing the speakers’ words.
To fully comprehend what a speaker is saying, you must try to put yourself in their position and internalize their reality. What are the stressors they experience on a daily basis? Does success seem possible? What would it feel like?
A good active listener can retain and recall specific conversational details to keep a conversation progressing and show that they’re engaged. But this process becomes more difficult after a full day of sales calls, meetings, and emails.
Sales professionals will better retain information during a cold call or demo if they’re taking notes. However, while reps are on a call, these bullet points should be concise and to-the-point. Agents can form follow up questions and record essential information using very few words.
But for the modern seller, it’s vital to share and store these notes correctly.
After a sales call has ended, all notes should be recorded in the sales team’s CRM — under the correct profile — and other shared files. This serves two functions.
For one, it centralizes prospect-specific information in an easy-to-access location. Having complete contact history in front of you each time you engage a particular prospect will ensure they’re informed and ready to sell every time they start a conversation. This fosters reliability, respect, and rapport between the seller and prospect.
Second, it simplifies any handoffs your team will make. Inevitably, your Sales Development Reps (SDRs) will forward a potential customer to an Account Executive for demos and onboardings. Even after you win a deal, the information in your CRM is accessible by support employees. More importantly, if the deal has to be postponed for whatever reason, your records are recoverable by anyone on your team when the time is right.
Factual information should always be available, such as purchasing timelines and use-case specifics. But observational points like interest-levels, personality traits, and hesitations can also be useful to know.
Taking a few moments after each call ends to recap and evaluate the deal will help your sales velocity and build the working relationship. Most phone systems will have an accessible call recording feature as well, and top performing sellers will frequently review their calls just as a quarterback would review game-footage. All this helps sales professionals retain conversations and become better active listeners.
Comprehending and retaining a speaker’s points are true of any good conversationalist. What makes active listening an effective way of building empathy and trust is the tactical act of responding.
Especially in non-visual communication (i.e. on the phone) a listener must vocally acknowledge that they’re listening, understanding, and engaged in what the speaker has to say.
Broken down, this involves three levels of acknowledgment.
Affirmations let the speaker know you’re present in the conversation. These include statements like “go on,” “I understand,” and “I see,” among a long list of others. Insert these phrases during natural pauses in the prospect’s sentences, while they’re in the middle of a thought.
Paraphrasing is a level higher. By reflecting the speaker’s ideas in your own words, you let them know you’ve internalized what it is they’ve said. Minimally, this projects thoughtfulness and respectfulness on your part, but it also makes the speaker feel like they’re making valid articulate points.
Questioning is the third, and final, level. When a speaker has made their points, it’s a good active listener’s job to continue the conversation in a way that encourages the speaker (or prospect) to continue leading the way. They should pertain to the topic at hand, and promote more-than-one-word answers. Examples include “Do you know what you’re going to do to solve this issue?” or “Can you explain your thought process behind this strategy?”
(Beware of the “Why” questions though — too many will seem prying rather than inquisitive.)
Barriers To Active Listening for Sales Professionals
Active listening takes practice. It may come naturally to some, but not for others.
Even for gifted listeners and conversationalists, the sales profession (and life) can create barriers that prevent trust-building calls. Recognizing these obstacles can help overcome their effects and stay present in the exchange.
The very phenomenon that enables active listening to be such a valuable skill is also something that can derail a salesperson if they’re not careful. But in the sales scenario, you don’t have to worry about conversational narcissism as much as you do agenda anxiety.
Of course, you wouldn’t be on the phone at all if the recipient weren’t a prospective customer, but the urge to close the deal as quickly as possible shouldn’t be a top priority when active listening.
Active listening builds a sense of empathy, but it also requires it to work in the first place. It helps to take a consultative approach from the very beginning. Imagine you’re not trying to make quota or achieve a quick handoff, but instead, you’re a concerned friend who wants to see your prospect hit their marks and succeed.
Comprehending, retaining, and responding require a focused mind and minimal distractions. However, the modern sales environment rarely resembles a medieval monastery.
Only preparation can combat factors such as noise, hunger, and work-notifications. Most experienced salespeople will have many recommendations for noise-canceling or isolating headphones with built-in speakers. Using call booths or booking private conference rooms in advance also eliminates common stressors for outbound calls.
And since elementary school is thankfully over, you don’t need to wait until lunchtime to grab a snack. Keeping small amounts of trail mix and other dry-food goods will keep your blood sugar balanced and conversations productive.
Selling over the phone can be mentally taxing, especially when you’re expending large amounts of concentration and empathy.
Setting designated break-times throughout the day will ensure you’re ready to employ active listening techniques when called upon. Additionally, meditation apps and other relaxation tools are becoming more popular in the workplace as ways for employees to recover mental edge and productivity.
Active Listening: An Everyday Sales Strategy
Combating the sales stereotypes is easy for professionals who learn how to listen in a positive and empathetic way. Humility and respect win deals far more often than aggressive techniques. Practicing active listening outside of work will help solidify the principles.
Prospects have goals and desires, and they want to be heard. When you give them a platform to do just that, you’ll be one step closer to your own goals.