I had scheduled a 45-min Discovery & Demo meeting with a prospect that I had reached out via a cold email outreach.
The conversation got extended to 1 hr 15 min, with two people participating from the prospect’s side.
Here’s the talk-time analysis of our conversation using Avoma:
I talked for 60% and listened to 40% of the time.
It’s not sufficient to just look at how long I listened, but it’s more important to understand how well I listened. That’s the difference between just listening vs Active Listening.
Successful selling requires a delicate balance between talking and listening. While you need to provide enough information to communicate your product’s value, you also have to make sure your prospect feels heard.
The most effective salespeople engage in Active Listening, allowing them to craft the most appropriate solution and win their prospects’ trust.
I’m sure most of you are already aware of what is active listening and why it is one of the most important skills in sales.
But to cover the base to ensure we are on the same page – active listening is a way for your salespeople to show your customers that they care and want to help (not just sell).
According to Merriam-Webster, active listening is 'to hear what someone said and understand that it is serious, important, or true.'
So, active listening refers to listening to your prospects and customers with complete attention and intent to understand what they say, what their pain points are, what problem they are looking to solve, etc. And in that essence, active listening refers to concentrating on and comprehending the customer's words, remembering them with its context, and responding thoughtfully and with empathy.
Though it sounds very obvious at the outset, a study conducted in the financial services industry showed that it was the salesperson who spoke 80% of the time in a typical sales call.
And that's because active listening can be very difficult. Too often, salespeople are waiting for their turn to talk or are thinking about what they should say next instead of truly listening to the prospect.
This post isn’t about what is Active Listening, but more about why it is more important than ever in the remote selling environment and how to improve your Active Listening skills.
Why is Active Listening important?
1. Build rapport and trust
Well, not to brag (or maybe a little), but here’s the feedback I received from the above prospect at the tail end of our conversation, indicating the rapport we had built during the conversation:
Without solid rapport, it’s hard to earn buyers’ trust to win deals and build a true long-term partnership.
But in recent years, as the industry is getting more efficient with processes, increased automation, and primary focus on closing deals faster, salespeople have been losing the softer side of sales – building the rapport.
Active listening helps build better rapport with your prospects and customers because you have many opportunities to improve the relevance of your conversation. For instance, let's say you are doing a demo of your product/platform. With active listening, you tend to pick up on subtle emotional signals and understand what features you should be demoing instead of overwhelming them with everything your product does.
Active Listening is one of the most important skills in the salesperson’s tool belt to understand buyers’ needs and provide their desired solution.
2. Improve win rate and save time
In our age of constant communication and a short span of attention, genuine listening is a rare commodity and a great gift because you are giving your valuable asset: your attention.
When you give your undivided attention, prospects feel heard, respected, and valued. They offer fewer and softer objections. You gain a reputation as a trustworthy solution provider and have greater confidence that you and your solution would address their needs.
With Active Listening, you save time and frustration by understanding if there is a right “fit” between what the prospect needs and the solution you offer, which results in more sales in less time.
Why is Active Listening more important in a remote selling environment?
1. Limited audience interaction and increased multi-tasking
With the growth in inside sales, face-to-face selling is already moving to remote selling via video conferencing. And on top of that, due to COVID-19, a lot of salespeople are working remotely from home.
This new behavior has presented challenges to the salespeople they’ve never faced before. Selling to a whole team of C-level execs and decision-makers from the buyer’s side on a video conferencing is a whole new ball game.
In a recent survey by Corporate Visions, 70% of salespeople said that selling remotely is not as effective as selling in person. Sales reps cited audience multi-tasking, limited interaction, and passive presentations as the main reasons behind their lack of confidence.
89% of those surveyed believe they could improve audience interaction and avoid multi-tasking if all participants turned on their cameras. However, 82% of respondents are hesitant to ask their customers to show their faces. Ironically, 67% of sellers who participated in the survey rarely or never turn on their cameras themselves.
When you’re not able to visibly see your audience’s facial expressions and non-verbal cues about their engagement and reaction to your sales presentation, then Active Listening becomes even more important than ever.
2. Lack of (personal) relationship building
We all know the true benefits of sitting down and having a face-to-face meeting. When you meet in person, the conversation can be expanded on, allowing you to dive into more in-depth business topics. Some small talk also allows you to get to know someone on a personal level. Little things, like learning about someone's family or hobbies, can introduce a common ground that will enable you to build a much stronger relationship.
With in-person meetings, you can also learn someone’s body language and facial expressions, which helps you truly understand someone’s personality and emotions better to build better relationships.
Video conferencing does not create the same emotional connection. It also becomes hard to make an impactful first impression.
When you miss out on all these benefits of in-person meeting in the remote selling environment, then Active Listening becomes even more crucial.
How to improve Active Listening?
Active Listening isn’t a new thing. It was devised by Carl Rogers and Richard Farson in 1957.
It is a type of communication that requires conversational participants to fully focus on, comprehend, and answer what is being said.
It’s about more than just hearing what is being said. It means being attentive to what another person is saying and genuinely understanding others’ feelings or views. It is a form of listening that involves asking clarifying questions.
Here are some steps to implement and improve Active Listening in action:
- Let them talk more
- Listen with the intent to understand
- Focus on the conversation and the people
- Avoid the temptation to interrupt
- Repeat and paraphrase what you heard
- Clarify your understanding with relevant follow-up questions
- Make demo pitches interactive.
1. Let them talk more
The first step of Active Listening is – let the other person talk. You need to resist talking about yourself. It’s not about you; it’s about them. They will appreciate the opportunity to participate, and your interaction will feel like a collaborative conversation, and not a sales pitch.
When they start talking, resist the impulse to share your stories or give advice – unless, of course, they specifically ask for it.
If the other person is not talking much, then take them away from the surface level conversation to to deeper levels. Prompt them with more questions to share more: “How was it for you, when you…?”. Encourage them by merely asking: “And what happened next?” or “Could you tell me a bit more about that?”
The most rookie mistake you can make is just to start talking about you, your company, making major assumptions about what the prospect needs without ever slowing down to ask. This self-centric approach is a guaranteed way to ensure your prospect will never want to a have conversation with you in future.
2. Listen with the intent to understand
Active Listening starts with listening with the intent to understand. You should actively listen is easier said than done. Too often, salespeople are waiting for their turn to talk or thinking about what to say next instead of truly listening to the prospect. They’re looking for specific words or phrases that give them cues to start pitching their script.
But the best salespeople listen differently. They change the focus from pitching the product from the script and instead shift it to truly understanding the other person. It really starts with intention.
They don’t follow the script and really listen to the words and feelings that a prospect conveys. They are comprehending their words, listening to tone of voice, observing facial expressions and body language.
And this type of listening makes a huge difference by encouraging prospects to open up more and foster trust and commitment.
3. Focus on the conversation and the people
Focusing on the conversation and the people means there is no multi-tasking.
The word active means you are genuinely engaged in listening. You need to throw out the script, stop worrying about what you’re going to say next, and really pay attention, and let the conversation flow naturally.
You also need to make sure you are not getting distracted in taking notes, or the worst, checking your smart-phone or replying to a text, etc. Focusing means – that you’re all ears.
You should demonstrate you're actively listening by maintaining eye contact to establish and keep a better communication connection with the prospect. Be aware of body language. Lean in as you listen. Nod - when you agree with what they say or show that you have understood something important. Smile.
You can use tools like Avoma to ensure you’re not getting distracted in taking notes without being worried about missing important customer information.
4. Avoid the temptation to interrupt
After your prospect finishes speaking, count to three before you reply or ask another question. The last thing you want to do is to interrupt them. Some people tend to finish the sentence of the other person impatiently. Although very slow talking can be irritating, avoid the temptation to interrupt.
Sometimes, even when you appear to be listening, you’re thinking more about your next statement or the next question to ask than actually thinking and comprehending about the other person’s response. Training yourself to pause and think helps you to increase your awareness on your prospect and their situation.
5. Repeat and paraphrase what you heard
After a prospect shares something important about their challenges or what they’re looking for, repeat what others just said. With this approach, the prospect will hear exactly what they just said and can either confirm or clarify their statement. But you need to be careful such that they shouldn’t doubt your understanding.
The better approach is to paraphrase what you heard in a condensed and concise manner. Summarizing what prospects said makes conversations shorter and also builds trust in the prospect’s mind that you heard and understood them. However, if you oversimplify and leave out some important details - the buyer would also lose confidence in you.
The best approach is to tell the same story but in your own words. You need to focus more on the feelings and emotions that lie behind what is told, not just the words. Through this, you’re demonstrating that you understand their situations and can empathize with their struggle.
Convincing your prospect that they’ve been heard and understood is the most important outcome of this step.
You can use phrases like – “It sounds like …”, “What I’m hearing is …”, “You seem a bit …”, etc.
6. Clarify your understanding with relevant follow-up questions
After you share what you’ve heard and understood, the next step is to ask a relevant follow-up question. Although you should avoid frequent interruptions, if you are truly unclear about something the prospect has said, ask for clarification. If you are curious to learn more, ask follow-up questions.
To clarify your understanding, you could ask questions with: “Let’s make sure I hear you correctly.”, “Let me make sure I’ve got this right.”, “These are the main points I’ve heard you make so far.”, etc.
And to ask follow-up questions for curiosity, the most effective way is to ask open-ended questions that encourage prospects to share more about their goals, challenges, and current plans. You could use phrases like: “Tell me more about…”, “Why…”, “How…”, “What…”, etc.
And avoid the temptation to ask close-ended questions that start with: “Does it ...”, “Are you …”, “Is it…”, “Did you …”, etc.
7. Make demo pitches interactive
Let’s face it – slide presentations can be boring. Make sure your prospect experiences, feels, and sees your product or service sooner. Incorporate as much interaction as your product allows for, and give your client ample opportunity to provide you with their feedback.
Try to maintain a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of providing product information to asking for feedback – for every two or three benefits you present, ask your prospect one question that will let you know if you’re steering the conversation in the right direction. Asking questions also keep prospects involved and confirms that the information is relevant to their needs.
Listen to the words they’re saying, but observe their nonverbal cues as well. Do they seem interested or confused or bored? You need to adapt your presentation accordingly.
Not only will this strategy allow you to course-correct if you’ve gotten off target, but it will also help you keep the correct balance between talking and listening.
Putting Active Listening in action
So, are you ready to take action and become an active listener?
While Active Listening is a relatively simple skill to understand, it is difficult to master. Using the phrases shared earlier into practice can help you become a proactive and empathetic listener. And with practice, you can excel in this skill, and eventually, it becomes natural to you.
As you keep practicing, you’ll know when you’ve learned to do it effectively. Your prospects will also tell you if you’ve understood them correctly, if they felt heard, etc.
When you review your past calls, you’ll often find out sometimes you completely misunderstood the prospect’s question or information they shared. And that ended up taking the conversation in a different direction, and either the prospect didn't understand you, or they lost the interest.
In Avoma, you can tag another salesperson or manager and comment at the point of conversation to get their feedback. This process will uncover many missed opportunities and enable you to get the opportunity back on track by apologizing, and clarifying what you missed.
As John Doerr writes, the sales reps who don’t actively listen miss the opportunity to build rapport with prospects and customers, don’t effectively uncover buyer needs, and most importantly don’t instill enough confidence in the prospect that the reps understand their world.
In a world where buyers can research information about any company and the product on the internet, salespeople need to establish their expertise and build trust quickly with every interaction.
With Active Listening, salespeople can start more genuine conversations, uncover challenges and goals, handle objections, and close more effectively. Ultimately, it benefits both the buyer and the seller – especially when used to discover alignment between the buyer’s needs and share how your product or service addresses those needs.