03 3 2015


Stop chest beating. Start listening.

Success in business, it’s often said, depends on “who you know”. But it also depends on what you know about them. And the best way to find out what matters to a client (or one you hope will be) is by listening closely to what they have to say. Unfortunately, I find that a lot of salespeople are lousy listeners. Because they’re so busy promoting themselves, they fail to gain valuable insights that could inform the direction of their pitch and in some cases dramatically alter it — insights, by the way, that could ultimately mean the difference between winning and losing.

Bernard Ferrari points out in Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All that of the nearly three hundred communication courses offered by the American Management Association, only two dealt directly with listening skills. This is one area where I think organizations could really step up.

You don’t need to know the stats to be convinced that help is needed. All you have to do is remember the last time you attended a conference or business meeting and ran into one of these characters:

  1. Mike Hog
  2. Conversation Monopolizer
  3. Blowhard/Show-Off
  4. Name-Forgetter (despite several previous introductions)
  5. Know-It-All
  6. Chronic Interrupter
  7. Fidgeter/Eye-Darter/Phone-Checker

If you recognize yourself on this list, then kudos to you. The first step is admitting you have a problem.

Men are the worst offenders, by the way. If you want to view the issue through a gender lens, there are many studies documenting the male tendency to interrupt or talk over women in the workplace. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton School professor and author Adam Grant cited some interesting ones in a January 2015 New York Times piece about how women’s voices are taken less seriously than men’s in a work environment. They also told the following story.

Years ago, the showrunner of the hit TV series “The Shield” noticed that his two young female writers were quiet during story meetings. When he pulled them aside and encouraged them to speak up more, they told him to watch what happened when they tried. Almost every time they started to speak, they were interrupted or shot down before finishing their pitch. When one of the female writers had a good idea, a male writer would jump in and run with it before she could complete her thought. When he realized what was happening, the showrunner instituted a no-interruption rule when anyone was pitching — male or female. The policy, he later observed, changed the dynamics in the writing room and improved the effectiveness of the entire team.

Power Listening author Ferrari believes that you can take steps “to turn a tin ear into a platinum ear”, and so do I. But short of hooking yourself up to electrodes that zap you every time your eyes wander or you cut a client off, your only option is to become conscious of the problem and impose rules to prevent it from happening again.

To start then, here are three dead giveaways that you (or your sales team) need some remedial help in this department.

1. You fail to take an interest in the other person.

There are two ways to take an interest in another person. One is by actually having an interest. (We call that curiosity.) The other is by faking an interest. (We call that a social skill.) Even if your eyes are glazing over, you’ve got to find a way to stay in the game. If you’re at a meeting or networking event with a client or potential client, practice maintaining eye contact, nodding, gesturing or commenting every now and then to signal you’re actually interested in what they have to say. I knew a compulsive note-taker once who sat scribbling away in meetings whenever he got bored instead of looking the client in the eye. You have to show a client that you care; if you don’t make eye contact, why would they have any reason to think you do? After you’ve locked eyes with them, make a connection by drawing them out a little. People love to talk about themselves. Do they sail? Are they fans of Sons of Anarchy? The parent of a teenager? Train yourself to ask questions and learn something about them. Store that information and use it as an opener the next time you talk to them.

2. You don’t know when to shut up.

When you manage to get phone or face time with the client, do you suffer from motor-mouth syndrome? Do you spend the whole time chest beating about yourself or your company? If so, listen up. The more you blather on, the more you’ll communicate how desperately you need the sale, and neediness is a major turn-off. Don’t come across like a bad blind date. If you’re nervous, buy some worry beads and memorize a mantra. Shut your pie-hole and ask a question about them is one you might consider. At the end of the day, you really just have to be curious, look the client in the eye, and ask them to help you understand what they’re looking for and how getting it will help their business. I can’t tell you how many people don’t or won’t make that simple request.

3. You don’t listen. You wait.

Are you one of those people who pretend to listen, but are really just lying in wait for an opening to yammer on about yourself? If so, you can pretty much assume that the client experiences you as the most annoying person on earth. Truly avid listeners concentrate on what the client is saying, and wait until they’re finished talking, but at that point they don’t go off on a tangent about themselves. They ask thoughtful questions or make insightful comments that invite deeper discussion of the subject at hand. So, for instance, if a client mentions they’re looking to replace an outdated system, don’t pull out your resume and go on about your company’s system replacement superpowers. Use the information the client provided as a springboard to draw them out for more particulars, such as by asking, “How is your system limiting your ability to be nimble and efficient?”

Conversation waiters are not to be confused with interrupters, who don’t even have the decency to hold off until the client has stopped talking. They just cut them off and leave them with a bad case of conversational whiplash. If you suffer from chronic client interruptus, you may need to institute a no-interruption policy at home and at family gatherings as well. Neuroplasticity is a beautiful thing, and you’ve got to start rewiring your brain somewhere.