Author: Dr. Scott Downey, Associate Director and Associate Professor

Recently, we had a group of about 20 sales managers on Purdue’s West Lafayette, IN campus for a program. On the second day of the program, the concept of listening came up. One of our presenters was a professor who taught counseling at the college level for many years, but now applies his experience toward helping sales managers develop their salespeople. He had been doing some work on the concept of listening—which is really the primary job of counselors—and we were discussing how research on listening might apply to the sales process.

The thing about listening is that we all think we do it well. I’m surprised, and sometimes a little defensive, when my wife points out how poorly I do this, even though I think I’m a champ at it! It will probably get me bonus points to have put this admission in writing. (If you’re reading this, honey, consider that a down payment on my next screw-up). I think the same thing holds true for salespeople; we think we’re really good at listening, but unlike spouses, customers rarely point out that we’re actually not.

In the sales classes I teach, I often say that our ability to listen is only as good as our ability to ask questions. While asking questions is important, there are two realities of human behavior that make the simple task of listening more effective, even beyond asking good open-ended questions.

The first reality is that human beings aren’t always rational. When we say that salespeople must understand a customer’s needs, it seems logical that the best way to do that might be to ask them. But, doing so doesn’t always get us to the most important information. Often, the customer doesn’t know what they need. They aren’t experts in the products we represent, don’t know all the options, and have concerns about costs. These factors shape their responses to questions we ask. If we solely listened to the answers that we’re given, we might go down the path of presenting a solution that missed out on the best opportunities to help the customer.

To be more effective, salespeople must ask a lot of follow up questions. Most sellers are good at this right up to the point when the customer expresses a problem they can solve. Once a salesperson hears there’s an opportunity, the listening stops and the talking starts. This blocks the listening process and decreases the effectiveness of the sales conversation. On the other hand, salespeople that are effective questioners take their time to learn more about the customer’s experience with a problem before presenting a solution. These are what Neil Rackham called “implication” questions in his best-selling book from 1982, SPIN Selling. Implication questions help the customer express the depth of the problem and how it affected them. Once the customer reconnects with those emotions or responds to questions that make him or her think about how much the problem cost in terms of money, time, worry and concern, the solution becomes even more valuable.

The second reality is that human beings don’t remember very well. Most salespeople have a pretty transactional perspective on sales interactions, even when they have strong relationships with customers. More specifically, salespeople tend not to take good notes about their customers’ opinions and problems and therefore fail to see trends in the customer’s responses. One way salespeople can better serve their customers and improve their own sales ability is to look at how answers to questions evolve over time. This entails reviewing notes and spotting recurring themes in customer comments. A salesperson who reviews that feedback might have an opportunity, for example, to see that in three out of seven sales cycles, the customer has expressed concerns that the product’s packaging was ineffective or that deliveries were late. If something like this comes up once, it’s pretty easy to address it, but if it has come up frequently and we missed it, we might be vulnerable to a competitor who comes in with an advantage in that area. Keeping good notes also lets the customer know that what they are saying has meaning, especially when we bring up something they said six months earlier.

Listening isn’t just about asking questions and hearing answers. Listening requires observation and analysis. In many industries today, we have more data than ever before. Using that data to make decisions is becoming the norm. Salespeople may want to consider each interaction with a customer as an opportunity to gather observations of answers, behaviors and patterns that can be used to improve sales effectiveness.

Beyond the Blog

Learn more from Dr. Scott Downey at the Precision Selling: Building Relationships with Large Farmersprofessional development program on July 31-August 1, 2019. The program will be held on Purdue’s West Lafayette, IN campus. Participants will learn to develop an effective sales strategy to serve large-scale producers and target accounts, dive into areas of resource allocation and information analysis, gain sophisticated selling tools and more. Register today or contact us for more information!