We need to remind ourselves that this process is about the other person as well as ourselves. Any time we're in a conversation, there's something we want from that process -- and we believe the other person has it.
The sales professional bases the pitch on research, observation and analysis, some of it done in advance, some in direct preparation and some while the process is under way.
For starters, the homework. What evidence is there of the prospect’s history with the subject, and current interest in it? The pro also mines his/her own experience and enhances it with current observation.
Then, as the actual process unfolds, the pro examines and analyzes how the prospective buyer is reacting. On the fly, there are continuous adjustments.
Listening and seeing can be the determinative skills of persuasion, but perhaps the least understood ones. We notice the spoken/demonstrated sales pitch without accounting properly for the silent observation and intense mental activity that precede and accompany the action -- when it's successful.
The prospect is, in fact, a full partner in the presentation. Getting that person engaged and interested is vital, and so is keeping them in it. The process is failing if the receiver is not contributing at least half of the conversation – asking questions, offering comments, raising objections, providing information.The prime skills of the salesperson include those that draw the receiver out. The presenter equips themself with knowledge or educated guesswork as to what might interest the other person in this product, topic, whatever.
The person, encouraged to speak about something they’re interested in, provides the seller with the information needed to address that prospect’s needs and interests.
Be ready to withdraw if necessary. As a good sales presentation continues, it may become apparent that the intended outcome is out of reach. Once that is detected and confirmed, the presenter doesn’t push – they modify the approach. Now you’re strengthening the possibility that a sale may become possible later.
In fact, the building of a productive relationship often is seen as the driving purpose of a sales pitch. If a person likes and respects you and your organization but is not in the market for your current product, you want to create the best situation for future sales.
More broadly, our lives are lived in constant relationships with multiple other people. Those relationships involve continuous exchanges, initiating and responding to communication overtures. Those are all “sales opportunities” – openings for building, maintaining and improving the value of what we can do for each other, and receive from each other.
There is plenty of potential there for advancement of our intentions and quality of life. We often are too passive in our listening and viewing, not realizing that the combination can significantly improve our ability to convince other people.
We tend to believe that seeing and hearing are automatic functions that just happen without any conscious involvement on our part. Successful salespeople know better.
Those who succeed at sales do so because they have made themselves topnotch listeners. You and I can do the same. We start improving our listening when we recognize and take action on several truths:
1. Hearing is only part of how we derive information from conversation and detection of other sounds. The same is true of seeing.
3. Any situation we are in evolves quickly from the relatively passive seeing and hearing functions into analysis, evaluation and decision – all of which offer abundant opportunity for learning, growth and productive action.
4. Thoughtful and well-presented questions can validate, correct and extend our understanding.
I used to put it this way to students in a personal selling course: If you’re still talking after the first eight seconds, you’re on the way to failure. That was an exaggerated way of making the point about listening.
If you listen, people will tell you what will convince them. Not in so many words, necessarily, but their conversation about the subject, their answers to well-worded questions, will reveal what they want or need. If the message is that there is no interest, the good salesperson may ease off the presentation, perhaps leaving a thought that might mature into a sales later.
Listeningis the most important of the communication skills, and perhaps the hardest to learn and practice well. You can’t do it while you’re talking. Shutting up, politely reworded, means you just stop talking. It looks to be the easier of the two and sometimes it is. And “easier” isn’t necessarily “easy.” There are times when it’s all you can do to keep silent, and times when speaking up brings all sorts of trouble.
There also is an important internal complication. When you aren’t talking, there’s still nonstop chatter going on in your head. It’s called “self-talk,” largely spontaneous and effectively impossible to stop.
Self-talk isn’t verbal, and it isn’t in coherent sentences. It’s mostly impressions, fragments of memory, involuntary reactions. You usually don’t consciously notice it, but it occupies your attention. It may respond to what you’re hearing, seeing, thinking or feeling. It may go off on some unrelated direction, triggered by the present or not.
I don’t know how they measure such things, but I’ve read that experts say self-talk is continuously running in your head four times as fast as spoken speech. From personal experience, I can say self-talk sometimes blocks or redirects a person’s thinking and listening.
You’re not even conscious of most of it but it conditions your response to people and situations, and your expectation of outcomes. It can make it very hard to focus on something, especially conditions and concepts that are unpleasant or demanding.
So listening isn’t all about your ears, or even mostly about what you hear. It’s what is going on inside your head while sounds are coming in from outside. In fact, by the time your thinking is affected by sounds, what you originally heard has been changed, filtered in your mind. What you record as what you heard may be entirely different from what a companion remembers.
I visualize the listening process in a series that begins with hearing: A sound disturbs air particles, sending a wave jostling a succession of particles that eventually vibrate your eardrum, which transmits the motion to that fluid and tiny bones of the middle and inner ear.
The ear converts the vibrations to electrochemical signals which, sent to the brain, and the brain forms questions about it: Have I heard this before? What is it?
The immediate response tends to be emotional and subjective: Is this good for me, or is it scary or threatening? If I’ve never heard it before, I may assign it to what seems to be a likely category. Tree branches rubbing together in a night wind may result in mental images from scary ghost stories.
Conversely, popular music from my high school years can put me in a very good mood. That’s why old songs often are used to back up commercial messages on TV and radio.
When you look at the hearing process this way, you see that the initial steps are largely involuntary. Sound impacts the eardrum and is transmitted to the brain. The brain seeks to identify it, then determines whether this is good or bad for me.
If I remain passive, the determination might be that this person sounds a lot like that fifth-grade bully who gave me such a hard time. So now, in the present day, I dislike this adult I’ve just met for the first time. My built-in prejudice determines my relationship with this (prospective customer, new boss, salesperson). Not good.
I want to avoid that kind of uncontrolled decision-making, so I learn and practice active listening. The secret is in my conscious attention to how I listen and what I do about what I’m hearing.
It starts with attitude. You make sure your behavior is consistent with your intent. There’s a reason why experts in the art of selling tell us that listening is the number one sales skill . . . when the listening is done properly.
When your attitude is that of sincere interest, it not only encourages the person to open up, beginning a friendly relationship. And people like to buy from people they like.
You focus on the other person with the intent of learning all you can about what is being said. You ask questions to make sure you understand meaning and intention.
You make eye contact. You nod and smile at appropriate moments. You’re not pushy and you don’t dominate the conversation. You create an atmosphere conducive to persuasion.
We’re all in “sales.” Whatever your station in life, you want things from other people. And people want things from you. Every exchange develops some kind of relationship, however brief. The more pleasant that relationship is, the more profitable it will be, whether financially or in some other “currency” -- such as cooperative activity.
In a communication transaction, the active listener is an alert participant. The person’s reactions and actions result from conscious decisions. Any initial emotion does not control how the person responds. Instead, response is a productive addition to the exchange.
Especially for leaders, every personal exchange is an opening for negotiation, in which building productive relationships is always a part. No contact with others is seen as meaningless.
Manner and actions are negotiations, too. People are attentive to others’ behavior, especially that of higher-ranking people. If you’re always in a hurry, you’re signaling that you’re too busy to care about others. If you make a practice of pausing to acknowledge people, however briefly, they appreciate the attention.
Living in this world creates and uses multiple networks -- all of them dependent upon people influencing each other. Doing that well is worth the effort.