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Are You Hearing or Listening? Decoding the Difference

4 min read

The lack of a sale on the front end can result in bigger sales further down the line.

Attention spans are shrinking. During the first 13 years of the new millennium, the average attention span shrank to 8 seconds—less than that of a goldfish—according to a 2015 Microsoft study. TV commercials have largely slimmed from 60 seconds to just 15 since the 1950s, says ratings company Nielsen.

Clients seem to be tuning out faster than ever and your sales team could be leading the charge by leaping too quickly to a solution without actively listening to what’s really going on. Instead of digging deeper, they launch into a solution that is ill-conceived and misses the intended mark. By then, they’ve lost their opportunity to build a connection and establish trust with the client.

Your sales team needs to change the way they listen

Passive listening vs. active listening

Passive listening is when we listen only for keywords or phrases to which we can react; it’s hearing the words without absorbing their meaning. A passive listener will multi-task, nod and respond with an “uh huh” until they hear that one word or phrase that resonates with them. I’ll leave it to you to deduce what happens next.

Active listening, by contrast, involves a deeper level of understanding. In this method the listener is actually looking for intent and meaning. Rather than waiting to pounce on key phrases, they are listening to the entire context of what the client is saying, then piecing together how it fits with what they know about the client’s overall mission and objective.

Need an example?

Let’s say a man walks into a hardware store and tells the salesperson behind the desk that he’s got a huge problem with water in his basement. He and his wife just moved into a house and he can’t get in touch with a plumber, the real estate agent, or the previous owner.

Passive listener’s response: If the salesperson at the store is the rule rather than the exception, as soon as the individual says, “I’ve got water in my basement,” the first thing that’s going through that salesperson’s head is: What can I sell him to get rid of that water?

Can I sell him a wet-dry vacuum?

Can I sell him a mop and bucket?

Can I sell him a fan to get the moisture out of the basement once the water’s gone?

In this case, a salesperson hears only the immediate problem and jumps to a solution. The customer might buy the wet-dry vacuum but when the problem comes back again the next day, you can bet he’s going to a different hardware store for help.

Active listener’s response: If that same homeowner tells the identical story to a salesperson who actively listens, instead of offering the immediate solution to the homeowner’s problem, he’s going to ask a few more questions to get a little bit deeper to clarify what the problem is. The conversation might go something more like this:

Salesperson: “Tell me a little bit more about the situation—I know you said you just moved in, but did you have a chance to find where the water is coming from?”

Customer: “Yes, I’m pretty sure the water is coming from the window wells that have filled up and overflowed.”

Salesperson: “Oh, I’ve heard of that happening to a few of the houses around town during this season. One thing I want you to do before we go any further is go home and check the gutters. When those gutters are clogged, water spills over and fills up the window wells. The other thing I want you to check is the drain in the basement. Clear the drain. If you can do that, it should allow the water to exit the house.”

That homeowner became a customer for life because the salesperson didn’t just try to sell him something he didn’t need. By actively listening, the salesperson was looking to understand the individual’s issue and then, based on that, provide the right solution down the line.

Active listening builds trust with clients and elevates your sales team beyond a transactional relationship. Your client is now looking to your salespeople as trusted advisors—they are escaping the dreaded “vendor” relationship. They fully understand the challenges and outcomes the client is trying to achieve. The lack of a sale on the front end can result in bigger sales further down the line.

Two practical tips to build these concepts into action plans

1. Ask clarifying questions

If your team is passively listening, their first response is going to be a solution. On the other hand, if they’re actively listening, they’ll ask questions that will get them deeper into the conversation.

Remember that the key to becoming an active listener (and to winning your customer’s trust) is making sure your team is truly listening to what the client is saying—they need to drill down deeper than the customer’s initial statements to uncover the real issues. If they’re asking clarifying questions, the client is going to open up more and give an insider perspective into what the larger problem might be.

2. Use emotional intelligence

People can tell when a listener isn’t paying attention. Body language makes it easy to identify whether or not someone is engaged in a conversation. Emotional intelligence allows your team to break down those body language barriers and connect authentically to a client by demonstrating a deeper level of understanding.

Let your client know they’re being heard by

  • making eye contact
  • avoiding multi-tasking or fidgeting
  • staying present and aware of your body language.

This process is going to allow your sales team to be able to provide a solution that’s appropriate but more importantly, it’s going to help them build relationships that are built on trust and that spotlight them as a trusted advisor.


This blog originally appeared here and was updated November 16, 2017 for accuracy.


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