Volume 13, Issue 4 - July-August 2011

Customer Service
tips for quality service

The Value of Listening
by Carl Tompkins

The number-one attribute cellent selling is effective listening. Customers have great stories to tell, loaded with their desires and needs, and the only way to learn how to best meet these is through active listening. However, I’ve found over the years that many of the most experienced salespeople have poor listening skills.

Becoming an Accomplished Listener
Why do people fail in the listening category? The leading answer is the professional ego. Many feel the urge to lead conversations, deliver presentations and pitches, set the social initiative, and tell the customer what is in their best interest to buy. After all, who better to know what’s in the customer’s best interest than the salesperson, who is loaded with experience and knowledge?

Another reason is that 50 percent of our population is made up of people with “driver” and “expressive” personality types who have grown to be most comfortable in being “tell-assertive.” These types of people usually are on the offense, speaking first and listening second.

Being impatient also contributes to poor listening skills. Concentrating on the sale rather than establishing a partnership creates another stumbling block. The list goes on and can be quite lengthy.

So, what is required to become an accomplished listener? First off is the right attitude and belief, built on the premise that you are far less important than the customer and that your job is to focus on the customer—not your quota. When you establish and maintain this position, you gain customers’ trust, because they will feel you have their best interests at heart. This can be demonstrated by something as simple as letting the customer dominate the conversation and win in the delivery of the best story. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve witnessed people nodding along to a customer’s story, never hearing half of what is being said. Instead, these salespeople can hardly wait for the customer to finish so they can come back with their own stories.

One of the best tools to use to reach these percentages is to use “high-gain-questions” when conversing. These are questions worded in a manner that make a customer really think and provide an expanded answer that cannot be answered “yes” or “no.”

“If you could design the best way to permanently fix this problem, what would it be?” Don’t overlook the power of high-gain questions.

“I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve witnessed people nodding along to a customer’s story, never hearing half of what is being said.”

A related story worth repeating is the one involving the late, great salesperson, Carl Overstreet, who lived and worked years ago in Richmond, Va. Prior to making a sales call on a large, target account, he spent time planning one high-gain question to the retail glass shop owner with whom he was meeting. Carl asked the shop owner the following question: “Pat, I’m interested to learn what goals you’ve set for your business this year and how I can help you reach them.” Pat then took off and spent 20 minutes answering with his own story. Carl took notes, listened, and provided a lot of non-verbal reinforcement with appropriate nods and gestures of interest. The most interesting part of this story came when Pat said, “Carl, this is the best sales call in which I’ve ever been involved!” Carl asked why and Pat replied simply, “Because I’m the one that got to do the talking.” Carl received Pat’s first order the following morning.

Taking notes while listening also is important: it reinforces your ability to accurately restate all the information that was learned. Such complete and accurate summaries, following a customer discussion, are the best method to prove your interest in the customer and in helping to solve their problems. Have you ever been introduced to someone who forgot your name within 30 seconds? What impression does this create?

While I’ve focused on the outside customer, don’t forget that management can benefit greatly from use of these skills with their inside customers (their employees), too. Managers who work within a vacuum and fail to incorporate the advice of employees end up very lonely and without a business.

Carl Tompkins is the global marketing resources manager for Sika Corp. in Madison Heights, Mich. He is based in Spokane, Wash.

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