Ears. Use them.
Killer-Sales’ real secret is Extreme listening.
In my experience bad sales people talk too much and LISTEN too little. If you’re closing deals, and you haven’t been listening aggressively, you just got lucky. That success won’t be repeated. Active listening sounds tired, I think of it as extreme listening, and here I describe how to make it part of your life. But using your two ears more, and your one mouth in that famous proper ratio, will probably help you in your entire life!.
At our company, we were able to instrument extreme listening, by sales people, as a company policy, that became maybe the most important flow of information, to deliver early and timely product improvements. From the first couple of weeks as a company extreme listening made us more competitive, and especially when the company was above 1000 employees, and bigger, it made us focus on what mattered most like few others.
If you successfully institute a culture where each sales rep uses their ears and genuinely strives to process and to learn from what they’re hearing, that data can be collected. More importantly, that data will be one of the most important data flows in the company — the difference between success or a failure.
The Whole Company Will Listen If Sales Reps Listens Extremely Well
If collected on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis, this data has the potential to both dramatically improve your sales team and to deeply inform the company’s strategy and competitiveness. But to do so, sales teams need a path to communicate that information back to leadership, product management, engineering, and customer success. In other words, to get your sales team to be better listeners, they need to be heard as well: by sales ops, by product management, engineering, and customer support, and, of course, the CEO. If the Sales Team listens systematically and strongly, and have a real process to be heard, they will inform company’s competitiveness and strategy more than anyone and anything.
How To Destroy An Opportunity
I’ve seen Chief Revenue Officers, VPs of Sales, and the rank-and-file of area sales managers, sales reps, Lead Generators and Sales Development Reps and for that sake any employee alike, sit in front of their #1 target customer, have 20 minutes to pitch their product … and then click play on their deck and spend 80% of the pitch without letting the target customer get a breath in edgewise. These pitches are mostly full of recycled language that is clearly one-size fits all, delivered on auto-pilot, without attention to the audience and worst of all, entirely done without asking a single question. No intent or interest in listening. A strong target customer, that can write a check, or influence the sale to be closed, will be bored, even “unsold” in many cases offended.
How Am I Doing?
These sales people have missed the chance to stop and ask the infamous question I love that the Mayor of New York once used to ask everyone, everywhere: “How am I doing…?” So it’s stunning to watch hard-working, accomplished sales reps present their pitches — which may in fact be full of entirely appropriate and well-drafted information — by droning on relentlessly until the end. It’s as if getting through the deck is the goal itself, and will set them free from their anxiety of getting through it. Only at the end of the pitch do they then finally ask what the customer thinks, after all the missed opportunities to co-develop ideas with the customer and really learn in the moment. Until then, many sales reps haven’t observed let alone deciphered the body language of everyone in the room. Deciphering these, at first seemingly odd cues and clues about what the target customer actually needs for their business make all the difference in building a strong relationship with the potential or existing customer, because business is ephemeral and changing, and you need to adapt to their current rhythm of their business that they’re so obviously willing to share with you, but you need to LISTEN to. I have been in so many business situations where the entire foundation and basis for the 6 hour flight I took to see them, completely changed by the time my plane landed, and if you go in and just run your playbook, without attention to those changes, you will lose.
So how to avoid that onward rush of delivery and actually engage in a pitch that picks up on the room, that re-calibrates for the most important points towards each particular audience and each potential sale? You listen, and ask probing questions.
Ask, with interest — to listen and learn
It’s reframing sales as listening: Starting from a place of listening to your target customer’s needs, and then carving out the space to continually listen and observe any signals throughout.
How Do You Do Extreme Listening?
Instead of saying, “Look at these X data points, and these Y outputs from our product (“they will make you very happy… and no one else can do it”), start by asking the audience what their goals are; the way their organization works; and what they hope to understand from you or solve for. Even if you think you already know, you really don’t: Not only could those goals and priorities have changed significantly since you agreed on the agenda. I can’t remember a time where I didn’t learn a ton just by asking seemingly basic questions that really helped me understand the nuances of the issues the customer was facing. I remember asking such basic questions they felt embarrassing when asked, but they changed everything, and allowed us later to ask much more complex questions because we had set the inquiring mind tone, from the start. And example could be as basic as “who in this room has actually signed a check before for software?” over to “How will you truly know this software will be successful…I see what’s in the request for proposal, but what really resonates with you as employees here that will really make a true difference in the business, a tangible and measurable one?”. Doesn’t sound that extreme does it? But when you compare it to one way street of platitudes and rehashed self-importance, it’s real work!
Pursue The Verbal And Non-verbal Cues Aggressively
Sales reps need to be able to read a room to pick up cues — including body language and room energy — from their audience, especially when a pitch begins to lose its touch. You need to trust any “somatic” instincts you have here. And if you feel the energy sucks, change it up. Such cues indicate moments where you could ask confirming questions like, “Do you think this could be helpful to your organization?” or opening questions like “We’ve looked at your earnings call/your stated mission/the business challenges you are in, and we thought this product could help you like this — are we right?” Or my personal favorite: “Is there something here that would be a game changer for you or not? Could you use this effectively in your organization?” My hope is that from this question, I get the chance to move the conversation beyond two suits exchanging professionalisms, to what animates that person in their job, what makes them feel like this is one of the most important moments in their life, where they will have the chance to step up and impact the company and the customers in a meaningful way. The sort of stuff that one day ends up being the most powerful part of their interview for a promotion or new job. Ha ha, makes me laugh out loud with joy, just reminding myself of those moments. Those are the moments you get a chance to be legendary with your customer.
I have never seen deals close without asking with interest, listening, and responding with sincerity. How many more deals could be closed if this was done right?!
Start a dialogue
Closed assumptions are bad for business, they’re bad for the pitch. Asking more open-ended questions at the end of the presentation is more or less useless, emptying them of any real meaning or intent. The heat, the energy, the opportunity to truly connect and make magic together is gone.
So if you are attentive and listening during the pitch, you’ll start a true, productive dialogue — one that will bring you and your customer together and help earn you the right to the business Open questions — where you clearly have not already made your mind up about the answer, opinion or your customers’ plan signal that you invite feedback during the presentation. It’s really signaling the desire to learn as well as to put their priorities first, to work towards their goals, to make all the information you give them relevant.
Finally, not only do these openings allow you moments to re-engage and to re-direct towards those actual priorities (stated or unstated) that your target customers have — they also provide invaluable, often surprising nuggets of information. This listening is critical at all stages of your company, if you’re early these nuggets can help you develop product market fit, or if you’re later stage you can fine tune and accelerate your own overall business.
Build listening sales reps into a competitive learning culture.
In fact, listening and learning during the sales pitch isn’t just a route to closing deals; it’s a way to find out what you can do better as a company.
Instrumenting and operationalizing sales as a way to gather valuable insights — in addition to pitching and building long relationships — is critical to a company’s success. If it’s part of your culture in every instance, I guarantee the data collected will differentiate you from the competition. This is why I always scheduled “real” calls with “real” customers in the field (I say real instead of the safe ones that were curated and cued up for me by a formal function inside the company; “CEO-proof customers”). I also always spent extra time asking “How are we doing?” The feedback I got was fun and rewarding, but often with brutal commentary. But often when the feedback was the most brutal, it was followed up by “but your product is the best, and you always listen to us”. This is often the type of partnering, that makes customers want to take unimaginable risks with you as a young company. I remember the world’s largest company taking a risk with us for over 1 million paid users, which had never been done before in the Cloud, because the team had established that kind of partnership through extreme listening. Building that type of relationship with customers, with this approach, makes you very hard to be displaced by any other competitor.
The last act I did before signing the papers to sell our company for $3.7B and 11.6X revenue was to speak to two customers: Even at that stage they were still kicking my ass with their feedback… and I loved it. I always felt like extreme listening, even in a last minute situation, gave me an outstanding relevant and fresh insight, that motivated me in context with even our hairiest problems, and set me up to add value, in this case to the board of 100,000 people organization I was asked to join. I and everyone else at that Board enjoyed the product of extreme listening being shared at the Board level.
Three Ways To Operationalize All This Listening?
Don’t let the gold slip through your fingers
First and foremost, make sure you systematically request and receive information, opinions and intelligence from your sales team. This can happen in any form — email, notes, Slack, even texting from the meeting — that can be absorbed and analyzed, maybe even implemented, immediately. All a sales rep needs is the communication path for doing so.
Without this, you are literally losing gigantic amounts of real, highly relevant and valuable information. I tell a story of one of my very first jobs, in-house in a 50,000 people global company; messages were constantly left on a machine by the 3,000 sales reps calling in from the field, and when I finally listened to them, on my first day in the job, I first found noone in the company head office had listened to these messages for years. Secondly we found new products, and real business acceleration nuggets in these messages, endless relevant and execute-able ideas. I couldn’t take any credit for all the brilliant ideas produced by the field, but better, I was able to in turn listen to them, and put them to work for the whole organization to benefit. Though I wasn’t in the sales force, it made me realize the pent up power the sales force’s knowledge represented for the entire company.
Be Stunning In Your Preparation, But Submit Real Information.
Make sure you also train your team to get and share information that’s real — that makes sure your product is deployable in a way that works for the customers. That your product and this deal is likely to grab their company and move it forward in a new way that they weren’t moving forward towards before.
Listen for what real business transformation might be, and think deeply about how you answer that problem. After meeting and working with 100’000s of employees, and 10’000s of Sales Reps, the sales reps that impressed me the most were the ones who had understood the entire financial profile of the company, its actual public and private business issues, the latest hires and how they fit, and so on. That type of preparation makes it a lot easier to ask great product questions of the prospect.
As one of my former VPs of Sales used to say, 80% of winning is the preparation before the meeting! That makes you a very welcome party, and your listening is accelerated, and the prospect will trust you because they should: you have respected them and their time by knowing what the business needs and what is going on.
What Fantastic Product Managers Do.
Finally, process that information and leverage it to build a more competitive, better product as you build it. Too often in new companies there’s a soft underbelly of people who think they know 100% what’s right — the psychology of a well-educated, highly intelligent product manager who sits alone in a room deciding what the right product to build is — and deciding, I’m gonna build that. Unfortunately that kind of process is very nebulous to leadership not to mention to selling to customers until it’s too late.
Many of those PMs tend towards the belief, even if well intentioned, that “I’m Steve Jobs and I know what they want without their having to say what they want”. The truth is, most of us aren’t Steve Jobs (to say nothing of the fact that Jobs worked 30+ years to get to become… THE Steve Jobs). Often, people hold on to this Steve Jobs myth about themselves because on some level, they’re avoiding hearing what other people have to say. It’s hard to listen to others. And there’s no challenge to you doing your own stuff with no input. Listening to the feedback that will stream back from a trusted, engaged, listening sales force and incorporating that into your strategy will not cause anything to be taken from you in terms of creativity or vision. You’re still building the project. You’re just building it better.
You Decide How And When You take The Inputs — When NO is OK.
That’s not to say that you necessarily have to incorporate and act on all the feedback and information you get from every sales rep and every interaction. In fact, you might decide NO action is the right action.
I would gladly accept a product manager coming to me and saying, “I’ve listened to 1200 hours from the field — but here’s why I’m not accepting that info. I have a different vision around this and here’s why”. That calculated and respectful approach as a product manager when the work has been done, and it’s articulated convincingly, and credibly, can actually become reinvigorating for the entire company, and gives confidence in the roadmap.
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Last but far from least, there’s a human upside to all this. Creating a culture of an always -listening sales team and organization takes what can be an adversarial us vs. them dynamic into one that inspires the people selling your product to greater ownership, purpose, and fulfillment. It turns a coin-operated grind into being an invaluable part of the core strategy, creating a virtuous cycle of better feedback, better direction, better focus. It also empowers the development team, the product and engineering teams, and customer support, because they get what we all crave: data and insight. They know — no longer have to guess or learn in isolation — what worked and didn’t work, and the entire company can tie it all together if there’s a process. THAT’S when the magic happens. In short when everyone practices extreme listening and consistent infrastructure to use the content collected from listening, the whole company will significantly outperform from where it is today, and be a lot more fun to work for.