“Just shut up and listen!”
These were some of the first words I heard as I entered sales training class as a 22 year-old, fresh out of college, at a prominent medical device company. The man proclaiming these words looked like my grandfather who had maybe enjoyed one-too-many glasses of scotch over the years. While stress had clearly taken its toll on him over his career, I found myself listening intently to his every word. And boy was I glad I was naïve enough to pay attention. I would later learn that the worn-out looking man was one of the most successful sales reps in the history of our company.
His words of advice weren’t spoken to anyone in our class directly. He happened to be telling a story to a colleague, and he was frustrated that most salespeople just “talk” and never listen. Before you assume I’d been eavesdropping, let me be clear; the man was so animated that his voice vibrated off the marble floors as if he were using a bullhorn. But I had been so intrigued by what I’d heard, that later in the afternoon I approached him and picked his brain. I specifically asked him about the story I, and the rest of the world, had overheard. He looked at me and said, “Successful sales people don’t sell by talking; they sell by listening. They sell with their ears.”
That statement could not be truer on so many levels. In the last seven years of selling, I have learned this lesson many times over. When we get hired, we are pumped full of information about all the amazing things our companies can offer. And being the excited, and often extroverted, people that we are, we jump to share this information with as many potential and existing customers as we can. Our enthusiasm for our products or services is essential to be successful in sales, but too often this enthusiasm causes us to make a huge mistake. We all do it. We talk too much.
Talking too much in a sales conversation is often counterproductive and actually prevents us from being able to effectively sell. There are a few major reasons this strategy does not help.
First, we often have limited time with our customer. This means we need to take advantage of the little time we do have and obtain as much information as possible from the customer. We should still dominate and direct the conversation, but we should do this by asking specific questions targeting the pain points to further the sales process.
Second, in order to be successful we need to understand our customers’ needs. We do this by asking questions. Picture yourself peeling away at an onion; when you identify a customer’s problem, ask more questions to help identify the next layer until you get to the center of that problem. Do not be the person that pukes out features and benefits of your product without listening to a word your customer has to say.
Third, it is disingenuous and unauthentic to talk more than our customers. You should aim to make them feel important. Be excited and engaged in the conversation. We never want to be the first people talking about our kids or our golf game.
Selling with our ears is a needs analysis approach, which can be extremely effective. A needs analysis approach uncovers specific customer needs one question at a time. By listening closely to our customers’ answers, we can identify pain points and circle back to these points when the time is right to go through our brief elevator pitch. This strategy certainly isn’t designed to close a deal, but it is intended to advance the sale to the next stage or create action items around a future visit.
One of my favorite parts of unpeeling the onion is uncovering how much potential business actually exists. I had scheduled a meeting with one of my prospective surgeons to sell a product meant to treat a specific condition; I did not get any of his business at the time. My manager decided to fly up and join the meeting due to the perceived opportunity. At the end of the meeting I asked him how many patients he treated with this condition. He answered truthfully, “Not many”. I was bummed out. Ready to pack it in for the day, I stood up and shook his hand, thanked him for his time and set up a time to demo our product. As we walked out, my manager asked, “How many patients is “not many” for you in a week?” The doctor replied back, “Probably two to four a week.” A light bulb went off in my head; my definition of not many could definitely be different than my customer’s. This could actually be a homerun! I ended up getting his business, and he was one of my busiest surgeons. The point of sharing this experience is, I almost disregarded a huge opportunity because I didn’t finish unpeeling the onion. I made assumptions and stopped asking questions. Always continue to unpeel!
“What if I am asked to do a presentation in front of many individuals? How is it possible to ask questions in a presentation?” I have heard this question multiple times from peers and trainees, and my simple answer is a quote from my high school basketball coach — “Excuses are for losers.” There are plenty of opportunities to ask questions in a presentation to uncover pain points. The excuses stop here.
Before a presentation, find out as much as you possibly can about the company you are presenting to. Find out why they scheduled you to present. They must think you have a solution to one of their problems if they have allowed you to take some of their time. Determine their expectations and tailor your presentation around what you find out. After you have done this, you can start to identify areas to ask needs-based questions. If you can turn this into organic conversation, that is fantastic — you have done well!
We ultimately sell by listening to our customer. We listen to their needs, their problems, and their successes. We ask targeted questions to obtain specific information to accomplish our goals of the conversation. By listening, we can better understand our customer and how we need to sell to them in order to help them solve their problem.
Key Action Items For “Selling with your Ears”
1. Research your customer to understand their business
2. Ask targeted questions
3. Keep asking questions based on the answers you receive
4. Find pain points by listening
5. Leverage the pain points in an elevator pitch to advance the sale
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Best of Luck!