Thinking about Sales: Just Listen!

Actionable Listening
This is a Sales Best Practices article from guest poster Dave Kahle, author and leading sales educator. Follow Dave’s latest Tweets at @davekahle.

By Dave Kahle

I recently came across some research that confirmed what many of us in the profession of educating sales people have known for years: That purchasers would be “much more likely” to buy from a sales person if that sales person would just “listen” to the customer. (1) The survey found that some of the worst offenders were experienced sales people.

Listening is one of the four fundamental competencies of a professional sales person, and yet, the profession is, in general, so poor at it that most customers remark on our inability to do it well.

Wow!  If there is anyone I wouldn’t want thinking I was a poor listener, my customers would be towards the top of the list.

Why is listening such a powerful sales competency?

In my book Question Your Way to Sales Success, I describe a number of reasons.  Here are a few.

First, it is our primary way of digging beneath the surface of a customer’s needs and uncovering deeper and more powerful needs and motivations.  That makes it a primary tool – of which the skillful use separates the master sales people from the mediocre.  For example, it doesn’t take any skill whatsoever to pick up an RFQ, a set of blueprints, or to write down a list of what the customer says he needs.  You don’t have to be a master listener to do that.  But to dig deeper and uncover deeper issues, that takes the ability to listen.

Here’s an example.  In a routine sales call with a regular customer, the customer says, “We’re thinking of going to X product.  What’s your price?”

Lots of sales people would look up the price and provide it.  There.  Job done.

The master would hear the words “Thinking of going…” and dig a little deeper.

“What makes you interested in that?” he says.

The customer replies: “Well, we’re looking for a solution for a problem with our widget production line, and one of the key operators mentioned it as a  possibility.”

“I see.  What sort of problem are you having in that production line?”

“An abnormally high reject rate.”

“I may have some other solutions.  Can I talk to your production manager?”

I don’t have to take this scenario much further to make the point.  A visit with the production supervisor could very well result in a deeper understanding of the problem and the development of an alternative solution with a whole lot more gross margin to it.  The master sales person, exercising excellent listening skills, hears opportunities where many sales people don’t.  Listening is the primary tool for digging deeper and uncovering deeper and more significant issues in our customers.

But that’s not all.  When we listen, we send a powerful message that we care about the other person.  Conversely, when we don’t listen, we send the message that our agenda is far more important than the customer’s trivial ideas and issues.  That makes effective listening one of the all time great relationship-building devices.

Listening requires us to take in information, ideas and opinions that are outside our comforts zones.  It is, therefore, one of the primary tools we use to grow intellectually, to broaden our views, and ultimately, to become wiser and more knowledgeable.  If we never listen to someone with a different perspective, we never consider the possibility that we might be wrong.

From a sales person’s perspective, the more we listen, the more different positions, motivations, opinions and nuances we are able to understand and accommodate.  The wiser and more capable we become.  Since we are able to understand an ever-growing panoply of positions and opinions, we are able to feel a rapport with more and more customers, and move closer to a consensus position with them.

Listening positions us as a consultant, not a peddler, in the eyes of the customer.  Ultimately, listening provides us our competitive edge.

So, how do we do it better?

Here are two specific techniques to help you improve your listening effectiveness.

Listen constructively.

My wife is a crisis counselor.  She talks about “listening empathetically.” That means she listens in order to understand what a person is feeling.  That is very appropriate for that type of work.  However, we are sales people.  It is more important that we listen “constructively.”  Think of “constructively – construction – building.”  We need to listen for things upon which to build.  Listen for opportunities, problems, opinions, etc. on which we can build our solutions.

One way to do this is to plant a couple of questions into our mind before every sales call.  These are questions for which we want to gain the answer.  You could, for example, say to yourself before a sales call:  “What is the one thing that is this customer’s most pressing challenge today?”  And, you could ask yourself, “On what basis will this customer make the decision to buy or not?”

By planting those questions into your mind, you sharpen your sensitivity to what the customer says, enabling you to listen more constructively to the customer’s conversation.

Discipline yourself to build the habit of responding to your customer’s comments.

Here’s how we think the sales interview should go.

  1. We ask a question.
  2. The customer answers.
  3. We ask another question.

When you exercise the habit of responding, you change the format.  Now, it goes like this:

  1. We ask a question.
  2. The customer answers.
  3. We respond to the answer.
  4. We now ask another question.

Notice that we have intervened in the process with something we call a “response.”  A response is a verbal or non-verbal signal that we send to the customer that we are listening, and accepting what the customer says. It flatters the customer, makes him/her feel good about answering, and encourages him/her to answer in more depth and detail.

Here are two powerful responses:

1. Select one or two words out of the customer’s conversation, and repeat them back to the customer, nodding your head.

Here’s an example.  You ask the question, “Which of these challenges are most pressing for you?”

The customer responds by talking for a few moments about his challenges.  When he pauses, you say, “back orders” and nod your head.  “Back orders” was one of the issues he talked about.  You just repeated it, and nodded your head.

That’s a powerful response because it shows the customer that you have listened to the point that you have captured and repeated one of his main thoughts.  That feels good to the customer and conditions him to answer the next question with even more depth and detail.  Just as importantly, since you were focused on finding a key word or two to repeat, you had to listen to the customer’s conversation!  This technique forced you to listen more effectively, and made the customer feel good in the process.

2. Summarize and rephrase what the customer has said, and repeat it back to him.

This is similar to the one or two word techniques discussed above, more intense.  When the customer has finished answering your question, you say something like this:  “Let me see if I understand you correctly.  In other words, what you are saying is…………………………” Paraphrase and give him back your understanding of what he just said.

Like the prior technique, this is a powerful tool because it forces you to listen, it engages the customer, and it seeks agreement.  Using this a couple of times in the sales interview will make the customer feel good about you, ensure that you understand him, and create an atmosphere of agreement.

Ultimately, your ability to listen more effectively evolves out of your discipline to apply some of these techniques regularly and methodically.  If you are going to listen more effectively, you must first make the commitment to expend the effort to do so.

By the way, you’ll find this kind of insight into dozens of sales issues in our Sales Resource Center. It houses 435 training programs to help every one live more successfully and sell better.  All delivered over the internet, 24/7, for one low monthly fee.


(1) Sales & Marketing Management Magazine, August, 2005

Image “Actionable Listening” by Beth Kanter on Flickr under Creative Commons license.

About the Author:

Dave Kahle is one of the world’s leading sales educators. He’s written nine books, presented in 47 states and eight countries, and has helped enrich tens of thousands of sales people and transform hundreds of sales organizations.  Sign up for his free weekly Ezine. A great source of specific tools to help you close is Dave’s book, Question Your Way to Sales Success.

Copyright MMXII by Dave Kahle

All Rights Reserved.

How to Select CRM Software for the Right Reasons

Brave, Brave, Brave, Brave Sir Robin
Don't be afraid to engage your CRM Vendor

With a challenging economy, increased competition and pressure to improve performance many small to mid-size companies are looking for ways to become a more efficient sales and service organization.  Let’s take a quick look at why people are choosing to implement CRM software.

  • Unable to access and view customer data
  • Not generating enough new business opportunities
  • Leads and sales opportunities are falling through the cracks
  • Monthly and quarterly forecasts are inaccurate
  • Projects are poorly managed

These are certainly valid reasons for implementing a CRM system. Yet if you conducted a survey with regard to the level of satisfaction among users of CRM software you would uncover a level of dissatisfaction that rivals the airline industry.  Why?  The reason is simple and has little to do with the actual CRM software itself.

CRM software has been touted as the “Holy Grail” that will fix all your internal processes, increase sales and ensure a high level of customer satisfaction. The explosive growth of CRM and sales software among small to mid-size companies indicates that the sales managers of these businesses believe this and are implementing CRM systems in record numbers.

Caught in the Trap of One Size Fits All CRM

Every CRM software system has a target audience. Some are focused on contact management, others on sales opportunity management and some are focused on customer service or help desk.  Your challenge is to determine which CRM system is best suited for your business.

But how can you do this if you have not documented your specific business requirements? Here lies the problem and the reason for such a high dissatisfaction level with CRM users.  Typical reasons for the frustrations are:

The software does not meet our business requirements

This occurs when a company fails to document their specific business requirements or is just too busy to try the product to ensure it addresses them properly. Finding out after the implementation that the CRM product does not meet your requirements is the fault of management, or your CRM selection team, who perhaps were never told what the business requirements were in the first place.

Lack of utilization

No one is using the product? Well of course not. If the product does not work the way the staff does it offers no value and as a result won’t be used. End users may be fickle, but they are smart enough to quickly determine if the product will provide value to them.  One that does not meet their workflow requirements will be quickly abandoned.

How can you ensure that you don’t fall into this trap? Here is some advice. If you have not documented your business requirements then you are not ready to select a CRM solution for your business.  Some people believe that they should just try a few out then select the one they like the best. This approach is just… stupid.

Find the Right CRM Software for Your Business

Take the time to:

1.  Identify your top two business challenges – You may have more, but you should address no more than two at a time.  If you think you can tackle more, think again.

2.  Look for a solution that addresses these specific challenges – Don’t worry about selecting a CRM system with all the bells and whistles, or the one that’s most popular.  Find one that addresses your specific business issues. Then take a test drive to ensure that it actually meets your expectations.

3.  Make the CRM vendor an instrumental part of the selection process – Some CRM vendors offer free trials, but refuse to engage you in a discussion about your business requirements.  They prefer that you try the product and if you like it, enter your credit card over the internet and you are on your way.  So much for customer relationship management, heh!

CRM salespeople can add a lot of value during the selection process. Don’t be afraid to engage them and make sure they are available before, during and after the sale.

Image “Brave, Brave, Brave, Brave Sir Robin” by make little sharks. on Flickr under Creative Commons license.

Mobile CRM Becoming Key to Managing Customer Relationships

Tablet use 2

Customers are your lifeline which is why you need to respond quickly when they call for assistance. In order to meet customer expectations your staff will require immediate access to customer data whether they are in the office or away on business.

While online CRM software programs have traditionally been focused on capturing and storing customer data, many of these systems now support remote or wireless access to customer data via smart phones and tablets like the Apple iPad.  This makes it easy for sales and support staff to respond quickly to new sales inquiries or service requests.  The explosion of wireless devices has caused several industry experts to predict the death of the traditional personal computer. While it is doubtful this will happen in the near term, there is no question that we will see an increase in mobile devices utilization and an increased requirement for data access to meet sales and customer service expectations.

Companies that are not using mobile technology to manage customer relationships may find that they are losing ground to competitors that are.

With this in mind customers looking to implement CRM software will want to pay close attention to the CRM vendor’s mobile capability.  With the ever changing mobile device market, access to customer data via an Internet browser will provide you with the flexibility and comfort of knowing that as new devices enter the market you will be able to utilize them to access your customer data.

Image “Tablet use 2” by ebayink on Flickr under Creative Commons license.

4 Reasons Why Small to Mid-Size Businesses Need Sales Software

crystal-ballNothing can be more frustrating for management than seeing new leads and promising sales opportunities fall through the cracks, but this is often the norm for many small to mid-size businesses. And when it comes to timely and accurate sales forecast, well sales management might be better served looking into a crystal ball.

Why do so many small and mid-size businesses have difficulty in this area?  Well there are several reasons for this but the good news is it can easily be fixed.

Many privately held companies are run by bright entrepreneurs whose background may not be in sales management. As a result they may not fully appreciate the need for having a highly trained sales executive who understands how to implement a sales structure and efficiently manage people and the sales process.  They often have the sales team report directly to themselves and manage the sales process using an Excel spreadsheet.  If this sounds like you, it’s time to make a change.

CRM or sales software doesn’t run your business — people do. So the first thing you need to consider is to hire an experienced sales manager who understands how to manage the sales process and the sales team.  Next, don’t expect them to manage the sales process with your Excel spreadsheet. It did not work for you and it will not work for them.  Luckily, today there is a myriad of sales software or sales CRM programs that can shape an unstructured sales organization into a winning team.

1. Lead Qualification and Lead Distribution

Sales software enables management to begin managing the sales process by automating the qualification and distribution of leads.  This ensures that new opportunities are properly followed up on and do not fall through the cracks.  Leads may be automatically assigned to specific sales representatives based on several criteria such as geographic region or product line for example.

2. Lead Scoring

Sales software also provides each sales representative with the ability to rate and score each lead based on a set of pre-built qualification criteria.  This makes certain that the sales team is spending their value time on the most promising opportunities.

3. Implementing a Sales Process

Mature sales software like Commence also enables management to establish a series of steps or stages within the sales cycle. This serves two very valuable purposes. First, sales management can follow the path of every new opportunity from introduction to closure. Secondly, management can play a proactive role during the sales process.  This has proven to improve close ratios and deliver higher revenues.

4. Sales Reporting

One of the other significant advantages of automating the lead management and sales cycle is the improvement and accuracy of sales reporting that results from this process.  Monthly and quarterly sales reports are automatically generated with a level of accuracy that provides management with the comfort of knowing what kind of revenue they can expect from the business.

None of this should surprise anyone. It simply makes sense, but you have to take the initiative and commit to making a change. Hire the right sales executive and get the right CRM or sales software that will enable you to become a more efficient sales organization.