“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.”
- Steven Covey
Listening is more than hearing words and sounds; listening is understanding. However, many salespeople would rather hear their customers than listen to them. If you only hear your customer you don’t understand them.
Customers want to be understood. Cahners Advertising highlighted this fact in a recent CARR study. Their study showed that 76 percent of customers are frustrated with salespeople. Salespeople not listening to their needs and understanding their business were among the top complaints.
Salespeople fail to listen and understand their customers for several reasons. Salespeople will set a strict agenda for their interaction. A strict agenda forces the salesperson to operate from that limited perspective. They will ask questions and suggest products or services based on their agenda. A strict agenda is similar to blinders on a horse. Blinders limit the horse’s vision the same way an agenda limits our understanding.
Salespeople will assume they know what the customer needs. Assuming you understand the customer’s needs also assumes their needs never change. To fully understand the customer, you must suspend your assumptions and dialogue with the customer. In Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, he mentions the importance of dialogue. Senge defines dialogue as the capacity of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine “thinking together.” In dialogue there is a free flow of information. Listen and understand your customer through dialogue.
Here are some tips to help you listen to your customer and seek understanding.
Eliminate Your Agenda
Instead of a setting an agenda, set flexible call objectives. An agenda is too narrow. A salesperson with an agenda will say, “I am here to show you a brand new product that you might be interested in.” A salesperson with a flexible objective will say, “I am here to understand your needs and your business.” Customers are more open to salespeople who seek to understand versus sell.
Ask Better Questions
Give yourself opportunities to listen by asking better questions. Asking better questions goes hand-in-hand with eliminating an agenda. Salespeople with an agenda ask leading questions. Leading questions are self-serving to prompt a desired response from a customer. Too many leading questions can frustrate customers. Here is a sample leading question, “Would you agree that higher quality material leads to a higher quality finished product?” The customer is being led in a specific direction.
If you seek to understand, there is a better way to ask this question. A better framed question will broaden the discussion. Here is the same question asked in a different way; “In your opinion, what leads to a higher quality finished product?” This question encourages a lengthier response and further dialogue.
Understanding and listening to the customer does not end when the conversation is finished. After your conversation, synthesize the information exchange. Webster defines synthesis as putting together parts or elements so as to form a whole. During your customer synthesis, combine the customer responses to develop a complete understanding of their needs. A synthesis will help you fill in any missing blanks and develop a deeper understanding of the customer’s business and their needs.
For professional salespeople, listening and understanding are synonymous. Understanding the customer requires listening. By listening to the customer you can’t help but understand their business. Seeking to understand your customer is a point of differentiation. Too many salespeople focus on an agenda versus understanding their customer. The objective of every customer interaction is to seek understanding, not just a purchase order.