By Jeff Fortney
We have all seen the interviews. A television reporter is questioning someone who has survived a catastrophic event. The reporter asks, "Tell us what happened." The victim describes the ordeal and ends with, "I have lost everything and don't know what I am going to do." The reporter responds with the follow-up question, "So, how much has it affected you?" The look on the face of the person being interviewed usually says it all.
Listening is becoming a lost art. In conversations it has become all too common for people to be focused on what to say next, not on what the other person is saying. My grandma used to say, "God gave us two ears, and one mouth. I think he wants us to use the ears more."
This is especially true in sales. Today, though, sales reps are often encouraged to talk. In telesales they have a script. In a cold call, there is the pitch. Both are designed to tell prospects why their products are better, faster or cheaper, and why prospects should sign with them.
In some cases, the effort to dispense information becomes a sprint, and heaven help the prospects who try to interrupt the pitch. If they are interrupted, sales reps often rush back to the comfort of the script.
(You can test this on the next telemarketing call you receive. Ask the caller a question that is completely off topic, and see how fast he or she returns to the script. Continue to interrupt with questions and, in many cases, telemarketers will become so flustered they hang up.)
This "information dumping" tendency is directly attributable to the belief that prospects are looking for information first and foremost. We tell ourselves the more we tell them, the more likely they are going to see a reason to buy.
Given this approach, the art of listening has no purpose. Yet as seasoned salespeople will attest, listening is needed now more than ever. Those who master it find they are saying less and signing more.
Listening effectively requires sellers to know when to stop talking. But since listening requires discipline, it is contrary to what many have been trained to do. It requires a willingness to resist the temptation to solve the first problem or issue the rep identifies. It also requires the rep to suppress excitement or any form of an aggressive approach.
The basic principle behind the art of listening is that people buy for their reasons, not yours. As such, by listening and probing with follow-up questions, you can identify their reasons for buying.
The first step is to throw away the formal script. Most are too long and don't encourage prospects to talk. You need a very short script that ends in a question that encourages them to respond. (And that question cannot be, May I see your statement?)
Prepare yourself mentally with standard follow-up questions or comments. Questions, not answers, are the keys to listening.
Even a simple question can keep someone talking. For example, a prospect says, "I am frustrated that my reporting is so confusing. I even called my processor to explain it to me." Respond by asking, "And what did the processor say?"
Why would you ask this? Even though you know the reporting is confusing and the prospect called his or her processor, you do not know what specifically is confusing and what the processor did, or didn't do, to address the problem. And you don't know how - or even if - your solution would actually solve the problem.
Even when you feel you know the reasons for a prospect's discontent, ask a follow-up question. In the example given, the key word is "frustrated." It indicates the person is still dissatisfied and that a solution was not likely found.
After the prospect provides further information in response to a follow-up question, a good listener won't provide a solution yet. This is the time to say, "You said you are frustrated. It sounds like you still aren't happy. Am I mistaken?"
This is where discipline is required. You must respond to what the prospect says next. Since a follow-up question must be about what is being said, it requires the rep to listen and structure the question accordingly. Never jump ahead and prepare your next question without hearing what is said.
A skilled listener doesn't offer solutions at the first opportunity or rush to close without clearly understanding the situation and knowing which alternative will solve the problem. Good listeners close with confidence, not with hope.
As with anything, you must practice. The Question Game is a helpful drill. It requires holding a conversation in which the only words spoken are in the form of a question.
Ultimately, you will find that when you listen, your products and services will sell themselves. For it isn't what you tell prospects, but rather what they tell you that closes the deal.
Jeff Fortney is Director of Business Development with Clearent LLC. He has more than 12 years' experience in the payments industry. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 972-618-7340.
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