The #1 Most Important Sales Skill Every Rep Needs

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Mike Renahan
Mike Renahan




To put it mildly, salespeople have a lot to do.

Every day, they have to reach out to new leads, follow up with others, give a number of presentations, negotiate contract terms, and, ultimately, convert a few prospects into customers.

Simply put, time is of the essence. And while most sales folks are good at maintaining their focus, some might fall prey to the “what’s next” mentality.

Instead of focusing on one thing at one time, you’re trying to do 100 things at one time, and it’s getting you nowhere. Instead of worrying about your one call at noon, you’re focused on the next call, and the call after that. And this attitude is dangerous in sales, where it’s essential to be actively engaged in the conversation, and listen to prospects, leads, or clients.

Listening, however, has become surprisingly difficult. In fact, humans listen at a rate of 125 to 250 words per minute, but we think at a rate of 1,000 to 3,000 words per minute.

That’s a lot of words.

And this discrepancy results in breakdowns. According to Keith Rosen, 60% of problems in business spring from faulty communication. In other words, most issues boil down to poor listening.

With this in mind, active listening is the most important sales skill a rep can possess. Actively listening to prospects will improve your connect rates, help you develop better relationships, and ultimately, enable you to sell more.

Here are five ways active listening helps a salesperson become more effective in their roles.

1) Listening optimizes sales follow up.

How do you keep a sales conversation alive? By asking a follow-up question. Unfortunately, sales folks are wired to move quickly. They know what their product does and why it’s beneficial to prospects, and, oftentimes, they’ll dive into their pitch regardless of what the prospect is saying.

For example, if a prospect says, “I just got back from the Bahamas. It was great,” and the rep launches right into, “Nice. Well, our product is unbelievable, and it’s yours for only X amount of dollars,” that’s a pretty crappy conversation.

Listening can help a lot here. This is the perfect opportunity to ask a follow up question about the vacation and build your relationship with this prospect.

Here’s a sample exchange between a prospect and a rep skilled at listening and asking relevant follow up questions:

Prospect: “I just got back from the Bahamas. It was great.”

Sales rep: “How long have you been wanting to go? What was your favorite part? I’m thinking about going -- any restaurants I should check out?”

The prospect can now talk from personal experience and share intimate details with the sales rep, strengthening the relationship. By simply asking follow up questions and listening to the response, the sales rep now has a connection with this prospect.

2) Listening demonstrates genuine interest.

Showing that you care and demonstrating genuine interest in your prospect and their business is huge.

As human beings, we’re wired for social connections. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, feeling like we belong is just as important to us as our physical safety.

By listening to our prospects, we can ask the right questions and make the right statements to showcase how interested we are in their business. For example, if a salesperson hears excitement in their prospect’s voice about a certain project, the rep can explore this obvious area of interest. How you lead a conversation based on little cues makes all the difference during the sales process.

Remember: Showing genuine interest might be the difference between losing a prospect and converting them into a customer.  

3) Listening gives you the ability to qualify and clarify.

Listening gives you a chance to identify bad fit prospects before you get too deep in the sales process. You can then make an informed decision on whether or not you want to pursue the relationship.

For example, If a company’s VP of HR talks about how often they’ve been changing their onboarding service (four times in five years) and how they can never seem to find the right one, nightmarish visions of your offering as the next to be bought and dumped might start to dance before your eyes. 

On the other hand, your service might be just what the doctor ordered for their needs, and might stop the incessant switching once and for all.

Simply listening to the facts is the first step. Afterwards, seek to clarify by asking the VP why they’re switching so many times. Depending on what they say, the call might come to an end before the relationship ever really begins, or you could fast track them to a demo.

4) Listening helps you identify need.

Customers have a weird way of telling you their pain point during a conversation. That is to say, sometimes you need to ask, and other times you don’t.

For example, if you’re selling an onboarding service, and your potential buyer talks about how often her team forgets to submit their personal information before they start, you’ve identified the need. You can now boast about how your onboarding software makes it easy for human resource managers to maintain their timelines.

But not all prospects will be so forthcoming.

Sometimes, they won’t share anything with you, which is when methods like the Five Whys game come into play. But when you’re actively listening, determining whether or not a prospect is truly divulging their problem is relatively easy. Do they sound hesitant? Does it seem like they're holding back? Reps who aren't fully tuned in to the conversation might miss these small cues -- and the opening they provide.

5) Listening enables you to maintain the relationship.

More than the features of your product or service, the personal connection you create with your client is what’s going to make the relationship a success. By being totally present in the conversation, asking questions (some work-related and some not), and listening carefully to the answers, you'll deepen the bond. Here’s your chance to learn about how many kids they have, what their partner does for a living, and more. When you follow up in a few weeks, you’ll have an arsenal of information to use to reconnect with this prospect.

By actively listening, sales reps are able to follow up effectively, demonstrate interest, clarify concerns, identify buyers’ need, and maintain a healthy and productive relationship. Remember: We have two ears but only one mouth for a reason. Use them.

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