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Active listening is a communication technique that helps increase understanding and rapport between a speaker and a listener. Rather than passively listening to the person talking (or not listening at all), the active listener pays close attention to the other person’s choice of words, their tone of voice and their body language (which accounts for at least 80% of communication). The speaker takes in all these components and then repeats back to the speaker the most important points the speaker was touching on.

Active listening is extremely helpful in building rapport between the listener and speaker. This communication technique uses the core pattern of listening and by repeating the important message points it shows the speaker that the other person is truly paying attention to what they have to say.

Active listening is especially important in the sales world. That’s because prospects are often ignored or talked over because the focus is on making the sale, not the person making the purchase. When salespeople show that they value the prospect’s needs and opinions, it is far easier to build trust. This authentic approach to listening is also one key way to avoid a misunderstanding due to a miscommunication. Because the listener sums up the conversation and reiterates back the key points, the speaker is afforded the opportunity to correct anything they said that was not clearly understood. Focusing on the other person goes far to stop any misunderstanding before it has a chance to throw the sales cycle completely off

The most obvious time to engage in active listening takes place during the “qualifying and answering objections” cycle. This is not to say those seeking to “seal the deal” should close their ears or shut down their brains during other stages of the sales process. Often the prospect will spontaneously offer useful information critical to identifying their wants and needs (and most importantly objections).

1.    Use Active Listening to Help Close a Sale

The stereotypical salesperson talks all the time, but if that’s how you sell, you’re missing out on significant opportunities. A commonly-heard bit of sales advice is, “You have two ears and one mouth—you should be using them in that proportion.” In other words, spend twice as much time listening as talking during a sales situation. Throughout the sales cycle, prospects will drop clues as to what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling about you and your products or services. In other words, they’re telling you what they like and dislike and what’s important to them. This is precisely the information you need to close the sale, so if you don’t pay attention, you’ll have to work a lot harder to make the sale.

2.    Practice Active Listening

Few people (and fewer salespeople) are naturally good listeners. It will probably take significant time and effort on your part to break the bad listening habits you’ve developed. Once you do so, you’ll find the rewards are equally significant. Techniques for active listening include:

  • attending to the speaker without thinking about your own response
  • nodding, making eye contact, or otherwise affirming that you are listening
  • asking open-ended questions to elicit more information
  • asking specific questions to clarify your understanding
  • watching body language to determine the speaker’s emotional state and underlying meaning
  • paraphrasing the speaker’s ideas to be sure you understood correctly

Using active listening with a prospect accomplishes two things. First, you will fully understand what the prospect has told you and you can use those clues to successfully close the sale. Second, you’ll be demonstrating respect for your prospect, which gives you a huge boost in the rapport-building department.

One of the most common barriers to good listening occurs when you hear something interesting and immediately start framing a reply or planning what you’ll do about what you’ve just heard. Of course, while you’re thinking about what the other person has said, you’re now tuning out the rest of what they’re saying. One trick to keep your mind on the speaker is to mentally echo what they’re saying as they say it. Its also a good thing to take notes about what you want to respond to and then refer back to them once the prospect has finished speaking.

3.    Pay Attention to Body Language

When someone else is speaking, try to listen with your eyes as well as your ears. Body language is as important to conveying meaning as spoken language, so if you listen but don’t look you’ll miss half the message. Eye contact also lets the speaker know that you’re paying attention.

4.    Know How to Respond to Concerns

If you have questions or comments try to present them in a non-confrontational way, affirming your client’s concerns. For example, if a prospect says “I don’t see why you can’t deliver by Tuesday—that’s a whole week away!” you might say something like, “I know that not getting the delivery right away is frustrating, but we have a strict quality control and inspection process that we follow to make sure that you get top-quality equipment.”

  1. Slow the conversation down

Salespeople tend to be talkative with lots of ideas and opinions – a characteristic that can sometimes devolve into talking a thousand miles per hour. Talking quickly can only hurt your relationship with your prospect. They’ll either lose interest or get stressed out. Instead, articulate your thoughts at a digestible speed. Pause in case they need clarification, ask questions to guide and help shape what they share, and never interrupt them. Which brings me to my next point…

  1. Don’t interrupt

Not only is interrupting rude, but it means you’ll miss out on something interesting your prospect would have said if you’d given them the chance. They might have had other things to share that would help shape your conversation, but they couldn’t because you interjected. Lose your fear of silence. You’ll find that if you pause when your prospect is done speaking, they will often have something to add on that you never would have heard if you’d begun talking right away.

The other time it’s okay to interrupt is if you didn’t hear something or want to clarify. But even then, you may want to make a note of it to clarify later once the person is finished speaking to avoid impeding the flow.

  1. Clarify & paraphrase

A big part of listening closely to someone is letting them know you are listening closely. The speaker will know you’re listening and will appreciate it, share more of their story, and they will find you more likable. Try paraphrasing their thoughts in your own words to show them you care about what they’re saying, and also to make sure you understood them. Sometimes you might take away a message that was meant to mean something else without knowing it – this is especially common with phone communication. Don’t let important information get lost in translation.

  1. Listen to emotions

Words are not always an accurate representation of what a person feels. It can be hard to interpret conversation over the phone because you lose the ability to read a person’s body language – but it is possible. Start by feeling out their tone of voice and stress levels. Practice during your conversations with co-workers and learn to recognize how the volume, speed, and tone of people’s voices can indicate how they’re feeling. On every sales call, make it a goal to think about what the person might be thinking behind their words.

  1. Ask questions

Most sales people know how important it is to ask questions to narrow down your prospect’s pain points. After all, the true definition of sales is actively listening to people about their pains and needs and then helping them solve that pain and need.

This is especially true at the beginning of the conversation during the information-gathering phase. Spend the first part of your call asking great questions to get a grasp of who your prospect is and what their business problems and goals are. “Tell-me” questions, such as “Tell me how you generate leads right now,” prompts prospects to tell their stories and share their experiences. These longer-form answers are more candid and will tell you more about what the person is thinking and feeling.

Don’t assume anything! Fill any knowledge gaps by asking more questions. Follow-up questions show your prospect you are listening carefully and care about what they say. Only once you understand who they are can you begin to share information and yourself and how you can help them get to where they want to be.

  1. Remember anecdotes

Trust me: you will stand out to your prospects if you remember little nuances from the conversation and refer to them later. This applies to anything from how many people they have on their team to a story about their daughter they told you during the call.

When you take notes during your conversation, include those personal anecdotes so you can use them when you follow up. Acknowledging these friendly references will help you build up rapport with your prospects. It really is the little things!

Teach yourself and your people to self-critique their listening skills. Only when they realize where in their conversations they aren’t listening well can they learn to fix it…. and watch the sales roll in!

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