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 Builds Rapport
Active listening is extremely helpful in building rapport between the listener and speaker. This shows the speaker that the other person is truly paying attention, which is especially important in the sales world. Prospects are often ignored or talked over because the focus is on making the sale, not the person making the purchase. When salespeople show they value the prospect's needs and opinions, it is far easier to build trust and ensures that the conversation results in a mutually beneficial experience.
Active Listening Avoids Miscommunication
This approach is also one key way to avoid miscommunication, because the listener sums up the conversation, reiterates back the key points, and the speaker is afforded the opportunity to correct anything that was not clearly understood. Focusing on the other person goes far to avoid throwing the sales cycle completely off track or foster resentment between the salesperson and the prospect.
When to Use Active Listening
The most obvious time to engage in active listening takes place during "qualifying and answering objections" stage of the sales 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 process. Often a salesperson's prospect will spontaneously offer useful information critical to identifying their wants and needs (and most importantly objections).
2 Times More Listening
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." Spend twice as much time listening as talking. Prospects will drop clues as to what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling about you and your products or services. 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 by not paying attention, you’ll have to work a lot harder to make the sale.
Learn These Listening Techniques
Few people (and fewer salespeople) are naturally good listeners. It will take time and effort to break the bad listening habits you’ve developed, but 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
- Clarifying your understanding with specific questions
- Watching body language to determine the speaker's emotional state and underlying meaning
- Paraphrasing the speaker's ideas to be sure you understood correctly
What Active Listening Accomplishes
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.
Listen to Body Language
When someone else is speaking, listen with your eyes as well as your ears. Body language is as important to conveying meaning as is spoken the language, so if you listen but don’t look you’ll miss half the message.
Summarize and Paraphrase Your Response
Once the speaker has finished talking, briefly summarize what they’ve said. For example, you might say “It sounds like you are happy with your current model, but you wish it were a little smaller because you have limited available workspace.” That shows the speaker that you were listening, and also gives them a chance to correct any misunderstandings right away. Summarizing the speaker’s meaning will also tend to draw out more details (“Yes, and I’d also like it in red…”) that can help you tailor your pitch more effectively.
Responding to Concerns
Finally, 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.”